Friday, July 18, 2008

Adventures in firmware development: New task, new tools

Idaho Technology, the company I work for, is experimenting with the idea of using ethernet for communicating with future instruments. Since our hardware engineers have zero experience with networking, and I have some from the PC side, I've recently been tasked with helping them out. I must say, it's been a delightful change of pace from the Windows desktop app development I've been doing of late.

Last time I worked on firmware was 20 years ago. Way back then, to change the the code on the device, I had to use a command line C compiler to generate .hex files on a PC. Then I used an EPROM burner to put it on a memory chip, physically take the memory out of the burner and put it in the device and finally turn it on. Debugging was a matter of examining the source code (and sometimes the generated assembly code) to figure out why it didn't work as expected. Changes to the code involved taking the memory out of the device, erasing the memory using UV light for 30 minutes (I think that's how long it took) and doing the whole, compile/burn cycle over again. The insides of the chip were completely opaque; there was no way to examine what was going on inside the device.

Now, the tools are so much cooler. I have a ethernet development system with an 8051-based micro-controller and programmer sitting on my desk. The programmer is plugged into the PC through a USB port on one side and to the 8051 controller through a ribbon connector on the other. There's an IDE I can use to program, compile and download the new firmware to the chip through. No power cycles on the device, no memory chips to erase and program. And the really, really cool thing: I can set breakpoints, evaluate registers and step through the firmware all from my PC. It's not much different than writing software for the PC itself.

Yeah, I know, these tools have been around for awhile. It's just this is the first time I've had a chance to play with them. Pretty fun stuff.

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