In-depth

What is an embedded system?

We explain the key characteristics of an embedded system, their benefits and challenges

Abstract image of a glowing central processing unit on a blue circuit board

An embedded system is a microcontroller that sits inside a device to control a certain function within it. For example, your home's central heating is a type of embedded system.

They feature heavily in consumer products and many household machines such as microwaves, toasters, and washing machines, but they are a key part of most modern technologies.

Embedded devices are not usually programmable as they are usually designed with a single function in mind, but the software can be upgraded - depending on what the device is. Fitness trackers, for instance, can be upgraded by connecting to a PC or laptop.

As a result, embedded systems need to be reliable, as a fault will likely result in the failure of an app or wider system function, and fixing this fault can be incredibly difficult.

Hardware foundations of an embedded system

Embedded systems were once based on simple microprocessors, but modern ones are mostly based on microcontrollers which come with a fixed amount of built-in memory. The difference is that microprocessors are made up of just a central processing unit, meaning RAM and ROM need to be added externally.

Embedded systems come in a number of guises, some are even stand-alone systems that don't have a host, such as a video game console. This is a real-time embedded system which runs certain tasks to a fixed schedule. Another example is a 'Network-embedded' system which, as the name suggests, is a device with a network connection, such as a mobile phone.

Key features of an embedded system

Embedded systems are typically designed to perform a single repeated function, although it’s true that some can be designed to control the entirety of an operating system. However, regardless of the function involved, they will very rarely be required to do anything more than this task – this makes it an exceptionally reliable component.

They’re described as ‘embedded’ because the component is fixed, and is critical to the overall operation of the system. Those that aren’t critical are described as modular, and can be swapped in and out to allow for new functionality.

Embedded systems are also characterised by their reactive nature. They communicate entirely through sensors or actuators, and if the right response isn’t provided in real-time, the response is considered incorrect and they will not function.

A microprocessor found inside a smartphone

Examples of embedded systems

Almost every mechanical device today will have an embedded system inside it, including a watch, a car, a microwave, a smoke alarm, or a washing machine. They're also regularly used in IT components too, such as routers and switches.

What are the benefits of an embedded system?

Embedded systems usually only have a single function, which means they are able to operate using very little power. They’re also usually very small, and can be crammed in alongside other components relatively easily. Combine all of this with the fact they’re relatively cheap, embedded systems are a hugely efficient means of controlling devices.

As you might have guessed, embedded systems are also incredibly low maintenance, and rarely require direct management, whether that’s changes at the hardware level or in programming.

A component that’s incredibly small, cheap, easy to maintain, and fantastic at doing a single task repeatedly, is the perfect fit for any ‘fire and forget’ devices – those that are required to operate with little fuss and intervention. A handy example of this are the entertainment systems in passenger planes, which were able to function using Windows XP for far longer than a commercial laptop.

What are the challenges of an embedded system?

Embedded systems certainly have their benefits, but equally, there are lots of limitations to a component that is so dependent on other elements of a totally enclosed system.

For starters, they are very hard to upgrade as their 'embedded' nature means they are sometimes in very deep or inaccessible places within the overall machine.

The deep level of embedded system integration also means it's hard to fix something when it goes wrong. Unlike modular systems, embedded systems are hard to re-program when in situ. This means it's very difficult to upgrade any software if a fault is found and even if it can be tweaked, it may have a knock-on effect on some of the other parts.

For a replacement to be successful and to effectively overcome issues, it's likely the entire device will need to be totally deconstructed with other components removed, with the part replaced and reprogrammed in order to work.

Often, it's more cost-effective for the whole machine to be replaced rather than a single part when labour costs and new component costs are combined.

However, in some cases, the embedded system's dependency on other components means that sometimes tweaks can be applied via other, more accessible parts.

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