The past few days here at DAC, a big theme has been transaction level modeling (TLM).
TLM is often considered to be SystemC TLM-2.0. Most of the statements from the EDA companies are to the effect that SystemC TLM-2.0 solves the problem of combining models from different sources. Scratching the surface of this happy picture, it is clear that it is not that simple…
I finally got to spend some time at the DAC show floor on Thursday (which was day four and the last day of the show). It was very quiet, not many people around, and many booths also running with low staffing. However, unlike the Embedded Systems Conference, this last day was not indicative of the show overall.
The 46th Design Automation Conference (DAC) is coming up in San Francisco in the US, last week of July. For me, this will be the first time I ever go to DAC. I have been to a couple of Design Automation and Test Europe (DATE) conferences before, but DAC is supposedly even bigger as an event for the EDA and related communities. I have the honor to be on a panel this year, as well as co-authoring a paper on software validation.
Another Cadence guest blog entry, about the overall impact of virtual platforms on the interaction between hardware and software designers. Essentially, virtual platforms are a great tool to make software and hardware people talk to each other more, since it provides a common basis for understanding.
Virtutech and Cadence yesterday announced the integration of Virtutech Simics and Cadence ISX (Incisive Software Extensions), which is essentially a directed random test framework for software. With this tool integration, you can systematically test low-level software and the hardware-software (device driver) interface of a system, leveraging a virtual platform.
Frank Schirrmeister of Synopsys recently published a blog post called “Busting Virtual Platform Myths – Part 1: “Virtual Platforms are for application software only”. In it, he is refuting a claim by Eve that virtual platforms are for application-level software-development only, basically claiming that they are mostly for driver and OS development and citing some Synopsys-Virtio Innovator examples of such uses. In his view, most appication-software is being developed using host-compiled techniques. I want to add to this refutal by adding that application-software is surely a very important — and large — use case for virtual platforms.
I have an article about ecosystem enablement for new hardware, co-authored with Richard Schnur of Freescale published in the December 2008 issue of EDA Tech Forum. The core concept is that a virtual platform solution makes it possible to get a new chip to market faster with better software support, and even enables virtual design-in of a chip at OEM customers before hardware becomes available. The article builds on our joint experience with the QorIQ P4080 launch in the Summer of 2008, where we had several operating systems and middleware packages in place at the moment the chip was announced. EDA Tech Forum requires registration, but it was still free, and there are many other good articles available.
Traditional hardware design languages like Verilog were designed to model naturally concurrent behavior, and they naturally leaned on a concept of threads to express this. This idea of independent threads was brought over into the design of SystemC, where it was manifested as cooperative multitasking using a user-level threading package. While threads might at first glance look “natural” as a modeling paradigm for hardware simulations, it is really not a good choice for high-performance simulation.
In practice, threading as a paradigm for software models of hardware circuits connected to a programmable processor brings more problems than it provides benefits in terms of “natural” modeling.
Now I am home again, and some days have passed since the IP 08 panel discussion about software and hardware virtual platforms. This was an EDA hardware-oriented conference, and thus the audience was quite interested in how to tie things to hardware design. Any case, it was a fun panel, and Pierre Bricaud did a good job of moderating and keeping things interesting.
On Wednesday this week, I will take part of a panel discussion about virtual platforms and using them for software development, at the IP08 conference in Grenoble in France. We have a good crew, including Markus Willems from Synopsys, Peter Flake from ELDA, and Loic le Toumelin from TI (who I have not met before).
I just read an interesting paper from the 2004 Embedded System’s Conference (ESC) written by Gary Stringham. It is called “ASIC Design Practices from a Firmware Perspective” and straddles the boundary between hardware design and driver software development. It was good to see someone take the viewpoint of “how you actually program a hardware device is as important as what it does”. Gary seems to understand both the hardware design and implementation view of things, as well as that of the embedded software engineer. To me, that seems to be a fairly rare combination of skills, to the detriment of our entire economy of computer system development.
Over the past few weeks there was a interesting exchange of blog posts, opinions, and ideas between Frank Schirrmeister of Synopsys and Ran Avinun of Cadence. It is about virtual platforms vs hardware emulation, and how to do low-power design “properly”. Quite an interesting exchange, and I think that Frank is a bit more right in his thinking about virtual platforms and how to use them. Read on for some comments on the exchange.
To continue from last week’s post about my Linux device driver and hardware teaching setup in Simics, here is a lesson I learnt this week when doing some performance analysis based on various hardware speeds.
There are times when working with virtual hardware and not real hardware feels very liberating and efficient (not to mention safe). Bringing up, modifying, and extending operating systems is one obvious such case. Recently, I have been preparing an open-source-based demonstration and education systems based on embedded PowerPC machines, and teaching myself how to do Linux device drivers in the process. This really brought out the best in virtual platform use.
I keep looking out for interesting examples of parallel software, and there is constant trickle of these. This past week I spotted a couple of new ones in the EDA field: SPICE simulation and chip timing analysis.
Cadence technical blogger Jason Andrews wrote a short piece a couple of days ago on his perception that host-based execution is becoming unncessary thanks to fast virtual platforms. In “Is Host-Code Execution History“, he tells the story of a technique from long time ago where a target program was executed directly on the host, and memory accesses captured and passed to a Verilog simulator. The problem being solved was the lack of a simulator for the MIPS processor in use, and the solution was pretty fast and easy to use. Quite interesting, and well worth a read.
However, like all host-compiled execution (which I also like to call API-level simulation) it suffered from some problems, and virtual platforms today might offer the speed of host-compiled simulation without all the problems.
Chip Design Magazine published an article by me in their August/September 2008, about Getting Software into the Hardware Design Loop. The article is about the technical and marketing aspects of how chip designers can get early feedback from software and systems designers, early in the hardware design process. The vehicle for this? Virtual platforms, obviously.
This is a short maybe heretic post on the topic of architecture exploration.
It just struck me the other day that the idea prevalent in chip design that you want to explore the design space of a certain with great detail and precision might be the wrong way to go about things. It is in some sense similar to the ideas of planned economies: you decide a priori what is important, and try to optimize the design to do just that. If you are right, it is brilliant. If you are wrong, it can be very wrong. That is scary to say the least. It seems to assume that you have a pretty good idea of what you need to achieve, and that this is not likely to change for the lifetime of a design.
Model-based architecture (MDA) or model-based development is an idea that to me comes from the automotive field. To, it means that you use some tool that is capable of modeling both a computer controller system and the environment being controlled to create a simulation world where computer control and environment meet and the characteristics of the controller can be ascertained quickly. The key is to not have to convert controller algorithms to concrete code, and not have to run concrete code on concrete hardware against physical prototypes to test the controllers. Today, this seems to be applied to many fields where you are creating control systems (automotive, aviation, robotics). The tools are math-based like MatLab and LabView, along with special programming environments based on UML and StateCharts.
What is interesting is that most of these tools are graphical in nature. And they do seem to work quite well, which is quite surprising given the otherwise poor record of graphical programming as opposed to text-based programming. There were a pile of graphical programming environments in the 1980’s, none of which amounted to much. What survived and prospered were the good old text-based languages like C, C++, Java, VisualBasic, etc. In practice, it seems like it is very hard to beat sequential text when it is time to actual get code working. More efficient programming seems to boil down to having to write less text and having text which is easier to write (for example, dynamic typing, rich libraries, garbage collection, and other modern language features that remove intellectual burdens from the programmer).
But graphics do seem to work for domain-specific cases (like control engineering or signal processing), especially for data-flow-style problems. And for abstract architecture work. So there has to be something to it… but what?
The book “Taxonomies for the Development and Verification of Digital Systems“, edited by Brian Bailey, Grant Martin, and Thomas Andersson, was published in 2005 by Springer Verlag. It is a legacy of the defunct VSIA, and presents an attempt to bring order to nomenclature and taxonomies in the chip design field (its scope is defined to be broader than that, but in essence, the book is about SoC design for the most part).
In early July, Cadence announced their new “C2S” C-to-silicon compiler. This event was marked with some excitement and blogging in the EDA space (SCDSource, EDN-Wilson, CDM-Martin, to give some links for more reading). At core, I agree that what they are doing is fairly cool — taking an essentially hardware-unrelated sequential program in C and creating hardware from it. The kind of heavy technology that I have come to admire in the EDA space.
In a funny coincidence, I published an article at SCDSource.com about the need for cycle-accurate models for virtual platforms on the same day that ARM announced that they were selling their cycle-accurate simulators and associated tool chain to Carbon Technology. That makes one wonder where cycle-accuracy is going, or whether it is a valid idea at all… is ARM right or am I right, or are we both right since we are talking about different things?
I have another opinion piece published over at SCDsource.com. The title, “Why virtual platforms need cycle-accurate models“, was their creation, not mine, and I think it is a little bit off the main message of the piece.The follow-up discussion is also fairly interesting.
The key thing that I want to get across is that we need virtual platforms where we can spend most of our time executing in a fast, not-very-detailed mode to get the software somewhere interesting. Once we get to the interesting spot, we can then switch to more detailed models to get detailed information about the software behavior and especially its low-level timing. Getting to that point in detailed mode is impossible since it would take too much time.
See an upcoming post for more on how to get at the cycle-accurate models – this was just to point out that that the article is there, for symmetry with previous posts about my articles popping up in places.
SystemC TLM-2.0 has just been released, and on the heels of that everyone in the EDA world is announcing various varieties of support. TLM-2.0-compliant models, tools that can run TLM-2.0 models, and existing modeling frameworks that are being updated to comply with the TLM-2.0 standard. All of this feeds a general feeling that the so-called Electronic System Level design market (according to Frank Schirrmeister of Synopsys, the term was coined by Gary Smith) is finally reaching a level of maturity where there is hope to grow the market by standards. This is something that has to happen, but it seems to be getting hijacked by a certain part of the market addressing the needs of a certain set of users.
There is more to virtual platforms than ESL. Much more. Remember the pure software people.
Edit: Maybe it is more correct to say “there is more to virtual platforms than SoC”, as that is what several very smart comments to this post has said. ESL is not necessarily tied to SoC, it is in theory at least a broader term. But currently, most tools retain an SoC focus.