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Down and Dirty

The challenges of embedded real-time applications seem to have attracted a lot of top programmers whose personal and professional orientations fit with an unusual programming culture. The cultural context of embedded applications mixes attention to low-level details with the need for high-level discipline. Embedded-systems programming can get real dirty, dragging the programmer down into the muck of loading registers, waiting for a shift in line levels, or rotating and masking bits. At the same time, all this bit-fiddling must be near-perfect, fit into severely limited memory, and be speedy enough not to put gaps in a display or jiggles in a missile track.

The programmers of such code tend to work carefully and methodically to reduce the number of mistakes they make in the first place. In the parlance of software quality, they have a low “injection rate” for software defects. The cheapest bugs to find and fix are, of course, the ones you don't let get into the code. A widely used tactic among embedded-systems developers is to move defect detection upstream in the life cycle, catching bugs as early as possible while they are easier to see and simpler to correct. Thorough design and code inspections are conducted repeatedly to reduce delivered defects. This practice is far cheaper and more effective than testing and debugging at the tail end.


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