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Basics of Embedded C Programming

Embedded C is one of the most widely used programming languages in the development of embedded systems. In this article, we will explore the fundamentals of Embedded C programming and its programming structure.

What is an Embedded System?

An embedded system can be best described as a system that integrates both hardware and software to perform a specific task. A common example of an embedded system is a washing machine, which consists of a processor and software that controls the washing and drying process.


Embedded systems can not only be stand-alone devices like washing machines but also be part of larger systems, such as a car. A car comprises several embedded systems like the anti-lock braking system, temperature monitoring system, and tire pressure monitoring system, among others.

Programming Embedded Systems

Embedded systems consist of both hardware and software components. The main hardware module is the processor, which can be a microprocessor, microcontroller, DSP, CPLD, or FPGA. These devices are programmable, allowing developers to write software programs that define their functionality.

The software part of an embedded system is equally important as the hardware. However, selecting the right programming language is crucial. Factors to consider when choosing a programming language for embedded systems include size, speed, portability, ease of implementation, ease of maintenance, and readability.

While there are many programming languages available for embedded systems, Embedded C has become a popular choice due to its ease of use, efficiency, and portability. Some benefits of using Embedded C include simplified code writing, reduced development time, easy code maintenance, and the ability to port code to different architectures with minimal modifications.

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Introduction to Embedded C Programming Language

Before diving into the specifics of Embedded C programming language and the basics of Embedded C programming, let’s first discuss the C programming language itself. Developed by Dennis Ritchie, C is one of the most widely used programming languages, known for its low-level memory access and efficient mapping to machine instructions.

Embedded C programming language, used extensively in the development of embedded systems, is an extension of the C programming language. It shares the same syntax and semantics as C, including functions, variables, loops, and statements. Embedded C extends standard C with features like I/O hardware addressing, fixed-point arithmetic operations, and accessing address spaces.

Difference between C and Embedded C

There is not much difference between C and Embedded C, apart from a few extensions and the operating environment. Both C and Embedded C conform to ISO standards, having similar syntax, datatypes, and functions. However, Embedded C adds features like addressing I/O, multiple memory addressing, and fixed-point arithmetic, which are specifically designed for microcontroller-based applications.

Basics of Embedded C Programming

Now, let’s dive into the basics of Embedded C programming. We will start by exploring two essential features of Embedded C programs: keywords and datatypes.

Keywords in Embedded C

Keywords are special words with specific meanings to the compiler. In Embedded C, some example keywords include “bit,” “sbit,” “sfr,” “small,” and “large.” These keywords have special significance when using compilers like Keil’s Cx51 Compiler for 8051 microcontrollers.

Data Types in Embedded C

Data types help in declaring variables in a program. In addition to the standard data types in C, such as signed int, unsigned int, signed char, and float, Embedded C introduces additional data types specific to certain compilers. For example, in the Keil’s Cx51 Compiler, we have data types like “bit,” “sbit,” “sfr,” and “sfr16.”

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Basic Structure of an Embedded C Program

An Embedded C program follows a specific structure or template. Understanding this template is crucial for writing Embedded C programs. The basic structure includes:

  • Multiline and single-line comments: Used for code documentation and understanding.
  • Preprocessor directives: Indications to the compiler, such as header file inclusion or defining symbols.
  • Global variables: Variables accessible anywhere in the program.
  • Function declarations: Declaring functions to be used in the program.
  • Main function: The starting point of program execution, containing local variables, function calls, and statements.
  • Function definitions: Defining functions with local variables and statements.

Example of an Embedded C Program

To illustrate the basics of Embedded C programming, let’s consider an example of blinking LEDs using an 8051 microcontroller. The circuit diagram for this example can be found here.

To write the Embedded C program for this circuit, we will use the Keil C Compiler, which is part of the Keil ┬ÁVision IDE. Here is an example program that blinks LEDs connected to PORT1 of the microcontroller:

#include <reg51.h> // Preprocessor directive to include header file specific to 8051 microcontroller

void delay(unsigned int); // Function declaration

void main() // Main function
    while(1) // Infinite loop
        P1 = 0xFF; // Turn ON LEDs
        delay(1000); // Delay for 1 second
        P1 = 0x00; // Turn OFF LEDs
        delay(1000); // Delay for 1 second

void delay(unsigned int time) // Function definition
    unsigned int i, j;

This example demonstrates the basic structure of an Embedded C program and introduces concepts like function declarations, function definitions, and delays.


Embedded C is a powerful programming language for developing embedded systems. By understanding the basics of Embedded C programming, including keywords, datatypes, and program structure, you can begin writing efficient and reliable code for embedded systems.

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To learn more about Embedded C programming and its applications, visit OnSpec Electronic, Inc for more information. Happy coding!

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