On a mission to extend the lifetime of aging Java-based embedded devices

The steady increase in computing power is strangely enough one of the dilemmas of the electronics industry. More power means better and more capable products, but the advent of the ever-newest generation of hardware means also pressure to replace installed “last generation” products, which in the end means a shorter lifetime for the installed base. Just look at consumer electronics – mobile phones die young.

  • Published: 9. May 2023
  • Company: MicroDoc
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The industry’s ability to develop new devices with ever more advanced features creates a strong customer demand, reducing product lifetime significantly. But while the increase in computing power is an industry driver in consumer electronics, other industries are struggling to keep up.

There, devices are expected to have a much longer lifetime, up to several decades even. For instance, in the rail sector, where equipment and infrastructure can be in service for 30 years or longer. It’s just too expensive to replace the systems with newer versions every 5 years or so. Instead, system operators are looking for ways to extend the lifetime of the installed hardware and still enable new functionality.

This is where Data Respons subsidiary MicroDoc comes in.


It’s all about numbers. You count the evolution of microchips in bits, from 8 to 16 to 32 to 64, what corresponds to internal data representation and address-space, as well as overall performance. As computers become more complicated, the size of their memory increases and with it the number of bits used to address it. From the 90’s onwards a 32-bit CPU architecture was dominant. But around 2005 the evolution of laptops, servers and mobile phones demanded a move to 64-bit CPUs.

However, while the world has moved to 64-bit, many industrial devices born in the 32-bit era remain in service. To continue to function, hopefully for a long time to come, they require maintenance and security updates, maybe even new features. This is becoming increasingly difficult in a 64-bit world.

But how can you fix the 32-bit problem?

New lease on life

MicroDoc is offering an answer to that question:

MicroDoc’s head of Virtual Machine Technologies, Bruno Caballero, and his team have developed a way to turbocharge older 32-bit devices and thus giving them a new lease on life. They offer Java developers a new way to update these devices and even build new features for them without requiring additional memory or computing power. Moreover, it becomes significantly easier, as developers now can use the newest Java versions, instead of having to work with older Java versions rooted in the 32-bit era.

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The solution builds on MicroDoc’s extensive Java expertise and its work with the Graal Virtual Machine. Initially, the GraalVM was developed by Oracle to be used on servers. Microdoc has tweaked GraalVM to fit the embedded space as well, curing many of the well-known headaches caused by traditional Java virtual machines in that domain. Now Bruno Caballero and his team have extended it even further to support 32-bit powered devices.

–  While most of the electronics industry is focusing only in 64-bit technology, we are also targeting the devices still running on 32-bit CPUs, Bruno explains.

– For instance, devices running on production lines or on trains and rail tracks. Replacing them is expensive, so you want them to stay out there as long as possible. However, they need to be serviced continuously to address security issues and to update them with new features. This is where we come in. Instead of installing new devices, customers can come to us. Using our software, they can add 5 or 10 years to the lifetime of their existing devices. Obviously, it saves money, but not only that. By increasing device lifetime, it contributes to the overall sustainability of their operations.

Saving up to 50% memory

How is it done? Well, instead of using a conventional runtime to run programs written in Java, the MicroDoc solution uses GraalVM. This saves between 30 and 50 % memory depending on the application. In this way the memory of a 32-bit CPU, which is relatively limited compared to a 64-bit system, can cope with new features, integrate with new 3rd party software, and handle security updates.

Besides saving memory, the software also improves startup time significantly.

– Using GraalVM our customers can continue to develop new features for these older devices. Also, developers can use the new versions of the Java programming language, instead of having to use an old Java version for 32-bit CPUs. That means developers have access to new and cool Java features, instead of being stuck in an older Java version. Developers no longer have to write software like you did 10 years ago. They can use the newest Java features, even for the old 32-bit platform.

In their effort to build a bridge between the “old iron” and the newest Java programming features, Bruno Caballero and his team are targeting the two dominant 32-bit platforms. They have already covered ARM 32, which is the most common 32-bit platform, and soon they’ll begin adapting their work to Intel’s 32-bit platform as well.

Electronic railway control system

Currently, a large MicroDoc customer has ordered a platform port for one of their embedded products on 32bit x86 hardware. The company is specializing in control and automation solutions for the railway sector. Its traffic control systems manage train traffic, with vast numbers of sensors monitoring tracks, catenary systems, switches, traffic lights and much more. Electronic railway control systems are hugely complex, not least as strong redundancy is required for safety reasons. In many places, several devices monitor the same component, to reduce risk of failure. Therefore, it’s vital to be able to extend their lifetime, guarantee device security, and continuously update them.

– There is a huge number of ageing devices out there that need to be revitalized, across all kinds of industries, says Bruno Caballero.

– We have developed a unique solution to do just that, and we are looking forward to helping companies to keep their ageing devices in tip-top shape for as long as possible. Not only can we keep these devices alive. We can improve them by turbocharging their memory, while giving Java developers optimal working conditions by allowing them to update them with the newest Java tools.

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Florian Öhlschlegel

Managing Director

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