What Is an Embedded System?

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An embedded system is a combination of computer hardware and software, and perhaps additional mechanical or

other parts, designed to perform a specific function. A good example is the microwave oven. 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.

This is in direct contrast to the personal computer in the family room. it too is comprised of computer hardware and

software and mechanical components (disk drives, for example). However, a personal computer is not designed to

perform a specific function. Rather, it is able to do many different things. Many people use the term general-purpose

computer to make this distinction clear. As shipped, a general-purpose computer is a blank slate; the manufacturer

does not know what the customer will do with it. One customer may use it for a network file server, another may use

it exclusively for playing games, and a third may use it to write the next great American novel.

Frequently, 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, these embedded

systems are connected by some sort of a communications network, 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. That’s it. And all of the other devices can be summarized in a

single sentence as well.

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. This could be done by

replacing the combination with a custom integrated circuit that performs the same functions in hardware. However,

a lot of flexibility is lost when a design is hard-coded in this way. It is much easier, and cheaper, to change a few

lines of software than to redesign a piece of custom hardware.


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