Rust Belt Rust 2016

[Workshop] Bare metal: Programming ARM microcontrollers in Rust

IMPORTANT This the material I presented at the Rust Belt Rust conference in October of 2016. For historical reasons, this page will remain unchanged. If you are interested in a continuation of this material check my Discovery book.

What's a microcontroller?

A microcontroller is a system on a chip. Whereas your laptop is made up of several discrete components: a processor, RAM sticks, a hard drive, an ethernet port, etc.; a microcontroller has all those components built into a single "chip" or package. This makes it possible to build systems with minimal part count.

What can you do with a microcontroller?

Lots of things! Microcontrollers are the central part of systems known as embedded systems. These systems are everywhere but you can't usually tell that they are there. These systems control the brakes of your car, wash your clothes, print your papers, keep you warm, keep you cool, optimize fuel consumption, etc.

The main trait of these systems is that they operate without user intervention even if they expose a user interface like a washing machine does most of their operation is done on their own.

The other common trait of these systems is that they control a process. And for that these systems usually have one or more sensors and one or more actuators. For example, an HVAC system has several sensors, thermometers and humidy sensors spread across some area, and several actuators as well, heating elements and fans connected to ducts.

When should I use a microcontroller?

All these application I've mentioned, you can probably implement with a Raspberry Pi, a computer that runs Linux. Why should I bother with a microcontroller that operates without an OS? Sounds like it would be harder to develop a program.

The main reason is cost. A microcontroller is much cheaper than a general purpose computer. Not only the microcontroller is cheaper; it also requires much less external electrical components to operate. This makes Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) smaller and cheaper to design and manufacture.

The other big reason is power consumption. A microcontroller consumes orders of magnitude less power than a full blown processor. If your application will run on batteries that makes a huge difference.

At last but not least: precise timing control. A general purpose computer running a general purpose OS has many services running in the background. This makes it hard to guarantee execution of a program within tight time constraints (microsecond range for instance).

When should I not use a microcontroller?

Where heavy computations are involved. To keep their power consumption low, microcontrollers have very limited computational resources available to them. For example, some microcontrollers don't even have hardware support for floating point operations. On those devices, performing a simple addition of single precision numbers can take hundreds of CPU cycles.

Why use Rust and not C?

Hopefully, I don't need to convince you here as you are probably familiar with the language differences between Rust and C. One point I do want to bring up is package management. C lacks an official, widely accepted package management solution whereas Rust has Cargo. This makes development much easier. And, IMO, easy package management encourages code reuse because libraries can be easily integrated into an application which is a good thing as libraries get more "battle testing".

Why should I not use Rust?

Or why should I prefer C over Rust?

The C ecosystem is way more mature. Off the shelf solution for several problems already exist. If you need to control a time sensitive process, you can grab one of the existing commercial Real Time Operating Systems (RTOS) out there and solve your problem. There are no commercial, production-grade RTOSes in Rust yet so you would have to either create one yourself or try one of the ones that are in development.


Enough marketing. Let's actually build stuff!

The hardware

On the day of the workshop, we'll provide you this hardware:

(If you are reading this after the workshop, you can follow this material if you have a different model.)

  • A HC-05 Bluetooth module (with headers!)

  • Two mini-B USB cables (preferably at least 50cm (~2ft) long).

NOTE These are not the USB cables that ship with pretty much every Android phone; those are micro USB cables. Make sure you have the right thing!

  • 4 Female/Female, 4 Male/Female and 1 Male/Male jumper wires

Documentation

This is the documentation we'll refer to during the workshop.