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Is Embedded C++ the Future of Embedded Systems Development?

Embedded systems have undergone a remarkable transformation over the years. These systems, which power an array of devices from smartphones, and industrial machinery to automotive systems have traditionally been developed using Assembler or the C programming language. However, electronic hardware, software, and methods used to build embedded systems keep improving – or at least become different. As system complexity increased, engineers have become more interested in multiprocessor design, OS (operating systems) such as Linux, and topics like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and very importantly security.

However, there has been a growth in adopting C++ for embedded systems development. This has continued a debate within the industry: Is Embedded C++ the future of embedded systems development or could newer languages such as Python and/or Rust takeover?

C++ was created in the early 1980s by a Danish computer scientist. Originally the language was called "C with Classes" and was developed as an extension to the C programming language to add support for object-oriented programming.

C++ gained popularity in the nineties, partly because it was adopted by the emerging field of object-oriented programming (OOP), which was seen as a more efficient and modular way of developing software code. 

Today, C++ is widely used for various applications, including system software, video games, scientific computing, and, of course, embedded systems development.

The Evolution of Embedded Systems Development

Before we delve into the debate surrounding Embedded C++, it is essential to understand the context and evolution of embedded systems development.

  • Traditional Embedded C: For decades, C has served as the cornerstone of embedded systems development. Its simplicity, efficiency, and low-level control made it an ideal choice for firmware development and hardware resource management.
  • Rising Complexity: With the growing complexity of embedded systems, there has been a demand for more structured and maintainable code. Object-oriented programming (OOP) principles, central to C++, offer a solution to effectively manage this complexity.
  • The Emergence of C++: C++, an almost fully compatible extension of C, introduces features such as classes, inheritance, polymorphism, and templates. These features enable developers to write modular and reusable code, which can significantly enhance the development process.
  • Processor architecture: Although the use of 32-bit architectures remained mostly the same over the past decade, 64-bit architectures have gained significantly. This is a simple evolutionary trend as developers move to wider bit widths – from 8-bit to 16-bit to 32-bit to 64-bit – as engineers look for greater processor performance and more efficient memory cycles.

Advantages of Embedded C++

  • Object-Oriented Paradigm: One of the primary strengths of using C++ for embedded systems is its support for object-oriented programming. This empowers developers to create classes and objects, fostering code reuse and modularity. This is especially advantageous in embedded systems, where code size and maintainability are paramount.
  • Portability: Since parts of C++ code are easily reusable, the code is also portable from one device to another.
  • Programming on Multiple Paradigms: With C++, it is possible to support multiple paradigms such as structured programming, object-oriented programming, generic programming, functional and concurrency programming paradigms. All these paradigms can be integrated, allowing you to program using all of them simultaneously.
  • Independent Coding Language: C++ is not owned by any corporation, as opposed to many other languages. Often, the evolution of other programming languages is due to the economic interests of the corporation, but this is not the case with C++.
  • Constantly Evolving but Still Compatible: C++ has been evolving constantly since its conception, incorporating the most advanced computer techniques. It is always a new, up-to-date, and modern language, but with the benefit of having over 30 years of history and experience. Despite evolving from front to C++98, C++03, C++11, C++14, C++17, C++20, and C++23, it has remained compatible with the past. This allows programmers to evolve and grow, without having to sacrifice existing programs.
  • Standard Template Library (STL): C++ boasts a robust STL that provides a wide array of data structures and algorithms. As C++ uses a combination of the code and the standard library, it can grow easily. Users can see the library code and extend it, and C++ assesses the language itself. As the language is created, the library is created. This streamlines code development and elevates code quality, as developers can leverage well-tested and efficient STL components.
  • Safety and Abstraction: C++ supports features like encapsulation and abstraction, enabling developers to conceal intricate implementation details and expose a cleaner, safer interface. This can result in more robust and maintainable code. It is also created and composed by a committee of important and intelligent sciences from around the world and is governed by a formal standard and ISO. This makes it a language for everyone.
  • Strong Type System: C++ is a powerful programming language and one that is designed to evolve in an easy-to-use way, which is why the programs are easy to read, understand, write, and maintain. It enforces a strong type of system, diminishing the likelihood of type-related errors that can lead to challenging-to-diagnose issues in embedded systems.

Challenges of Embedded C++

  1. Resource Constraints: One of the fears of using embedded C++ is a decrease in performance as embedded systems operate under severe resource limitations, including restricted memory and processing speed/power. Most C++ features can be used on devices that are running an OS such as Linux. But embedded C++ introduces some overhead due to its features, which can be concerning in resource-constrained environments. However, with the zero-overhead principle, you do not pay for what you do not use.
  2. Compiler and Toolchain Support: There is a strong community of users and developers behind C++. This has led to an abundance of written computer line programs, programmers, teachers, libraries, and a lot of informative web pages. There are also several fully optimised and free C++ compilers to utilise, as well as an active C++ committee that evolves the language permanently. However, not all existing embedded systems platforms have matured C++ toolchains and libraries available. Compatibility issues can present a substantial hurdle to adoption.
  3. Learning Curve: Transitioning from C to C++ can entail a learning curve for developers accustomed to the former. It may take time for teams to become proficient in C++ and fully exploit its advantages. This can be especially difficult since the language is always evolving.
  4. Deterministic Behaviour: Some embedded systems necessitate precise control over program execution and timing. C++'s abstractions and features like dynamic memory allocation can introduce non-deterministic behaviour, which may not be suitable for all applications.

So, is Embedded C++ the future of embedded systems development? It is evident that C++ offers advantages, particularly in terms of code independence, modularity, maintainability, and abstraction. As embedded systems continue to grow in complexity, these advantages become increasingly valuable.

Nevertheless, the choice between C and C++ should be driven by project requirements. In resource-constrained environments or when strict determinism is essential, C might still be the preferred choice. On the other hand, for projects with more abundant resources and an emphasis on code maintainability and scalability, C++ can offer a promising future.

The decision to use Embedded C++ should be guided by careful consideration of project objectives, constraints, and the availability of appropriate toolchains and libraries. The future of embedded systems development may well involve a hybrid approach, with each language serving its unique purpose in this ever-evolving field. Balancing the strengths of both C and C++ may be the key to achieving optimal results in the dynamic landscape of embedded systems development.

As we look to the future, the evolution of embedded systems is expected to continue at a rapid pace, driven by technological advancements in semiconductors, AI, and the IoT. Embedded system designs will still need to interface more efficiently with data sources, execute more complex code with minimal latency, and deal with more sophisticated security threats – all whilst consuming minimal current from ultra-low power sources. Engineers are likely to be using vastly different approaches in the future, but the goals will remain the same.

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