Just because FPGAs are programmable doesn’t mean verification is dead

Marketing teams at FPGA vendors have been busy as the silicon nanometer geometry race escalates. Altera is “delivering the unimaginable” while Xilinx is offering “all programmable SoCs” to design centers. It’s clear that the SoC has become more accessible to a broader market today and that FPGA vendors have staked out a solid technology roadmap for the near future. Do marketing messages surrounding the geometry race effect day to day life of engineers, and if so, how – especially when it comes to verification?
An excellent whitepaper from Altera, “The Breakthrough Advantage for FPGAs with Tri-Gate Technology,” covers Altera’s Stratix 10 FPGAs and SoCs. The paper describes verification challenges in this new expanded market this way: “Although current generation FPGAs require a rigorous simulation verification methodology rivaling ASICs, the additional lab testing and ability to reprogram FPGAs save substantial manpower investment. The overall cost of ownership must be considered when comparing an FPGA whose component price is higher than an ASIC of similar complexity.” I believe you can use this statement to engage your management in a discussion about better verification processes.

Xilinx also has excellent published technical resources. Its recent UltraScale backgrounder describes how they are solving the challenges in implementing a design with their reprogrammable silicon. Clearly Xilinx has made an impressive investment to make it easier to implement a design with its FPGA UltraScale products. Improvements include ASIC-like clocking and annealing dataflow bottlenecks without compromising performance. Xilinx also describes improvements when using its Vivado design suite, particularly when it comes to in-lab design bring up.

For other FPGA insights, it’s also worth checking out Electronics Engineering Journal’s recent article “Proliferating Programmability in 2014,” which claims that the long-term future of FPGAs tool flows even though, as Kevin Morris sees it, EDA seems to have abandoned the market. (Kevin, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong.)

Do you think it’s inevitable that your FPGA team will first struggle to make it across the verification finish line before adopting a more process-oriented verification flow like the ASIC market demands? It’s not. I base this conclusion on the many conversations I’ve had with FPGA designers, their managers, sales engineers and many other talented people in this market over the years. Yes, there are significant challenges in FPGA design, but not all of them are technology related. With some emotion, one engineer remarked that debugging the same type of issue over and over in the hardware lab and expecting a different outcome was insane. (He’s right.) Others say they need specific ROI information for their management to even accept their need for change. Still others state that had they only known the solutions I talked about in my seminar a year ago, they would have not spent months and months bringing up their design in the lab.
With my peers here at Mentor Graphics, I have developed a three-step verification flow that includes coverage, assertions and improved throughput. I’ll write about this flow and related issues in the weeks ahead here on this blog. The flow is built on fundamental verification technologies that benefit the broad FPGA market. The goal, in developing the technology and writing about it here, has been to provide practical solutions and help more FPGA teams cross the verification gap.

In the meantime, what are your stories? Are you able to influence your management into adopting advanced technology to aid lab bring-up? Is your management’s bias towards lower cost and faster implementation (at the expense of verification)? Let me know in the comments or, if you prefer, by e-mail: joe_rodriguez@mentor.com.

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This blog will provide an online forum to provide weekly updates on concepts, values, standards, methodologies and examples to assist with the understanding of what advanced functional verification technologies can do and how to most effectively apply them. We're looking forward to your comments and suggestions on the posts to make this a useful tool. Verification Horizons BLOG

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