Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Bandwagons and islands

In Musings on Sep 16, 2015 at 00:01

I’ve always been a fan of the Arduino ecosystem, hook, line, and sinker: that little board, with its AVR microcontroller, the extensibility, through those headers and shields, and the multi-platform IDE, with its simple runtime library and access to all its essential hardware.

So much so, that the complete range of JeeNode products has been derived from it.

But I wanted a remote node, a small size, a wireless radio, flexible sensor options, and better battery lifetimes, which is why several trade-offs came out differently: the much smaller physical dimension, the RFM radio, the JeePort headers, and the FTDI interface as alternative for a built-in USB bridge. JeeNodes owe a lot to the Arduino ecosystem.

That’s the thing with big (even at the time) “standards”: they create a common ground, around which lots of people can flock, form a community, and extend it all in often quite surprising and innovative ways. Being able to acquire and re-use knowledge is wonderful.

The Arduino “platform” has a bandwagon effect, whereby synergy and cross-pollination of ideas lead to a huge explosion of projects and add-ons, both on the hardware as on the software side. Just google for “Arduino” … need I say more?

Yet sometimes, being part of the mainstream and building on what has become the “baseline” can be limiting: the 5V conventions of early Arduino’s doesn’t play well with most of the newer sensor chips these days, nor is it optimal for ultra low-power uses. Furthermore, the Wiring library on which the Arduino IDE’s runtime is based is not terribly modular or suitable for today’s newer µC’s. And to be honest, the Arduino IDE itself is really quite limited compared to many other editors and IDE’s. Last but definitely not least, C++ support in the IDE is severely crippled by the pre-processing applied to turn .ino files into normal .cpp files before compilation.

It’s easy to look back and claim 20-20 vision in hindsight, so in a way most of these issues are simply the result of a platform which has evolved far beyond the original designer’s wildest dreams. No one could have predicted today’s needs at that point in time.

There is also another aspect to point out: there is in fact a conflict w.r.t. what this ecosystem is for. Should it be aimed at the non-techie creative artist, who just wants to get some project going without becoming an embedded microelectronics engineer? Or is it a playground for the tech geek, exploring the world of physical computing, diving in to learn how it works, tinkering with every aspect of this playground, and tracing / extending the boundaries of the technology to expand the user’s horizon?

I have decades of software development experience under my belt (and by now probably another decade of physical computing), so for me the Arduino and JeeNode ecosystem has always been about the latter. I don’t want a setup which has been “dumbed down” to hide the details. Sure, I crave for abstraction to not always have to think about all the low-level stuff, but the fascination for me is that it’s truly open all the way down. I want to be able to understand what’s under the hood, and if necessary tinker with it.

The Arduino technology doesn’t have that many secrets any more for me, I suspect. I think I understand how the chips work, how the entire circuit works, how the IDE is set up, how the runtime library is structured, how all the interrupts work together, yada, yada, yada.

And some of it I’m no longer keen to stick to: the basic editing + compilation setup (“any editor + makefiles” would be far more flexible), the choice of µC (so many more ARM fascinating variants out there than what Atmel is offering), and in fact the whole premise of using an edit-compile-upload-run seems limiting (over-the air uploads or visual system construction anyone?).

Which is why for the past year or so, I’ve started bypassing that oh-so-comfy Arduino ecosystem for my new explorations, starting from scratch with an ARM gcc “toolchain”, simple “makefiles”, and using the command-line to drive everything.

Jettisoning everything on the software side has a number of implications. First of all, things become simpler and faster: less tools to use, (much) lower startup delays, and a new runtime library which is small enough to show the essence of what a runtime is. No more.

A nice benefit is that the resulting builds are considerably smaller. Which was an important issue when writing code for that lovely small LPC810 ARM chip, all in an 8-pin DIP.

Another aspect I very much liked, is that this has allowed me to learn and subsequently write about how the inside of a runtime library really works and how you actually set up a serial port, or a timer, or a PWM output. Even just setting up an I/O pin is closer to the silicon than the digitalWrite(...) abstraction provided by the Arduino runtime.

… but that’s also the flip side of this whole coin: ya gotta dive very deep!

By starting from scratch, I’ve had to figure out all the nitty gritty details of how to control the hardware peripherals inside the µC, tweaking bit settings in some very specific way before it all started to work. Which was often quite a trial-and-error ordeal, since there is nothing you can do other than to (re-) read the datasheet and look at proven example code. Tinker till your hair falls out, and then (if you’re lucky) all of a sudden it starts to work.

The reward for me, was a better understanding, which is indeed what I was after. And for you: working examples, with minimal code, and explained in various weblog posts.

Most of all this deep-diving and tinkering can now be found in the embello repository on GitHub, and this will grow and extend further over time, as I learn more tricks.

Embello is also a bit of an island, though. It’s not used or known widely, and it’s likely to stay that way for some time to come. It’s not intended to be an alternative to the Arduino runtime, it’s not even intended to become the ARM equivalent of JeeLib – the library which makes it easy to use the ATMega-based JeeNodes with the Arduino IDE.

As I see it, Embello is a good source of fairly independent examples for the LPC8xx series of ARM µC’s, small enough to be explored in full detail when you want to understand how such things are implemented at the lowest level – and guess what: it all includes a simple Makefile-based build system, plus all the ready-to-upload firmware.bin binary images. With the weblog posts and the Jee Book as “all-in-one” PDF/ePub documentation.

Which leaves me at a bit of a bifurcation point as to where to go from here. I may have to row back from this “Embello island” approach to the “Arduino mainland” world. It’s no doubt a lot easier for others to “just fire up the Arduino IDE” and load a library for the new developments here at JeeLabs planned for later this year. Not everyone is willing to learn how to use the command line, just to be able to power up a node and send out wireless radio packets as part of a sensor network. Even if that means making the code a bit bulkier.

At the same time, I really want to work without having to use the Arduino IDE + runtime. And I suspect there are others who do too. Once you’ve developed other software for a while, you probably have adopted a certain work style and work environment which makes you productive (I know I have!). Being able to stick to it for new embedded projects as well makes it possible to retain that investment (in routine, knowledge, and muscle memory).

Which is why I’m now looking for a way to get the best of both worlds: retain my own personal development preferences (which a few of you might also prefer), while making it easy for everyone else to re-use my code and projects in that mainstream roller coaster fashion called “the Arduino ecosystem”. The good news is that the Arduino IDE has finally evolved to the point where it can actually support alternate platforms, including ARM.

We’ll see how it goes… all suggestions and pointers welcome!