Microchip's Embedded Software Development on the NetBeans Platform
Microchip Technology Inc., headquartered in Chandler, Arizona, was spun off from General Instrument in 1989. The Company went public in 1993, and is a leading provider of microcontroller, analog, and Flash-IP solutions, providing low-risk product development, lower total system cost and faster time to market for thousands of diverse customer applications worldwide. Headquartered in Chandler, Arizona, Microchip offers outstanding technical support along with dependable delivery and quality.
Hi, Vince. What's MPLAB, in a nutshell?
MPLAB® is an integrated development environment or IDE.
It is similar to other IDEs, but there are two important differences. The first difference is that the MPLAB IDE is our customers’ window into Microchip’s PIC® microcontrollers embedded in their designs. Many people believe they understand their PC, because it is “right here.” An embedded device is more difficult to get a handle on. It’s the brain of a product “over there.” It’s not a computer, it’s a thing. The MPLAB IDE gives embedded developers an opportunity to dig into the brain of that thing.
The second important difference is that the MPLAB IDE seamlessly covers Microchip’s entire portfolio of more than 700 8-bit, 16-bit and 32-bit PIC microcontrollers. The differences between these devices are massive, from a tiny 6-pin, 8-bit microcontroller that could fit under your fingernail, to a huge 32-bit microcontroller that is much more powerful than the iconic IBM mainframe of last century. The MPLAB IDE provides a consistent and supportive environment in which to debug our customers’ original, creative works of software that differentiate their products.
What are the MPLAB IDE’s main features and how does it distinguish itself from its competitors?
Integrated development environments share many features: project creation and management, programmers’ editor, language tool integration and build tools, image preparation and programming, and debug facilities. These are the MPLAB X IDE’s main features, too.
A large difference comes in the presentation of an embedded target, rather than a PC target, which presents a developer with a less coupled and less easily controlled object for their development. That tightens the focus, but there are other IDEs that support embedded development. The MPLAB X IDE is distinguished by its seamless and timely support of Microchip devices, the vast ecosystem of tightly integrated compilers and hardware tools that also support those devices, and the evolutionary grace of a tool that has grown with our customers and technologies until the three form a smooth and supportive system for developing innovative embedded products.
What are the typical technical challenges of an application of this kind?
The principal challenge we face is how to provide the facilities developers need in the most intuitive and useful way possible. It’s easy to provide tons and tons of features, but with the GUI technologies of today, one can only present a small fraction of what is provided and available for use.
One of the gauges for how well we’ve done our job is when our customers present a fine point of usage that we’ve already discussed and disagreed on how to implement. Those "complaints" are really wonderful because they come from expert tool users who understand the tools they are using. Of course, we are always hustling to present new Microchip devices in the same light that we present established devices. We’re also challenged to exploit the advanced debug facilities of new devices in a way that is most beneficial for our customers.
What's the architecture of the application and why did you make the choices that you did?
We’re moving away from a Windows OS-only, COM-based architecture. As our customers’ development sophistication has grown, so have their needs. Our customers now require Linux, Mac, and Windows support.
Microchip is a worldwide company with customers who may only be fluent in a single language, so that impacts our choices. We also have a number of educational institutions who place interesting demands on the IDE, along with a number of advanced customers who are very forward-looking and are really pushing the envelope of what was previously thought possible.
The most telling choice we had to make, though, was the choice of NetBeans as a fully capable, modern, lightweight and flexible platform for our next-generation MPLAB X IDE:
Where does the NetBeans Platform fit into all of this?
NetBeans is unique among current open-source IDE platform offerings, in that it is the most advanced for addressing our primary challenge, which I described above. The NetBeans IDE presents standard operations in a way that really minimizes hunting around and wasting time, to find out how to accomplish what you need to do. Take, for instance, the classic edit, compile, debug “cycle.” In NetBeans, like in other IDEs, the edit part is pretty easy: open the source file in the programmers’ editor and make the changes you need. It’s really not much different than editing a document with a word processor. The next step is where the difference really shows.
In some IDEs, you have to compile or build an image and then figure out how to load it and start a debugging session. In some IDEs, that’s just brutal to figure out, especially in embedded systems where, as we said, the target is not “right here,” it’s “over there.” In NetBeans, it’s a single button press (DebugRun), even in an embedded context like ours. After that, the rest of the steps are taken care of. If any errors occur during the sequence, we take it home by capturing the errors and placing the user in context for an easy solution; and the ability to move on. That’s just one example. NetBeans is way ahead of the curve compared to other menu/toolbar/property sheet IDEs.
What are the 3 main benefits of the NetBeans Platform, in this context?
First and foremost is the ability to really optimize developers’ time. That’s a major factor in our customers’ focus.
Second is the fact that NetBeans is a modern, lightweight and fully capable IDE platform. It doesn’t suffer from the bloat and outdated aspects of some other IDE platforms. Included with these benefits are the abilities to localize the IDE and to utilize it on multiple operating systems.
Last, but not least, is the huge benefit of a professionally executed development, maintained by a focused organizing committee and maintained by a tight-knit development community—all headed by the Oracle contributions. That’s a significant departure from some other high-profile, open-source platforms that are available.
How did you end up choosing the NetBeans Platform over its alternatives?
When you consider all of the benefits I just mentioned, I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
How did you get started with it?
We first discussed the concepts with Sun Microsystems, as we wanted to provide a benefit to the overall NetBeans IDE from an embedded side. We created a proof of concept by plugging in our existing debuggers to the NetBeans IDE on a Windows operating system. We were fortunate to find someone who previously worked within Sun Microsystems on the NetBeans Platform, who came in on contract and gave us some one-on-one training. This was mainly because we had an aggressive schedule and wanted to be able to get up to speed faster.
Any tips and tricks for others going down the same road?
The mail lists are very helpful. We found many things we wanted to do being asked by others on the mailing lists. Many of the developers monitor these lists frequently, and respond more often than not in a timely fashion. The documentation suite, videos, written documents and interaction with the community are all extremely helpful in getting to the root of any matter quickly.
The IDE is well organized and uses common techniques within the code base, which quickly become familiar. Other platforms treat information as job security. Some people may know, but they want you to pay for the information, in one way or another. Not so with NetBeans; everyone involved is completely open and collaborative.
Any specific things that surprised you about the NetBeans Platform (in a good or bad way)?
NetBeans prevents development with any form of interdependency between modules. For instance, you cannot have A->B and B->A. This really is a good thing and ensures that you break your modules up more to create a common module. The way JUnit is integrated into the IDE makes it so seamless to create your unit tests while developing the code. Source-code revision control worked quite smoothly from within the IDE.
A hindrance for us is that there is no way to view a block of memory in hex form, when running under Java (using the JVM debugger). This is something often required when doing embedded development. Since we are developing code for our debug tools, we wanted to see the code blocks being transported from the IDE to the tool in hex, but could not.
Anything else you'd like to share?
It is great how fully featured the editor is. We are often so deep in developing what is required for the embedded side that we still discover things the editor does that we hadn’t come across.
We are using the NetBeans IDE to create our own IDE, which is a completely new, yet compatible, incarnation of our IDE.
The NetBeans developers at Oracle/Sun are extremely open to assist in getting value added to the current IDE, which makes our job even easier.