5G SoC Verification: Enabling 5G Rollout with SoC Emulation

Susheel Tadikonda

Aug 10, 2021 / 6 min read

High-speed connectivity has transformed the world of wireless as we know it.

With each technology standard advancing performance by the generation, the ability of devices to communicate over the air seamlessly to support faster data rates and compute has changed the way we work, live, and play.

Today’s much talked about fifth-generation wireless technology — 5G — continues to make waves, as it expands the mobile ecosystem into application realms previously unheard of. Running on much higher frequency spectrums, including mm waves from 24 to 39 GHz, than its predecessor (4G), 5G’s enhanced capacity has given birth to a series of next-generation user experiences with benefits from its faster connectivity, ultra-low latency, and the opportunity to intelligently support thousands of connected devices with a new, denser 5G base station infrastructure.

The nascency and flexibility of 5G’s extensive power to make data-intensive applications thrive dictates the ever-increasing complexity of silicon. As a result, IC design and verification teams need comprehensive emulation solutions to successfully implement and verify 5G functionality at the chip level, providing the critical foundation for more connected devices to emerge and exercise 5G’s flexibility at scale.

Read on to learn more about what is fueling the 5G industry’s undeterred growth, challenges involved with 5G SoCs and their verification, the need for powerful emulation solutions, and trends expected to fuel tomorrow’s 5G ecosystem.

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The Intertwined Challenges of 5G

Each generation of cellular technology has ushered in a new age of faster and more reliable wireless network connections.

While significant changes to 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) delivered accelerated mobile internet speeds, the consequent surge in data-hungry applications fueled by the growth of the internet of things (IoT) caused it to reach a plateau. With the boom of 5G in recent years, several technology concepts have evolved to lead a new tier of innovations, while at the same time creating a unique series of double-edged challenges for chipmakers to satisfy demanding market needs for performance and adaptability.

For instance, the genesis of the millimeter wave (mmWave) concept boosted networks with exceptional speed and capacity, enabling broadcasting of signals at much shorter wavelengths.

The catch? Signals could not travel large distances across buildings and other environmental obstructions and dissipated before they reached the desired transmission range.

This opened the door to another technology concept called massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) that expanded legacy systems by leveraging a higher number of antennas at the base station, greatly increasing network capacity.

The bottleneck? With multiple antennas at such proximity, the possibility of interference is high, resulting in the need for methodologies like beamforming and beam steering to transmit the same signal at matching wavelengths and different phases.

While some challenges arose from the behavior of high-frequency waves, others came from new capabilities on the 5G infrastructure side. Traditionally, hardware and software solutions were developed in isolation and only converged during the late integration and testing stages. Today, companies are increasingly looking at a “whitebox approach” at the base station level, providing an opportunity for more network flexibility and cost reduction for the network operators. Yet, this leads to its own challenges of navigating open protocols, making sure designs are compliant, and ensuring desired interoperability across 5G use cases.

Designed for More than Phones

During the initial days of 5G’s success, the primary application focus was smartphones. Today, 5G has enabled use cases across industries and connectivity for billions of devices — especially in the areas of virtual reality (VR), cloud services, IoT, and artificial intelligence (AI).

To visualize the use of 5G in a futuristic healthcare scenario, consider the case of a doctor who is performing heart surgery on a patient and needs remote assistance from another medical expert. In this case, the need for instantaneous transfer of video at high resolution is key to supporting the critical decision-making required — a literal case of life or death. 5G allows for these real-life, mission-critical situations with more reliability and widespread availability to provide industries like healthcare with the best use of its highly flexible standard. The ubiquitous bandwidth of 5G opens up avenues for companies to invest in a greater number of connected devices for many emerging applications like smart cities and ADAS.

SoC Emulation: A Critical Enabler to Designing Optimized 5G Systems

To truly accelerate the reality of “connected everything,” chipmakers need effective verification solutions that verify complex algorithms and infrastructure configurations to fuel the chip designer’s ability to handle 5G’s ubiquitous, fast, and uninterrupted nature.

However, it is easier said than done. 5G’s very strength — flexibility, interoperability, and diverse applications — makes verifying 5G SoCs extremely difficult; an evolving area that has clearly driven a market change in the way chipmakers approach verification today. The old ways of implementing testing strategies at the base station, followed by the silicon, and then connecting it to a 5G tester to test compatibility is no longer viable for the industry. Given the breadth of performance requirements from multiple chip components and the ongoing evolution of the 5G standard, emulation has emerged as a must-have. The design must be connected to an emulation system at the pre-silicon stage to test for the same requirements as before. 5G infrastructure tester companies that traditionally span the collaboration between the base station manufacturer and the network operator, once a base station is physically available, are now being asked to leverage their technology in conjunction with emulation during the pre-silicon stage.

Moreover, rather than running endless brute-force scenarios to find bugs, design teams need powerful and efficient ways to optimize their verification strategies and invest in solutions with the best debugging capabilities, making it possible to test real-world scenarios with both hardware and software.

So, what makes an all-rounded solution for teams designing 5G SoCs?

There are three key traits that modern emulation systems need to possess, apart from representing the latest 5G protocol standards:

  • Flexible emulation capacity use models to maximize pre-silicon test cycles
  • High performance for pre-silicon software bring-up
  • Robust debug capabilities to find bugs early in the cycle

In addition to the platform, customers are looking for a complete end-to-end pre-silicon emulation verification/validation solution that enables algorithm development, design verification, 5G software stack development, and compliance verification.

This solution needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Common measurement mechanism across the entire development workflow to ensure test process consistency and test vectors reuse from pre-silicon to validation and production
  • Integrated RF/network/O-RAN cross domain insight to serve RF, protocol, and digital design teams with faster and centralized support
  • Maximize design test coverage with full parametric control of 3GPP and O-RAN test vectors
  • Follow evolutions of 5G O-RAN standard
  • Enable pre-conformance validation before tapeout
  • Accelerate learning curve with common user interfaces across design cycle
  • Reduced complexity with integrated solution
  • Open platform and API for test automation and existing test cases customization

Emulating real-life interference patterns and behavior of designs at the pre-silicon stage will deliver significantly faster time-to-market targets — a quantum leap for tester and semiconductor companies.

How ZeBu EP1 Is Changing the Game for 5G Verification

In our commitment to driving the wireless communications industry forward and enabling customers to deliver 5G designs efficiently, the Synopsys ZeBu® EP1 emulation system further empowers development and verification for the most advanced SoCs with full software stacks, while achieving unmatched performance for familiar emulation use cases.

Scalability, reliability, access to reliable models, and the ability to iterate quickly and seamlessly are all part of the equation in compressing total verification and pre-silicon software bring-up time.

ZeBu EP1 represents this convergence of multiple hardware and software technologies to deliver the industry’s first 10-MHz emulation solution and accelerate SoC product readiness across both domains. The unique and fast emulation capabilities in ZeBu EP1 utilizes our proven direct-connect architecture that optimizes design communication to accelerate verification for SoC designs of up to 2 billion gates.

Synopsys has accelerated our industry-leading, system-level debug features to solve critical customer needs for high-performance 5G SoC designs. This includes accelerated capabilities for identifying previously unnoticed bugs as well as 3x to 4x performance improvements, compared to previous generations.

We believe that to truly prepare for a 5G-ready world, strong industry partnerships are key to the mix. Our collaboration with 5G industry leaders like Keysight Technologies is a testament to pushing the envelope on emulation to streamline 5G workflows for our customers, thus meeting complex design requirements for 5G system designs and enabling accurate and repeatable results for verification. And our virtual 5G-RAN pre-silicon emulation solution is the world’s only solution for O-RAN fronthaul ASIC design verification.

Trends to Expect and the Way Forward

As 5G rollout continues to go through an exciting phase of global deployment, its potential to impact every industry — be it connected vehicles, remote healthcare, digitized logistics, and more — is closer to reality than it has ever been.

With the explosion of data and connected devices taking the forefront, the need for more operating bandwidth as well as secure and faster communications will drive the growth for 5G. Beyond the promises of high bandwidth and low latency, we expect the expansion of 5G infrastructure, IoT, edge computing, and AI in edge computing to skyrocket.

From a silicon perspective, this means that the need for adaptive, powerful, and reliable verification solutions is paramount for a first-mover advantage. From computing data closer to the source at high speeds, to evaluating compatible designs and processer cores packed on the silicon, to achieving critical performance improvements — every step will be essential toward underpinning elevated 5G experiences.

Simply put, we’re not too far from conversations shifting from “Can you hear me now?” to “I just downloaded 100 movies on Netflix in seconds!”

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