Practical Architecture

Practical Decoupling Techniques Applied to a C-based Radio Driver

We advocate for spending time decoupling your firmware from the underlying hardware to enable portability and reusability. We often have developers tell us that they see the value in these outcomes, but they could use practical examples for how to effectively decouple firmware from the underlying hardware. Others have concerns about whether we can truly create portable APIs.

While preparing for a new client project, we discovered an open-source driver for the ON Semiconductor AX5043 radio IC. This driver serves as an excellent example of simple techniques you can use to achieve decoupling.

The example driver's author built the hardware interactions on top of a single interface abstraction (representing a SPI transfer), enabling you to quickly migrate the driver from one platform to another. The API design also enables you to support multiple radios on a single device. We'll take a look at these two techniques in greater detail.

Table of Contents:

  1. Framing the Problem
  2. Ambitious Abstraction
  3. Thinking About Responsibility
  4. Decoupling with Minimalistic APIs
    1. Handling Configuration
  5. Supporting Multiple Devices
  6. Putting it All Together
  7. Further Reading

Framing the Problem

The AX5043 supports two communication methods: SPI and "wire mode". This library focuses only on the SPI interface, which is the standard operating mode.

The typical implementation approach (taken on most projects we've encountered) would be to define a set of radio interfaces which talk directly to AX5043 device using existing SPI APIs. The SPI APIs may be provided by a processor vendor SDK, an SDK such as MyNewt or Zephyr, or a proprietary internal implementation. If the bus isn't shared with other devices, we would likely find that SPI information is hard-coded in the driver. We would also probably find that the driver is responsible for configuring its SPI peripheral with the settings it needs.

The approach described above would work just fine until one of these scenarios forces a change:

  1. Migrate to a new SDK (due to a processor change or underlying framework change)
  2. Support multiple hardware revisions which have different SPI/driver configurations
  3. Support multiple devices on a single SPI bus
  4. Support multiple driver instances on a single board

At this point the driver is ripped apart in order to support a new SDK or to enable flexibility through extra function parameters. The status quo often serves a team until the next major requirements change occurs, and another rewrite happens.

Ambitious Abstraction

More ambitious teams take a heavier approach and define generic APIs for each driver type. Modules which need to interact with a given driver type only know about and use the generic APIs. With C++, this type of abstraction is achieved with inheritance + virtual functions or templates + concepts. Here's an inheritance-based example:

// SPI Master Abstract Class
class SPIMaster
    virtual void configure(spi::baud_t baud) noexcept = 0;
    virtual spi::mode mode() const noexcept = 0;
    virtual spi::mode mode(spi::mode mode) noexcept = 0;
    virtual void start() noexcept = 0;
    virtual void stop() noexcept = 0;
    virtual comm::status transfer(void* data, size_t length) noexcept = 0;

// A derived class, which is a SPI peripheral driver that 
// implements the abstract class interfaces
class SomeSPIDriver : public SPIMaster
    // Implementation of each abstract function 
    // + possibly some extras that won't be in the generic interface

// Driver which talks over SPI
class AX5403 {
    // When we construct an AX5403 object, we take in a reference
    // to the ***generic*** SPI Interface
    AX5403(SPIMaster& spi) : spi_(spi) {}

    // Function implementations would talk using SPIMaster interfaces, 
    // and could work with any SPI driver derived from that base class
    void send(void* data, size_t size)
        spi_.transfer(data, size);

    SPIMaster& spi_;

For C, it is achieved using structures of function pointers:

struct spi_intf
    void (*configure)(spi_baud_t);
    spi_mode_t (*get_mode)();
    void (*set_mode)(spi_mode_t);
    void (*start)();
    void (*stop)();
    comm_status_t (*transfer)(void*, size_t);

struct spi_intf spi0 = {

void ax5403_send(struct spi_intf* spi, uint8_t* data, size_t size)
    assert(spi && spi->transfer);

    // Uses a generic function pointer, so different implementations 
    // can be supplied with no change to the driver
    spi->transfer(data, size);

This C-style approach operates on the same principal: consumers only know about the function pointers, not the details of the functions being pointed to.

Thinking About Responsibility

We should take a step back and think about responsibility. What are the core responsibilities of an AX5043 radio driver?

  • Communication with the radio
  • Initialization of the radio
  • Adjusting radio settings
  • Sending and receiving data over the radio

Notice that our driver doesn't need to be responsible for initializing the SPI bus, changing SPI operating modes, setting bit ordering, or starting/stopping the SPI driver. All our radio driver needs to know about SPI is how to transfer data over the bus it's connected to. It would be reasonable for the driver documentation to say: "We need the SPI bus to be initialized and operating in Mode 3 and transmitting LSB First", leaving it to the application programmer to ensure these requirements are met.

I bring this up because I'm commonly guilty of the "ambitious abstraction approach" shown above. The strategy works well, but it presents some problems.

For one, we've given the radio driver more control over the SPI driver than it actually needs. It's easy to misinterpret the availability of an API as it being appropriate to use in the current context. If our drivers are reaching beyond their responsibilities and configuring the SPI bus (or stopping/starting the SPI peripheral), we can easily introduce problems into our system - especially if drivers start changing configurations without the application developer knowing his settings are being overridden.

The second problem is that we haven't really decoupled anything. Our radio driver, for better or worse, is dependent upon the SPI driver abstract interface definition. We are not omniscient nor omnipotent, and eventually we will need to modify our abstract interfaces. The unfortunate impact is that every module which is dependent upon those abstractions must change. For something as fundamental as a SPI driver, the impact can be significant.

If we stay focused on the responsibilities of our driver, we can come up with a minimalistic decoupling strategy that avoids these problems.

Decoupling with Minimalistic APIs

Now that we've explored the problem space a bit more, let's get back to this wonderful example of a decoupled driver.

As we mentioned above, the AX5043 radio driver only needs to know how to send and receive data over the SPI bus it's connected to. Since SPI send and receives data at the same time, we can use a single function to handle a SPI transfer. In C, we can define our abstract interface using a function pointer:

void (*spi_transfer)(unsigned char*, uint8_t);

The driver devices this function pointer inside of the ax_config struct as a member variable. We'll look more at the configuration struct next.

The driver defines many hardware-interaction APIs for internal use, such as:

uint8_t ax_hw_read_register_8(ax_config* config, uint16_t reg);

uint16_t ax_hw_read_register_long_bytes(ax_config* config, uint16_t reg,
                                        uint8_t* ptr, uint8_t bytes);

uint16_t ax_hw_write_fifo(ax_config* config, uint8_t* buffer, 
                             uint16_t length);
uint16_t ax_hw_read_fifo(ax_config* config, uint8_t* buffer, 
                             uint16_t length);

Each of these functions references the abstract spi_transfer function pointer in the config struct to talk to hardware:

uint16_t ax_hw_read_fifo(ax_config* config, uint8_t* buffer, 
                             uint16_t length)
  /* read (short access) */
  buffer[0] = (AX_REG_FIFODATA & 0x7F);

  config->spi_transfer(buffer, length);

  status &= 0xFF;
  status |= ((uint16_t)buffer[0] << 8);

  return status;

Internally, the radio driver knows nothing about the details of the SPI driver; it only knows that this one function pointer exists.

The next detail to handle: how do we supply the instance of the spi_transfer function to the radio driver?

Handling Configuration

Somewhere else in the program, we need to initialize the SPI device:

if (wiringPiSPISetup(SPI_CHANNEL, SPI_SPEED) < 0) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Failed to open SPI port. "
                     "Try loading spi library with 'gpio load spi'");

We'll also declare and populate the radio configuration struct. The contents of this structure are referenced by the various radio APIs. One of the fields that must be populated is the spi_transfer function pointer.

ax_config config;
memset(&config, 0, sizeof(ax_config));

config.clock_source = AX_CLOCK_SOURCE_TCXO;
config.f_xtal = 16369000;
config.synthesiser.A.frequency = 434600000;
config.synthesiser.B.frequency = 434600000;

config.spi_transfer = wiringpi_spi_transfer;

config.pkt_store_flags = AX_PKT_STORE_RSSI | AX_PKT_STORE_RF_OFFSET;

Where does the wiringpi_spi_transfer function come from? It's actually a local function which matches the spi_transfer API and makes the proper call to the underlying SPI driver:

void wiringpi_spi_transfer(unsigned char* data, uint8_t length)
    wiringPiSPIDataRW(SPI_CHANNEL, data, length);

This approach, defining a local function which implements the necessary abstraction, will be the most common. It's doubtful that your SPI driver will actually have an interface that matches the radio driver's requirements. You need to create a mapping between the two. The actual coupling details of the two is kept outside of the drivers themselves and in a contained area.

For my designs, it is common for this kind of work to happen in a "board" module, which defines the various drivers, hooks them up to each other, and handles hardware initialization. This approach is an example of the Mediator software architecture pattern, since we've defined a single module which manages the coupling between other interacting modules.

Supporting Multiple Devices

The creation of a configuration struct and its use in all of the AX5043 APIs enables us to support multiple radios at once. This is common for C APIs, as we need some way to store information outside of the function itself.

In order to enable C APIs to be used with multiple objects, we need to:

  • Store all mutable configuration options and context-specific information in the struct
  • Store function pointer abstractions in the struct
  • Pass the configuration struct to the API (often done via pointer to avoid a copy onto the stack)

In this specific instance, we just need to declare two different ax_config instances, populate the settings for each radio, and supply a spi_transfer function pointer for each instance. We would expect the spi_transfer function implementation to differ for the two ax_config instances, as you need to differentiate between the two hardware devices.


void radio0_spi_transfer(unsigned char* data, uint8_t length)
    wiringPiSPIDataRW(SPI_CHANNEL_RADIO_0, data, length);

void radio1_spi_transfer(unsigned char* data, uint8_t length)
    wiringPiSPIDataRW(SPI_CHANNEL_RADIO_1, data, length);

int main(void)
    // Some stuff happens...

    ax_config radio0_config;
    ax_config radio1_config;

    // Configure some stuff...

    radio0_config.spi_transfer = radio0_spi_transfer;
    radio1_config.spi_transfer = radio1_spi_transfer;


    // Useful stuff happens next...

Because the APIs reference the spi_transfer function pointer in the configuration structure, and because each radio has a different configuration, our driver will talk to two different devices with no modifications.

We can see the utility of this approach by analyzing a function in the repository which does not accept an ax_config* input:

 * Returns the status from the last transaction
uint16_t ax_hw_status(void)
  return status;

This status value is set by various calls, such as:

uint16_t ax_hw_read_fifo(ax_config* config, uint8_t* buffer, uint16_t length)
  /* read (short access) */
  buffer[0] = (AX_REG_FIFODATA & 0x7F);

  config->spi_transfer(buffer, length);

  status &= 0xFF;
  status |= ((uint16_t)buffer[0] << 8);

  return status;

If we have two radios, we have no guarantee that the status value we're reading actually corresponds to our radio's last transfer. Instead, this API could be adjusted to take in an ax_config* with the status kept in the struct itself.

Putting it All Together

Both of these techniques can be easily applied to your C device drivers and libraries. Take a step back and think about the APIs your drivers actually require from other modules. Are you creating too many dependencies, or exposing too much information? Can you limit that exposure by requiring a minimal HAL, such as this example driver does?

Take a look through the AX project to see how much is implemented on top of one one abstract function. You're not limited to one abstraction, either. Simply define the minimal set that you need for your specific module.

Happy Hacking!

Further Reading