I now work as the Team Lead at Evothings and our open source product is a Workbench for creating mobile HTML5 applications focused on IoT, by editing and running them live on the mobile device inside our spiced up Cordova based “Evothings Viewer”.
I am of course partial here - but the tool is really easy to use, doesn’t force you into any specific framework or editor, enables a very quick development cycle and has tons of examples, tutorials, docs and some special IoT focused libraries like for example around BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). You can have your code running on your phone literally within 1-2 minutes and you don’t need to install XCode or the Android tools, you can even run it just fine from your trusty Linux laptop! Just go for it. Ok, enough of the sales talk…
Since we are specializing in the IoT space we have our office filled to the brink with toys… eh, I mean IoT devices of all kinds from all different vendors. Two IoT communication standards are particularly important in this space, and that’s BLE and MQTT. I have already written three blog posts around MQTT using Evothings. Now I am instead focusing on BLE and particularly the embedded device side of the story.
This led me to round up a bunch of devices at the office that are fairly technically capable and have BLE support. The one I selected was the LinkIt ONE development board from MediaTek & Seeed Studio. It’s an insanely feature packed little board (GSM/GPRS, GPS, Wifi, BLE, sound output, SD card) with decent computing power (ARM7 EJ-S, 16Mb flash, 4Mb RAM) while still remaining in the “medium” embedded space I would say, still ruling out plain Linux and regular tools. I consider the Raspberri Pi or C.H.I.P and similar machines to be in the “large” embedded space, they are real computers and you can basically use whatever you like to develop on those.
The medium and small devices can be programmed using for example Espruino or Micropython (two very interesting projects) but in many cases, for more demanding applications, C/C++ is still king simply because of size and performance advantages. And also the fact that hardware vendor SDKs are typically in C/C++. But could there be an alternative language out there?
- A language that is just as fast and small that easily can use all these C/C++ SDKs?
- A language with a syntax similar to Python made to be easy to write and read?
- A language with soft realtime GC and a sane advanced type system with generics?
- A language with a good standard library and friendlier than C++?
- A language with compile time hygienic AST based macros written in the language itself?
- A language offering an imperative style and not forcing OO if you don’t want to?
Yep! Read on to find out…
I have written extensively about Nim before, and there is even a blog article showing that Nim can even run on an Arduino UNO! To Nimmers this isn’t surprising, Nim compiles to performant C and if you turn off the GC etc, Nim can fit wherever C can fit.
But that article used the low level mechanics of interfacing with C/C++ and did not use c2nim, the excellent wrapper generation tool written in Nim by Andreas Rumpf, the primary author of Nim.
What if we could use c2nim to wrap most of the Arduino and MediaTek C/C++ libraries used to access all the features of the LinkIt ONE?
Two weeks ago I pushed Ardunimo to github. Cheesy name, but I couldn’t resist. Beware though, probably only me who have tried running this since you would need a LinkIt ONE!
The README at github shows how to get going and all this is ONLY tested on 64 bit Ubuntu 14.04. But the top dir contains a VagrantFile that I also threw together that will fire up a Ubuntu 14.04 and install and build all the Nim parts (Nim, nimble, c2nim) you need.
The fun part is that you don’t need anything else! The LinkIt ONE officially only supports development from Windows or OSX using the Arduino IDE, but I found some instructables showing that you can indeed use the Arduino IDE on Linux too. I used that and looking at what the Arduino IDE does, to craft the Makefile to gain full control over the build process and get rid of the Arduino IDE.
So if you are like me, comfy from the command line, this setup should be perfect!
Ardunimo consists of two Makefiles, one to create the wrapper and one to build the binary for the LinkIt ONE. A Nim wrapper consists of Nim modules, basically one .nim file for each header file of the C/C++ API we are wrapping. The top level Makefile will call the Makefile in the
wrapper directory if needed, to generate the wrapper modules, but we can also do it manually in the wrapper directory using say
make clean && make. Then we get all the nim wrapper modules recreated:
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The Makefile uses the c2nim tool to generate these wrappers by parsing the header files from the SDK. These headers are in the
src directory, and there are some local small modifications to them. Some details were harder to fix in the header files, so those files I ended up hand editing after the c2nim generation, and placing them into the
fixed directory, so they are just copied from there. A bit more work to maintain of course.
The c2nim tool can generate wrappers following Nim naming conventions (CamelCase etc) but it caused some issues for me so I skipped that part.
The top level Makefile builds our binary that we can copy onto the LinkIt ONE. It does this by first compiling the Nim source code, for example
blink.nim, into .cpp source code, which then is compiled using the same commands that the Arduino IDE uses to compile. Normally the Nim compiler calls GCC (or whichever C compiler) by itself, but here I perform the C++ compilation and linking as usual in the Makefile in order to gain a bit easier control over the compilation and link commands.
Btw, this Makefile will also download the SDK and the ARM GCC to local directories, if they are missing.
The Arduino style is to have an include at the top, and then to define the
setup() and the
loop() functions that the Arduino framework then will call. This is how
blink.nim looks like:
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If we take a closer look at the
ardunimo.nim file from the wrapper, it looks like this:
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- The first thing this file does is to import a reasonable base set of wrapper modules. Nim can do deadcode elimination (see
nim.cfgfor the compiler directives) so there is no harm in importing stuff.
- We also use a hack, an emit, to make sure the Arduino.h file is included, I couldn’t figure out how to get it otherwise.
- We import the
NimMain()C-function that Nim has generated so we can call it. This is for Nim’s runtime support to get a chance to initialize itself. The entry point of the binary is not controlled by Nim so we need to do this call manually.
- Then we define two convenience Nim templates for
loop()so that it looks cleaner and to include the call to
NimMain(). Nim templates are AST based macros and very powerful.
Making your own
Just write your own blabla.nim and then build it using
make clean && make PROJECT=blabla, it should hopefully work, although remember that the wrapper is by no means complete nor at all tested. :)
blink2.nim is similar to
blink.nim but creates at compile time, a Nim sequence with different pauses in it.
nimicro.nim is a first step at getting the Ni VM running, it fails still, but it can at least run the trivial program consisting of a single integer literal “1000” :)
For the moment this experiment is paused, I am now more focusing on ARM mbed OS based development, so I might end up redoing something similar, but with mbed OS instead of Arduino.
Anyway, hope someone found this interesting and fun!