What is Bare Metal Programming?

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Bare metal programming is a low-level type of programming that is hard-coded to a system at the hardware level. It operates without an abstraction layer or operating system (OS). It also interlinks with the hardware and takes a system’s specific components into account.

In today’s modern computing world, cloud technology and virtualization reign supreme. As part of their job functions, programmers and IT staff must become familiar with hypervisors. Typically, this requires additional technical knowledge and training resources for companies looking to prepare their staff.

Two examples of bare metal hypervisors — as known as virtual machine monitors (VMMs)— that programmers must be aware of are VMware and kernel-based virtual machines (KVM). Fortunately, bare metal programming takes things back to the basics and allows IT staff to do their jobs without grasping these complex concepts.

What makes bare metal programming unique is that it’s a stark departure from the server virtualization we see today. This technology, linked to a system's hardware components, relies heavily on a computer's BIOS and boot sequencing. Essentially, bare metal programming is a throwback to the days of programming on a physical machine when hardware and system configurations still meant something.

How Does Bare Metal Programming Work?

Bare metal programs often have a minimal bootloader to bring about the clock, memory, and processor, then proceed to the main program. This action allows the creation of a memory map of hardware registrars of microcontrollers. But bare metal application embedded systems need a startup file for initial hardware initialization and memory stack/heap setup.

Bare metal programming is similar to bootloaders or firmware. The direct code connects all components that lead to a hardware device's initialization or booting up. This bare metal code resembles a machine language. It doesn’t need to run through additional software layers, instead running straight to the system.

Benefits of Bare Metal Programming

There are multiple benefits associated with bare metal programming. First, there are tools available to assist with the programming process. Also, file libraries can easily integrate with bare metal, offering basic functionality like file structures for peripherals and design configuration. These features give developers time to provide custom settings and adapt scripts to unique requirements.

The code is straightforward and runs directly on the chip or microcontroller. Scalability is also possible due to bare metal programming’s single-tenant nature and increased code safety. In addition, executing these actions requires less memory and provides more power efficiency in controlling hardware microcontrollers.

Drawbacks of Bare Metal Programming

Provisioning involves installing an OS or Type 1 bare metal hypervisor directly on a computer's hardware. Bootstrapping involves loading code instructions when a device is turned on or booted. However, there are a few drawbacks to bootstrapping and provisioning.

One drawback is the constant input/output (I/O) memory routines for handling multiple tasks at startup. If it doesn’t go smoothly, it may produce a system failure, requiring troubleshooting to revive it. Unfortunately, fixing a system failure requires technical ability since bare metal code does not typically provide error logs. Also, irregular outputs do not display unless custom-coded to do so.

What is Bare Metal Programming Used For?

Our discussion of the pros and cons of the technology brings up an important question: What is bare metal programming best used for? Here are some real-world use cases to help you grasp the power of bare metal programming.

Bare metal applications run directly from the preloader, allowing full customization to increase workloads instead of a virtualization layer. In addition, this feature allows the activation and destruction of any instance at the lowest level, ensuring the bare metal code resembles the appropriate infrastructure.

Bare metal software includes higher security to ensure efficient completion of simplified operations with advanced memory handling. This automated task can yield better results over hosted hypervisors. In addition, bare metal software is more secure because it reduces the attack surface.

Features include a single-tenant environment, making it more powerful than a regular virtual machine. 

1. Embedded Systems

Some embedded systems run on hardware that’s not sophisticated. In fact, early versions of embedded systems were so basic that they didn’t possess the resources to run an operating system.

This lack of an OS is precisely why bare metal programming thrives in these environments. Using super loops, programmers can execute sequential tasks that can be interrupted with microcontrollers. These systems are a great fit for programmers who want to run basic, low-cost applications without needing third-party firmware or drivers.

2. Real-Time Systems

Real-time computing systems operate similarly to embedded systems but introduce an operating system. However, this operating system isn’t a traditional OS.

The difference between a real-time and a traditional OS is the response time. Since the real-time OS is much simpler than a traditional operating system, it has the advantage of a non-deterministic response time. This condition enables it to respond to external events in minimal time.

Programmers use real-time operating systems (RTOS) for file systems, application debugging, and device I/O protocols. It’s also an effective system architecture for applications that require selective task scheduling.

The typical nature of an RTOS is an endless loop. It has infinite loop tasks and terminating tasks, but the main loop task is continuous. RTOS are also called schedulers due to their ability to loop or end running operations depending on the stated condition.

An example of this programming statement is called a do-while loop. This kind of loop executes a specific block of code at least once and then repeats it or terminates depending on certain Boolean (true or false) conditions at the end of the code.

3. High Performance Computing (HPC)

Bare metal programming levels the playing field of the modern business world. Thanks to bare metal programming, organizations of all sizes now can acquire the hardware and software resources necessary for high performance computing (HPC). In other words, bare metal programming opens the door for a democratization movement in the HPC industry. Now, tackling complex world problems and questions through HPC use cases — like artificial intelligence (AI) development, predictive analytics, and financial models — is possible for a much broader range of the world’s greatest minds.

Getting Started With Bare Metal Programming

Although its framework seems like a blast from the past, bare metal programming still has its niche in the modern IT and business worlds. Businesses can leverage bare machine programming to run systems that allow them to focus resources on more impactful processes. Cloud dedicated hosting also enables small business owners to leverage HPC-driven technologies like AI and predictive analytics to help their operations thrive.

Liquid Web’s Cloud Dedicated and bare metal cloud servers offer dedicated server processing power and resources in a cloud platform’s instant provisioning and flexibility. If you’re looking for a powerful cloud-based solution in a single-tenant, stand-alone server, Liquid Web’s Cloud Dedicated servers are the way to go.

And if your needs require a robust, scalable, highly available cloud infrastructure, Liquid Web offers Private Cloud Powered by VMware as the right solution. With our built-in cloud hypervisor technology, your available resources are the only limitation to the number of virtual machines (VMs)you can deploy. Contact our sales team to set up your solution today.

Original Publication Date

This article was originally published in January 2022. It has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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