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 downsides of an embedded system?

Despite their invaluable benefits, embedded systems also come with some disadvantages that you should be aware of prior to investing in them. In that way, you can eliminate the element of surprise if something goes wrong, and even opt for a backup plan in case your business is reliant on an embedded system.

For one thing, it’s important to know that embedded systems tend to be difficult to upgrade to a new software or even fix in the event of a malfunction. This is due to the ‘embedded’ part of their nature, which translates to crucial parts being situated deep within the overall machine, and even the smallest change will massively impact the rest of the system.

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This means that embedded systems often are hard to successfully debug or fix, which often makes it necessary to deconstruct the entire device, removing the majority of components just to replace one part. In fact, the process can be so convoluted and tiresome that it’s often simpler and cheaper to simply replace the entire machine, which can still entail higher costs than anticipated for something which originally seemed like a ‘quick fix’.

However, the embedded systems’ component interdependability also means that, in some cases, tweaks can be applied to other, more accessible parts, which will then bring the device back to life or original purpose. This is why it’s important to have an understanding of how your embedded system works, as well as a trusted specialist who will be able to recognise the root cause of the problem.

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