Designers Need to Focus More on Firmware

5 months ago by Sam Holland

Firmware is becoming increasingly important in the landscape of electronics we see today. From IoT devices to other embedded systems, it is vital that electrical engineers become comfortable with — if not proficient in — firmware design.

We can hold in one hand more computing power than our great-grandparents could fit into a warehouse. With such powerful and complex devices, it is of increasing importance that firmware keeps pace with the hardware and software it interacts with.

Even further, the engineers interacting with this hardware need to be increasingly more familiar with the firmware they interact with on a daily basis.

What Exactly Is Firmware Responsible for?

Firmware programs make hardware function. Without firmware, the most advanced electronics devices would be little more than paperweights. Consumers interact with firmware every day—smart televisions, the surveillance cameras at the bank, the ID card reader at work, the traffic light on the commute home.

Firmware may be called upon to perform a variety of tasks, which are dependent on the purpose of the device and the type of hardware involved. For example, the hard drive on a desktop computer has firmware that enables the disk heads to know how fast to spin. Without that information, the hard disk quickly becomes non-functional. For more complex devices such as tablets or smartphones, firmware helps to coordinate critical interactions between the hardware and the device’s operating system (e.g., iOS, Android).

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

In other instances, firmware may be responsible for performing computations, such as converting the number of steps taken into miles travelled. In the case of a fitness armband or watch, these computations would take place on the device with limited memory and computing power. That requires an approach quite different from conventional programming.

Given these examples, it is easy to see how the development of firmware is a key aspect of embedded systems design. Embedded systems design matches hardware and software to achieve a device’s design goals. The key to that endeavour is firmware.

Why Is Firmware so Important?

Firmware serves many purposes, all of which are often vital to the hardware at hand. All of this considered, it plays an especially important role in the following areas:

Firmware Is Everywhere

The first reason firmware development is an important skill lies in the ubiquitousness of firmware. From the smartphone in your hand to the microwave on your counter, firmware is so important to the point where, if it is incorrectly tampered with, there is good chance the device will no longer work. Such devices are rather aptly called “bricks” once that happens—because they are about as useful as a brick.

Firmware Makes or Breaks Cybersecurity

Firmware hacks have successfully been developed to turn otherwise harmless devices such as USB drives into carriers for malware by reprogramming the microcontroller. The revised microcontroller firmware allows it to spoof another type of device. This, in turn, can give an outside entity control of the computer. There’s no doubt we will see an increase in the number of hacks that exploit firmware in order to achieve nefarious ends.

Hacks like these increase the importance of privacy when it comes to firmware, as well. There are concerns that many devices, especially smart devices, have back doors or electronic Trojan horses that can provide unauthorised access. For example, a group of developers known simply as the Equation Group has been able to hack the firmware of hard disk drives, allowing them to store data that cannot be erased even if the hard drive is wiped.

Stories like this lead to increased scrutiny of firmware, as consumers are far more privacy and security savvy than just a few years ago, and they will be looking for devices that they know are secure.

Firmware Evolves Alongside Hardware’s Power Consumption Needs

Another one of the major challenges of writing firmware lies in the severely limited access to memory, electrical power, and computing power that goes along with embedded systems. Firmware programmers simply cannot use the same algorithms and approaches are conventional software engineers.

Even the executable code has to be as compact as possible because of the limited ROM, EPROM, Flash ROM that is typically available for storage. And, unlike software engineering, firmware engineering also has to look at the impact that algorithms have on power consumption. In short, multiple parameters have to be balanced when developing firmware—and that takes a clever combination of skill and experience.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Do You Need to Upgrade Your Firmware Skills?

Even if you don’t work specifically in embedded systems design, a basic knowledge of the concepts at work will be valuable to your electrical engineering career. If you are looking to upgrade your firmware skills, look for materials related to embedded systems and programming for embedded systems. As far as programming languages go, experts recommend focusing on languages such C/C++, Java, JavaScript, or Python (in addition to Assembly language, of course).

Firmware must evolve to keep pace with the development of new hardware, as well as the growing challenges of security, privacy, and balancing power consumption, limited memory, and computing power. Mastery of the concepts behind embedded systems is critical for electrical engineers, and the ability to write effective firmware can help you stand out from others in an otherwise crowded market.

The future lies in these embedded devices that populate the everyday lives of consumers, and you undoubtedly want to be a part of designing that future.

Comments