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Issue 3, 2012

Technology Update:
Virtual Prototyping Goes Mainstream

Recent developments make virtual prototyping even easier to use for both software and model developers. Nithya Ruff, director, virtual prototyping solutions, Synopsys, explains how virtual prototyping is helping a growing number of developer teams get to market faster with higher-quality software solutions.

Developing complex embedded systems is an increasingly expensive business. According to the research firm IBS, System-on-Chip (SoC) development costs soared from $20 million at 90nm to nearly $100 million at 32nm, and software development is the fastest-growing component of that cost. Typically, 56% of embedded projects are late, with developers spending almost a quarter of the schedule in test and debug¹. Furthermore, software debugging in projects is a critical issue facing many developers and ranks as the most important element of a project’s success (Figure 1, UBM 2012 Market Study).

Results from UBM’s 2012 Embedded Market Study
Figure 1: Results from UBM’s 2012 Embedded Market Study

On the other hand, those companies able to enter the market earlier with higher production volumes stand to gain substantially. Accelerating software development by seven months over a two-and-a-half year development cycle can yield an additional $50 million in revenue over the production life cycle (Figure 2).

Speeding software development yields substantial revenues
Figure 2: Speeding software development yields substantial revenues

It’s not surprising then that a growing number of software teams are embracing techniques and processes that can help them accelerate development cycles and create higher-quality code. They are then able to continue to use these techniques when alternatives, like boards, are available giving developers an edge with respect to better product development.

While virtual prototyping solutions have been on the market for several years, the increase in software complexity and the explosion of development costs are driving demand by mainstream users.

What Are Virtual Prototypes?
Virtual prototypes are fast, fully functional software models of systems under development. Because virtual prototypes execute unmodified production code, engineers can develop software without having to wait for hardware (chips or development boards) to become available. This can give the software team a 9-12 month advantage over traditional approaches to developing embedded systems and make it easier to deploy the system when hardware does become available. Once hardware becomes available, virtual prototypes can be used to debug hard to find problems and provide more system level visibility into the development process.

Virtual prototypes accelerate software debug by providing a platform-level view of the software behavior in conjunction with the hardware. This view enables developers to identify the root cause of a defect in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. A developer can set and reset hardware register values, stop and start debugging cycles, or zoom in on a particular problematic area, all without any intrusive changes to the software.

Because they bridge hardware and software, virtual prototypes enable teams to communicate more effectively. Users can identify and correct potential specification or interpretation errors and use software-driven scenarios throughout the hardware to validate the system.

Virtual prototypes also boost quality by increasing test coverage. Developers can do more corner testing, gain a better understanding of the potential root causes of problems, and test both the software and hardware by creating and automating scenario-based testing.

Easy to Use, Easy to Adopt
Despite the increasing uptake of virtual prototyping, some developers still hold the view that virtual prototyping is difficult to use and deploy in their flows. However, the industry has been working hard to overcome the adoption barriers that used to exist.

The availability of fast and accurate transaction-level models is critical for successful virtual prototyping. Many processor vendors now release virtual models to coincide with the availability of their latest cores. Synopsys’ own DesignWare® IP library includes complete interface IP solutions consisting of controllers, PHY and verification IP for widely used protocols, analog IP, embedded memories, logic libraries and processor cores and subsystems.

Another important resource that has been put in place is the industry-wide transaction-level model listing site called TLMCentral. TLMCentral is an industry-wide web portal for transaction-level models, providing access to upwards of 970 models from across the industry. It offers model developers, architects and software engineers a way to collaborate on models, modeling methodologies and virtual prototype promotion. TLMCentral provides a centralized infrastructure for news, forums and blogs relevant to the system-level and software development communities.

Finally, Synopsys has taken virtual prototypes to an off-the-shelf reference development kit for software developers through the introduction of its Virtualizer Development Kit, or VDK. This puts the tools and reference virtual prototype of a well-known SoC in the hands of the software developer to test drive, extend or customize. This concept of a ready to use reference VDK provides the convenience of a known design fully populated to use as a starting point and allows the user to focus on key changes needed for their development project.

These resources give developers a head start on modeling, enabling them to populate much of their design using pre-existing models without having to create them from scratch.

Improved Tools and Flows
In addition to a wider availability of models, more mature tools and developer environments are making it easier for experts and novices alike to become productive with virtual prototyping.

The latest release of Virtualizer™, Synopsys’ tool set for creating virtual prototypes, features a number of enhancements that focus on improving productivity and ease of use. For example, a new graphical simulation profiler makes it easier for simulation teams to find and address simulation bottlenecks.

The new model-authoring interface simplifies and automates model creation with new features, such as automatic design rule checking and design-sensitive help, improving productivity for both virtual prototyping experts as well as those less experienced.

Virtualizer also enables users to import existing IP specifications in popular formats, such as IP-XACT, Excel, and Word, further accelerating model development by automatically generating SystemC models and TLM-2.0 bus interfaces.

Tighter Integration with Software Tools
Virtualizer Development Kits (VDKs) behave just like a real device enabling full control of multicore platforms and are the key to early device availability, enhanced debugging and ease of deployment.

Combined with popular debuggers and installers, VDKs enable efficient debug and analysis. Virtualizer provides out-of-the-box support for the latest APIs in popular software debuggers such as Lauterbach’s TRACE32 System and ARM’s Development Studio 5 (DS-5), which enables software teams to use VDKs to create a powerful, integrated environment for non-intrusive multicore software debug.

This integration enables engineers to start software development early in the design cycle on virtual prototypes without having to switch to other debug tools as they transition to real hardware.

VDK creation and use flow
Figure 3: VDK creation and use flow

User Highlights
Designers and developers are now using virtual prototypes for a broad range of development tasks. These include software integration, driver development, software porting, OS bring-up, software testing, hardware verification, SoC integration and complete system validation and testing.

While semiconductor companies have been the earliest adopters of virtual prototyping, mainstream use has given rise to adoption across OEM and chipset developers within mobile, consumer, automotive and customers developing industrial applications.

Ricoh used multiple Synopsys products, including Virtualizer, to accelerate the development of their application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) and system-on-chip (SoC) development. The increasing size and complexity of Ricoh’s design, along with the escalating software content, were a natural fit for adopting a system-level methodology to accurately and efficiently implement their design. The benefits of taking this approach include:
  • Accelerating their embedded software development by months using the virtual prototyping solution
  • The ability to create a co-emulation of their main processor with a virtual prototype of the GPU running in an emulator, in addition to the ease of integration of Synopsys tools with complimentary partner solutions
  • The versatility of use cases covered by the Synopsys solution, such as architecture exploration, software development and hardware performance verification resulting in greatly improved test coverage and time to market of their design

“Using Virtualizer, we can abstract the full SoC design into a virtual prototype in a very short period of time to facilitate early software development and hardware/software integration," said Satoshi Aoki of the Embedded Platform Development Department at Ricoh Company, Ltd. "We believe Virtualizer is a must-have tool for SoC development."

Virtual prototyping has reached a level of maturity where its tangible benefits and low risk of adoption are driving its use by mainstream engineers.

The overriding benefit for software developers is that they no longer have to wait for hardware to become available before beginning to develop software. This enables them to start coding approximately 9-12 months earlier than would be otherwise possible with traditional approaches to embedded system design.

Synopsys provides a comprehensive solution for virtual prototyping, incorporating models, tools, services and VDKs. By integrating virtual prototyping with leading software debuggers, software developers benefit from being able to work within a familiar environment for developing code and non-intrusive debug. Out-of-the-box availability of VDKs for leading processors, along with the largest portfolio of transaction-level models and reference designs, now enables developers to get started right away without having to spend months creating models.

Synopsys has constructed Virtualizer to provide a common modeling environment, methodology and the ability to share models between an architecture environment (Platform Architect-MCO) and Virtualizer (modeling teams). This way there is a common methodology that can be used for multiple purposes.

Synopsys virtual prototyping solutions are in active use by hardware and software teams across the world, with local support from Synopsys application consultants.

¹EETimes 2012 Embedded Market Study

More Information:

About the Author
Nithya A. Ruff is currently the Director of Product Marketing at Synopsys responsible for Virtual Prototyping Solutions. In this role, she is responsible for strategy, direction, business models, product management and product marketing for this product line. She brings expertise in embedded software and Linux to this position from her role as Sr. Director, Product Marketing at Wind River a leading mobile and embedded software company. She has been in the open source and systems software and security space for the last 15 years at companies like Silicon Graphics, Tripwire and Cranite Systems where she guided the use of open source in security applications. She has also served as Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at start-ups like Cranite System, IP Unity and Sychron and as head of product management for large companies like Avaya and SGI. Nithya has an MBA from the University of Rochester, NY, and an MS in Computer Science from North Dakota State University. .

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