HW/SW co-verification basics: Part 1 - Determining what & how to verify

Jason Andrews

May 23, 2011

Jason AndrewsMay 23, 2011

The process of embedded system design generally starts with a set of requirements for what the product must do and ends with a working product that meets all of the requirements. Figure 6.1 below contains a list of the steps in the process and a short summary of what happens at each state of the design.

The requirements and product specification phase documents and defines the required features and functionality of the product. Marketing, sales, engineering, or any other individuals who are experts in the field and understand what customers need and will buy to solve a specific problem, can document product requirements.

Capturing the correct requirements gets the project off to a good start, minimizes the chances of future product modifications, and ensures there is a market for the product if it is designed and built. Good products solve real needs. have tangible benefits. and are easy to use.

Figure 6.1: Embedded System Design Process Requirements
System Architecture
System architecture defines the major blocks and functions of the system. Interfaces. bus structure, hardware functionality. and software functionality are determined. System designers use simulation tools, software models, and spreadsheets to determine the architecture that best meets the system requirements. System architects provide answers to questions such as, "How many packets/sec can this muter design handle'?" or "What is the memory bandwidth required to support two simultaneous MPEG streams?"

Microprocessor Selection. One of the most difficult steps in embedded system design can be the choice of the microprocessor. There are an endless number of ways to compare microprocessors, both technical and nontechnical. Important factors include performance. cost. power, software development tools, legacy software, RTOS choices. and available simulation models.

Benchmark data is generally available. though apples-to-apples comparisons are often difficult to obtain. Creating a feature matrix is a good way to sift through the data to make comparisons. Software investment is a major consideration for switching the processor. Embedded guru Jack Ganssle says the rule of thumb is to decide if 70% of the software can be reused: if so. don't change the processor.

Most companies will not change processors unless there is something seriously deficient with the current architecture. When in doubt, the best practice is to stick with the current architecture.
Hardware Design. Once the architecture is set and the processor(s) have been selected, the next step is hardware design. component selection. Verilog and VHDL coding. synthesis. timing analysis. and physical design of chips and boards.

The hardware design team will generate some important data for the software team Such as the CPU address map(s) and the register definitions for all software programmable registers. As we will see, the accuracy of this information is crucial to the success of the entire project.

Software Design. Once the memory map is defined and the hardware registers are documented, work begins to develop many different kinds of software. Examples include boot code to start up the CPU and initialize the system, hardware diagnostics, real-time operating system (RTOS), device drivers, and application software. During this phase, tools for compilation and debugging are selected and coding is done.

Hardware and Software Integration. The most crucial step in embedded system design is the integration of hardware and software. Somewhere during the project, the newly coded software meets the newly designed hardware. How and when hardware and software will meet for the first time to resolve bugs should be decided early in the project. There are numerous ways to perform this integration. Doing it sooner is better than later, though it must be done smartly to avoid wasted time debugging good software on broken hardware or debugging good hardware running broken software.

Two important concepts of' integrating hardware and software are verification and validation. These are the final steps to ensure that a working system meets the design requirements.

Verification: Does It Work?
Embedded system verification refers to the tools and techniques used to verify that a system does not have hardware or software bugs. Software verification aims to execute the software and observe its behavior, while hardware verification involves making sure the hardware performs correctly in response to outside stimuli and the executing software.

The oldest form of' embedded system verification is to build the system, run the software. and hope for the best. If by chance it does not work, try to do what you can to modify the software and hardware to get the system to work.

This practice is called testing and it is not as comprehensive as verification. Unfortunately, finding out what is not working while the system is running is not always easy. Controlling and observing the system while it is running may not even be possible.

To cope with the difficulties of debugging the embedded system many tools and techniques have been introduced to help engineers get embedded systems working sooner and in a more systematic way. Ideally, all of this verification is done before the hardware is built. The-earlier in the process problems are discovered. the easier and cheaper they are to correct. Verification answers the question, "Does the thing we built work'?"

Validation: Did We Build the Right Thing?
Embedded system validation refers to the tools and techniques used to validate that the system meets or exceeds the requirements. Validation aims to confirm that the requirements in areas such as functionality, performance, and power are satisfied. It answers the question, "Did we build the right thing?' Validation confirms that the architecture is correct and the system is performing optimally.

I once worked with an embedded project that used a common MIPS processor and a real-time operating system (RTOS) for system software. For various reasons it was decided to change the RTOS for the next release of the product. The new RTOS was well suited for the hardware platform and the engineers were able to bring it up without much difficulty.

All application tests appeared to function properly and everything looked positive for an on-schedule delivery of the new release. Just before the product was ready to ship, it was discovered that the applications were running about 10 times slower than with the previous RTOS.

Suddenly. panic set in and the project schedule was in danger. Software engineers who wrote the application software struggled to figure out why the performance was so much lower since not much had changed in the application code. Hardware engineers tried to study the hardware behavior, but using logic analyzers that are better suited for triggering on errors than providing wide visibility over a long range of time, it was difficult to even decide where to look.

The RTOS vendor provided most of the system software and so there was little source code to study. Finally, one of the engineers had a hunch that the cache of the MIPS processor was not being properly enabled. This indeed turned out to be the case and after the problem was corrected, system performance was confirmed. This example demonstrates the importance of validation. Like verification. it is best to do this before the hardware is built. Tools that provide good visibility make validation easier.

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