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Cookbook for avoiding MCU software losses

Posted: 10 Jun 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MCU software loss  MCU software rules  product losses 

Many MCU software engineers unknowingly create large product and software losses for their employers. They are trying to do a great job but have not been educated in the economics of software engineering and product management.

On larger projects, program managers and senior software engineering managers fill this gap, but for smaller MCU-based projects this high level expertise is not assigned. The net result is inefficient and suboptimal engineering decisions in many organizations.

To understand this phenomenon in more depth, first we will examine the shift in the MCU market from a solution space that was 80 percent hardware and 20 percent software to the current environment of 80 percent software and 20 percent hardware. Given a fundamental shift in the problems that developers face, how can these developers ensure that their solutions are optimal for their company?

Second, we will examine the cost structure of MCU software development. What are effective ways to minimize costs during development? What minimizes maintenance costs? What minimizes total costs for a prototype; for a product; for a product line? Armed with this knowledge and understanding, you will be much better equipped to make correct choices.

Third, we will examine the effectiveness of the business case for different software approaches. The most effective approach during software development may not be the minimization of up front costs.

It depends on the goal. In some instances up front cost minimization may be the correct approach, but in other instances it is completely the wrong approach. What is the best approach to maximize profits for a prototype; for a product and for a product line?

Finally, these principles will be applied to software offerings for MCU development. A comparison of the various approaches versus system complexity, licensing and standardization can be used to find the most effective approaches for your development.

By following the simple rules in this article, you will minimize your total cost of ownership (TCO) and make everyone in the company happy as you deliver very high quality products much faster. You will be able to transition to a full line of products without effort or extensive rework and create greater value.

MCU market shifts
The concept of the market shifting from hardware to software creates an opportunity to reduce the overall hardware costs with fewer parts, and increase reliability at the same time. Now the bigger memories and faster processing along with demand for new features create a big software problem.

How can this be overcome? Generally, experienced hardware designers must re-educate themselves in software engineering techniques. Engineers that fail to do this and use their old approaches will create suboptimal designs which will trigger significant financial and market share losses.

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Figure 1: Shown is the total cost of ownership is estimated for four different software architectural approaches.

The total cost of ownership is estimated for four different software architectural approaches in Figure 1. This illustrates how the choices of a scheduler or timing loops work for trivial systems.

It also illustrates how a real-time kernel offers some assistance but shows that POSIX standards based, complete RTOS is the best approach as system complexity increases. Most often, a lack of software engineering and business understanding leads developers to choose much poorer schedulers and stand-alone kernels which are suitable for simple systems, but uneconomic in today's environment.

MCU software engineering costs
Table 1 shows a variety of factors which have varying levels of importance for prototypes, single products and a line of products. This table identifies how the various factors which affect overall cost impact the implementation of these different types of systems.

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Table 1: Here are the factors that affect overall cost. (Click on image to enlarge.)

If you look at the choices that users make in the field, it is apparent that many designers start with a prototype mentality and then it becomes the product or product line.

Because they have committed to software solutions that are free for prototyping, but inferior in TCO for products or product lines, engineers don't throw out the prototype and re-analyse, rather they continue to refine based on the free prototype architecture.

The product will work, given enough time and effort; however, the approach becomes institutionalized. Software is the big investment here and 80% of the investment was just made using poor software architecture. Developers are left with a suboptimal approach, but are locked in by their initial approach.

The single most common and expensive mistake in MCU software development is choosing a free prototype oriented environment and letting it become the environment for the final product without re-analysis.

The solution to this dilemma is to choose prototype solutions that evolve into optimal product and product line approaches in an incremental fashion. By doing so, developers completely eliminate the need for any rework.

Key to a product line approach today is the following set of Lean Product Development concepts:
� Research in parallel with development
� Technology Insertion to upgrade the line
� Standard platforms
� Component or modular systems
� Industry software standards

Choosing a lean product development approach coupled with good management will immediately lead to minimised TCO and maximised profits and market share. A prototype is really the start of research on a new product.

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