Designing in the virtual world
Virtualization is becoming a key ingredient for developers of complex systems.
The concept of virtualization has been around for a long time. But lately, it's being elevated to a new level. In fact, at a recent meeting of the Embedded Systems Conference's Advisory Board, virtualization was a "must cover" topic for 2008 in the magazine, on Embedded.com, and at upcoming Embedded Systems Conferences.
You may have heard of a company VMware, which has been in the spotlight lately with their virtualization product called ESX Server 3i. The product helps designers "virtualize" a server design, simplifying the process or writing applications for that particular server. Servers from all the big boys are supported, including Dell, Fujitsu, HP, IBM, and NEC.
Another player has entered the fray with a product that's geared more for smaller embedded platforms. VaST Systems develops virtual processor models for popular microprocessors. For example, they now have models for processors from Freescale, NEC, Infineon, Renesas, and IBM.
By having a processor model, developers can write all their software while the hardware is being built, rather than having to wait until the target hardware has already been designed. In the words of a VaST executive, "We're eliminating the wait, so hardware and software can be developed concurrently."
By doing the virtualization on a PC (as long as the speed of the processor being modeled is less than that of the PC), you can achieve a very high degree of accuracy from the model. Tests have shown up to 99% accuracy on selected applications (although I'm not sure who "selects" the applications for the tests). The types of applications being targeted are those that would definitely have a processor that runs at a frequency that's less than the PC, such as consumer and automotive electronics.
VaST will either sell you the tools to do the virtualization yourself, or they can sell you the models that they've already created. With the tools, you can generate a software model of a system that operates at near real-time speeds under actual software loads.
Some time ago, ARM decided it needed to be in the virtualization market and did so by acquiring AXYS Design Automation, a provider of processor and system modeling and simulation solutions. Like the VaST product, AXYS' ESL (Electronic System Level) tools reduce overall system costs by allowing designs to be modeled early in the development cycle (pre-silicon), decreasing time-to-market and minimizing design errors.
Stay tuned, because virtualization is a topic that we'll cover more and more in the near future.
Richard Nass is editor in chief of Embedded Systems Design magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.