8 Votes

An embedded system is a combination of computer hardware and software, and perhaps additional mechanical or other parts, designed to perform a specific function like Microwave oven, Automatic washing machine, Telegraph and Laser printer. Almost every household has one, and tens of millions of them are used every day, but very few people realize that a processor and software are involved in the preparation of their lunch or dinner.

An embedded system is a component within some larger system. For example, modern cars and trucks contain many embedded systems. One embedded system controls the anti-lock brakes, another monitors and controls the vehicle’s emissions, and a third displays information on the dashboard. In some cases, some sort of a communications network connects these embedded systems, but that is certainly not a requirement.

At the possible risk of confusing you, it is important to point out that a general-purpose computer is itself made up of numerous embedded systems. For example, my computer consists of a keyboard, mouse, video card, modem, hard drive, floppy drive, and sound card - each of which is an embedded system. Each of these devices contains a processor and software and is designed to perform a specific function. For example, the modem is designed to send and receive digital data over an analog telephone line.

If an embedded system is designed well, the existence of the processor and software could be completely unnoticed by a user of the device. Such is the case for a microwave oven, VCR, or alarm clock. In some cases, it would even be possible to build an equivalent device that does not contain the processor and software. Replacing the combination with a custom integrated circuit that performs the same functions in hardware could do this. However, a lot of flexibility is lost when a design is hard-coded in this way. 


One subclass of embedded systems is worthy of an introduction at this point. As commonly defined, a real-time system is a computer system that has timing constraints. In other words, a real-time system is partly specified in terms of its ability to make certain calculations or decisions in a timely manner. These important calculations are said to have deadlines for completion. And, for all practical purposes, a missed deadline is just as bad as a wrong answer.

The issue of what happens if a deadline is missed is a crucial one. For example, if the real-time system is part of an airplane’s flight control system, it is possible for the lives of the passengers and crew to be endangered by a single missed deadline. However, if instead the system is involved in satellite communication, the damage could be limited to a single corrupt data packet.

The more severe the consequences, the more likely it will be said that the deadline is “hard” and, thus, the system a hard real-time system. Real-time systems at the other end of this continuum are said to have “soft” deadlines.The designer of a real-time system must be more diligent in his work. He must guarantee reliable operation of the software and hardware under all possible conditions. And, to the degree that human lives depend upon the system’s proper execution, this guarantee must be backed by engineering calculations and descriptive paperwork.

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