How DevOps is Revolutionizing Embedded Development

There’s something curious happening on the desktops of embedded developers around the world. From home offices to cubes to labs, in lamp-lit rooms late at night and sun-lit rooms early in the morning, developers are doing something different. They’re beginning to implement DevOps practices in their embedded development.

Something quite serendipitous has occurred to make this possible: The parallel rise of cloud-native computing and the explosion of internet of things (IoT) devices and edge technologies. A world with billions of embedded devices connected to the internet all the time, every minute of every day, requires a new way of designing, testing, deploying and maintaining these devices. At the same time, cloud-native computing has introduced continuous delivery (CD) and continuous integration (CI), among other methods, to enable automated software builds that are reproducible. This is creating a revolution in the embedded world.

Until now, embedded software was written and then remained static in perpetuity because it was isolated. Not anymore.

The Slog, Security Demand New Thinking

Embedded software developers have traditionally faced a monumental slog to build projects. Typically, embedded developers have had to build an entire platform to build new software, including the kernel, the distribution and more. And all of that software would need to get (re)built anew every single time something changed. Everything had to be checked in. Everything had to be rolled out. There was a version control infrastructure team, a CI team, a QA team—and they all had to work together and be aligned to meet the production schedule.

This approach to developing was incredibly slow, costly and clumsy and in no way architected for today’s world of connected devices, IoT and the edge. Consumer product makers (home appliances, for example) simply don’t have the resources to provide frequent updates. Additionally, consumers are not used to frequent updates on consumer devices that are not their phones or laptops. With the rise of modern applications, it is just no longer acceptable to build static software that is never changed or updated.

With billions of devices connected to an always-on network, large-scale security vulnerabilities have never been a bigger concern or consideration among companies that have millions of nodes on a network. Today, companies need to be continuously connected to all of their nodes and devices to properly maintain and secure them.

Enter DevOps and Embedded Innovation

DevOps has already transformed the way cloud-native applications are developed. Software gets built often, but it also gets often. That’s why web apps are constantly being upgraded. Now, embedded is poised to take advantage of this software version control system that automates software builds and that is reproducible. Bringing DevOps to the embedded software ecosystem is about providing a set of tools or a platform that does the version control, CI and CD all in a single package—a platform to simplify the workflows for companies that typically have to build all of this themselves now can deliver opportunities for tremendous efficiencies and innovation.

Consider the airline industry as it was 60+ years ago. At that time, the airlines built their own planes from start to finish. Today, Boeing and Airbus build all airlines’ planes. Of course, each airline can customize their fleet from the overall flying experience to the interior branding, but everybody is leveraging the same core technology because airframes are really hard to build and the differentiation happens on top of that foundation.

Similarly, embedded software developers can focus on the customization of their product, not the time-consuming build that provides no differentiation. This is the concept behind the cultural shift we see in embedded software: Buy the airframe and customize it rather than build it yourself. Also embedded in the DevOps model is a distributed development practice, where different team members in different roles can be anywhere in the world and still work together seamlessly.

The pandemic certainly created more demand for this model, but distributed teams aren’t going away and are more prevalent than ever in technology development. Many embedded software developers are still working in the same way they were in the 1980s and 1990s. With DevOps practices and platforms in place today, embedded software developers can focus on the value-add of their application. By taking all the complexity out of building it yourself, companies today can simply leverage easily consumable and reusable tools to achieve what cloud developers have been doing for years.

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