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What is a Microcontroller?


Basically, a microcontroller is a device which integrates a number of the components of a microprocessor system onto a single microchip and optimised to interact with the outside world through on-board interfaces; i.e. it is a little gadget that houses a microprocessor, ROM (Read Only Memory), RAM (Random Access Memory), I/O (Input Output functions), and various other specialized circuits all in one package.


On the other hand, a microprocessor is normally optimised to co-ordinate the flow of information between separate memory and peripheral devices which are located outside itself. Connections to a microprocessor include address, control and data busses that allow it to select one of its peripherals and send to or retrieve data from it. Because a microcontrollers processor and peripherals are built on the same silicon, the devices are self-contained and rarely have any bus structures extending outside their packages.
So a microcontroller incorporates onto the same microchip the following:

  • The CPU core

  • Memory (both ROM and RAM)

  • Some parallel digital I/O

Microcontroller Components
Microcontroller's fundamental components

Microcontrollers will also combine other devices such as:

  • A Timer module to allow the microcontroller to perform tasks for certain time periods.

  • A serial I/O port to allow data to flow between the microcontroller and other devices such as a PC or another microcontroller.

  • An ADC to allow the microcontroller to accept analogue input data for processing.

Microcontroller Architecture
Basic microcontroller architecture

The microcontroller's building blocks explained

To illustrate the functions and interconnectivity of the building blocks of the microcontroller, we shall construct the microcontroller block by block:


Memory unit

Memory is part of the microcontroller whose function is to store data.
The easiest way to explain it is to describe it as one big closet with lots of drawers. If we suppose that we marked the drawers in such a way that they can not be confused, any of their contents will then be easily accessible. It is enough to know the designation of the drawer and so its contents will be known to us for sure.

 Memory components are exactly like that. For a certain input we get the contents of a certain addressed memory location and that's all. Two new concepts are brought to us: addressing and memory location. Memory consists of all memory locations, and addressing is nothing but selecting one of them. This means that we need to select the desired memory location on one hand, and on the other hand we need to wait for the contents of that location. Beside reading from a memory location, memory must also provide for writing onto it. This is done by supplying an additional line called control line. We will designate this line as R/W (read/write). Control line is used in the following way: if r/w=1, reading is done, and if opposite is true then writing is done on the memory location. Memory is the first element, and we need a few operation of our microcontroller.


Central Processing Unit

The block that will have a built in capability to multiply, divide, subtract, and move its contents from one memory location onto another is called "central processing unit" (CPU). Its memory locations are called registers.

Registers are therefore memory locations whose role is to help with performing various mathematical operations or any other operations with data wherever data can be found. Look at the current situation. We have two independent entities (memory and CPU) which are interconnected, and thus any exchange of data is hindered, as well as its functionality. If, for example, we wish to add the contents of two memory locations and return the result again back to memory, we would need a connection between memory and CPU. Simply stated, we must have some "way" through data goes from one block to another.



That "way" is called "bus". Physically, it represents a group of 8, 16, or more wires
There are two types of buses: address and data bus. The first one consists of as many lines as the amount of memory we wish to address, and the other one is as wide as data, in our case 8 bits or the connection line. First one serves to transmit address from CPU memory, and the second to connect all blocks inside the microcontroller.

As far as functionality, the situation has improved, but a new problem has also appeared: we have a unit that's capable of working by itself, but which does not have any contact with the outside world, or with us! In order to remove this deficiency, let's add a block which contains several memory locations whose one end is connected to the data bus, and the other has connection with the output lines on the microcontroller which can be seen as pins on the electronic component.

Input-output unit

Those locations we've just added are called "ports". There are several types of ports : input, output or bidirectional ports. When working with ports, first of all it is necessary to choose which port we need to work with, and then to send data to, or take it from the port.

When working with it the port acts like a memory location. Something is simply being written into or read from it, and it could be noticed on the pins of the microcontroller.

Serial communication

Beside stated above we've added to the already existing unit the possibility of communication with an outside world. However, this way of communicating has its drawbacks. One of the basic drawbacks is the number of lines which need to be used in order to transfer data. What if it is being transferred to a distance of several kilometres? The number of lines times number of kilometres doesn't promise the economy of the project. It leaves us having to reduce the number of lines in such a way that we don't lessen its functionality. Suppose we are working with three lines only, and that one line is used for sending data, other for receiving, and the third one is used as a reference line for both the input and the output side. In order for this to work, we need to set the rules of exchange of data. These rules are called protocol. Protocol is therefore defined in advance so there wouldn't be any misunderstanding between the sides that are communicating with each other. For example, if one man is speaking in French, and the other in English, it is highly unlikely that they will quickly and effectively understand each other. Let's suppose we have the following protocol. The logical unit "1" is set up on the transmitting line until transfer begins. Once the transfer starts, we lower the transmission line to logical "0" for a period of time (which we will designate as T), so the receiving side will know that it is receiving data, and so it will activate its mechanism for reception. Let's go back now to the transmission side and start putting logic zeros and ones onto the transmitter line in the order from a bit of the lowest value to a bit of the highest value. Let each bit stay on line for a time period which is equal to T, and in the end, or after the 8th bit, let us bring the logical unit "1" back on the line which will mark the end of the transmission of one data. The protocol we've just described is called in professional literature NRZ (Non-Return to Zero).

As we have separate lines for receiving and sending, it is possible to receive and send data (info.) at the same time. So called full-duplex mode block which enables this way of communication is called a serial communication block. Unlike the parallel transmission, data moves here bit by bit, or in a series of bits what defines the term serial communication comes from. After the reception of data we need to read it from the receiving location and store it in memory as opposed to sending where the process is reversed. Data goes from memory through the bus to the sending location, and then to the receiving unit according to the protocol.

Timer unit

Since we have the serial communication explained, we can receive, send and process data.
However, in order to utilize it in industry we need a few additionally blocks. One of those is the timer block which is significant to us because it can give us information about time, duration, protocol etc. The basic unit of the timer is a free-run counter which is in fact a register whose numeric value increments by one in even intervals, so that by taking its value during periods T1 and T2 and on the basis of their difference we can determine how much time has elapsed. This is a very important part of the microcontroller whose understanding requires most of our time.


One more thing is requiring our attention is a flawless functioning of the microcontroller
during its run-time. Suppose that as a result of some interference (which often does occur in industry) our microcontroller stops executing the program, or worse, it starts working incorrectly.
Of course, when this happens with a computer, we simply reset it and it will keep working. However, there is no reset button we can push on the microcontroller and thus solve our problem. To overcome this obstacle, we need to introduce one more block called watchdog. This block is in fact another free-run counter where our program needs to write a zero in every time it executes correctly. In case that program gets "stuck", zero will not be written in, and counter alone will reset the microcontroller upon achieving its maximum value. This will result in executing the program again, and correctly this time around. That is an important element of every program to be reliable without man's supervision.

Analog to Digital Converter (ADC)

As the peripheral signals usually are substantially different from the ones that microcontroller can understand (zero and one), they have to be converted into a pattern which can be comprehended by a microcontroller. This task is performed by a block for analog to digital conversion or by an ADC. This block is responsible for converting an information about some analog value to a binary number and for follow it through to a CPU block so that CPU block can further process it.

Finally, the microcontroller is now completed, and all we need to do now is to assemble it into an electronic component where it will access inner blocks through the outside pins. The picture below shows what a microcontroller looks like inside.

Microcontroller Basic Blocks

Thin lines which lead from the center towards the sides of the microcontroller represent wires connecting inner blocks with the pins on the housing of the microcontroller so called bonding lines. Chart on the following page represents the center section of a microcontroller.

For a real application, a microcontroller alone is not enough. Beside a microcontroller, we need a program that would be executed, and a few more elements which make up a interface logic towards the elements of regulation .


Program writing is a special field of work with microcontrollers and is called "programming". Try to write a small program in a language that we will make up ourselves first and then would be understood by anyone.



The program adds the contents of two memory locations, and views their sum on port A. The first line of the program stands for moving the contents of memory location "A" into one of the registers of central processing unit. As we need the other data as well, we will also move it into the other register of the central processing unit. The next instruction instructs the central processing unit to add the contents of those two registers and send a result to port A, so that sum of that addition would be visible to the outside world. For a more complex problem, program that works on its solution will be bigger.
Programming can be done in several languages such as Assembler, C and Basic which are most commonly used languages. Assembler belongs to lower level languages that are programmed slowly, but take up the least amount of space in memory and gives the best results where the speed of program execution is concerned. As it is the most commonly used language in programming microcontrollers it will be discussed in a later chapter. Programs in C language are easier to be written, easier to be understood, but are slower in executing from assembler programs. Basic is the easiest one to learn, and its instructions are nearest a man's way of reasoning, but like C programming language it is also slower than assembler. In any case, before you make up your mind about one of these languages you need to consider carefully the demands for execution speed, for the size of memory and for the amount of time available for its assembly.
After the program is written, we would install the microcontroller into a device and run it. In order to do this we need to add a few more external components necessary for its work. First we must give life to a microcontroller by connecting it to a power supply (power needed for operation of all electronic instruments) and oscillator whose role is similar to the role that heart plays in a human body. Based on its clocks microcontroller executes instructions of a program. As it receives supply microcontroller will perform a small check up on itself, look up the beginning of the program and start executing it. How the device will work depends on many parameters, the most important of which is the skilfulness of the developer of hardware, and on programmer's expertise in getting the maximum out of the device with his program.

Microcontrollers vs. Microprocessors:

Microcontroller differs from a microprocessor in many ways. First and the most important is its functionality. In order for a microprocessor to be used, other components such as memory, or components for receiving and sending data must be added to it. In short that means that microprocessor is the very heart of the computer. On the other hand, microcontroller is designed to be all of that in one. No other external components are needed for its application because all necessary peripherals are already built into it.