The Era of Virtual Prototyping in Digital Design

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08 Dec, 2023

The Era of Virtual Prototyping in Digital Design

Virtual prototyping in digital design streamlines the development of complex systems by allowing early software testing and hardware optimization before the creation of a physical prototype.

Introduction

Virtual prototyping refers to the use of computer simulations to create and test digital models of physical systems before they are built. As semiconductor and OEM companies grapple with the integration of intricate hardware and software for the next wave of wireless, consumer, and automotive devices, the old guard of serialized development staggers under the weight of new demands. Virtual prototyping slices through these challenges, offering a versatile platform for early software development and meticulous system validation, reshaping timelines, and enhancing product quality.

This article discusses virtual prototyping, contrasting it with traditional verification methodologies to reveal its role in accelerating time to market and bolstering communication across the supply chain. Readers will navigate through the transformative powers of virtual prototyping, from the inception of software development pre-silicon availability to the intricacies of system validation. The article uncovers the facets of virtual prototyping tools as we delve into how these innovations forge a path for seamless design verification.  We use Synopsys' tools and services to illustrate how virtual prototyping is becoming an indispensable asset in digital design.

Understanding Virtual Prototyping

Virtual prototyping is defined as the process of using computer simulations to model and validate complex system designs before manufacturing their physical components. This method is increasingly important due to the growing complexity and enhanced functionality of modern systems, which often exceed the capabilities of traditional prototyping methods. By employing virtual prototyping, designers can conduct detailed and comprehensive testing of systems, ensuring they meet stringent performance criteria. This approach not only enables early detection and resolution of potential design issues but also facilitates more efficient development cycles, aligning with the advanced requirements of current digital design practices.

The intrinsic value of virtual prototyping lies in its ability to front-load the design process. It provides an interactive, software-based environment where designs can be tested, analyzed, and optimized. Engineers can simulate the behaviors of embedded systems under a wide array of operational conditions and use cases, enabling them to iterate more rapidly and with greater confidence. This simulation-centric approach empowers teams to validate assumptions, evaluate system performance, and conduct feasibility studies without the costs and time constraints associated with physical prototypes.

Accelerating Product Development with Virtual Prototyping

A notable feature of virtual prototyping is its contribution to embedded software development. It allows software engineers to begin their design and testing work in parallel with, or even in advance of, hardware development. This overlap in development cycles is not feasible with conventional prototyping, which requires a sequential process where software development is contingent on the availability of the hardware.

Additionally, virtual prototyping aids in optimizing the implementation of systems. Design teams can explore different architectural choices and hardware configurations to arrive at the most efficient and cost-effective solutions. This systematic exploration is essential for managing power consumption, processing speed, and overall system reliability – factors that are critical in today’s competitive technology landscape.

Moreover, virtual prototypes can be integrated into automated testing environments, enabling continuous integration and delivery pipelines for software development. This integration leads to high-quality software being developed and maintained, with the capability to quickly adapt to changing requirements or identify potential issues early in the design cycle.

In the broader sense, virtual prototyping transcends beyond the confines of mere pre-silicon validation. It stands as a strategic enabler for lifecycle management, facilitating updates, feature enhancements, and maintenance long after the product has been deployed. As systems become increasingly interconnected and expected to support new functionalities over time, virtual prototyping offers the flexibility and scalability needed to sustain product evolution.

Thus, the role of virtual prototyping is multifaceted: it accelerates the design process, enhances product quality, reduces development costs, and extends the lifecycle of digital products. It encapsulates the shift towards a more agile, forward-thinking approach in digital design, one that is instrumental for companies looking to thrive amidst the burgeoning complexities of modern technological innovation.

Virtual Prototyping Versus Traditional Methods

In digital design and verification, the cost of error escalates as one moves through the development process. Traditional verification methodologies are increasingly seen as inadequate, especially as the complexity of integrated systems grows. This section will conduct a comparative analysis of virtual prototyping against these traditional methodologies, illustrating the efficiencies gained through modern techniques.

The Stumbling Blocks of Traditional Verification

In traditional verification, the development of software often lags behind hardware completion. This approach is inherently sequential and leaves little room for iterative improvement, which can be particularly detrimental to aggressive product development schedules. Software teams await the physical prototypes to test their code, creating a bottleneck that impedes early detection and resolution of issues.

Furthermore, traditional methods often rely on physical testing environments, which can be both costly and limited in scope. The limitations of hardware-based tests—such as the number of available prototypes, the difficulty in re-creating certain operating conditions, and the inability to test every possible scenario—can leave critical bugs undetected until late in the development process.

The Strategic Edge of Virtual Prototyping

Virtual prototyping offers a stark contrast, delivering a strategic edge by removing the reliance on hardware availability. Software development can commence much earlier, even before the RTL (Register-Transfer Level) stages of hardware design. This shift not only circumvents the wait for physical prototypes but also opens up parallel workflows that can dramatically accelerate the development cycle.

Efficiency and Scope of Testing

Virtual prototypes enable an extensive scope of testing that physical prototypes cannot match. By simulating various system states and operational conditions, virtual prototypes allow for an exhaustive verification process, including the kind of edge cases that are difficult to replicate with hardware. The flexibility of virtual environments means that software testing and system validation can occur at multiple workstations concurrently, greatly expanding test coverage.

Cost-Effectiveness and Error Detection

From a financial perspective, virtual prototyping is compelling. By detecting errors early in the design process, it mitigates the high costs associated with late-stage troubleshooting in traditional verification. Early detection not only reduces the expenditure on rectifications but also minimizes the risk of expensive recalls and brand damage post-product release.

Debugging and Analysis

The debug capabilities of virtual prototyping are a leap forward in verification methodology. The ability to pause, rewind, and replay scenarios in a virtual prototype provides an unprecedented level of control and insight into system behavior. This allows for a more nuanced analysis and a thorough understanding of the root causes of issues, which can be elusive in traditional post-silicon debugging.

The Quantifiable Benefits

The advantages of virtual prototyping can be quantified in reduced development time, increased product quality, and lowered costs. With the accelerated time-to-market that virtual prototyping allows, companies can stay ahead of the competition and better meet market demands. Additionally, the increased productivity and efficiency across teams contribute to a more streamlined development process, from conceptual design to final product validation.

Virtual Prototyping Solutions by Synopsys

Synopsys offers a comprehensive virtual prototyping solution that includes several key products and services:

  • Synopsys Virtualizer: The Synopsys Virtualizer tool enables the creation of virtual prototypes that can be used for early software development and testing. This tool is a part of a suite that includes Synopsys Platform Architect™ and a vast array of transaction-level models (TLMs). Virtualizer Development Kits (VDKs) are also provided for software development, allowing for early software bring-up before silicon availability.

  • Hybrid Prototyping: For hardware and software engineers, Synopsys offers a hybrid prototyping solution that combines virtual and FPGA-based prototypes. This allows for the benefits of both approaches, enabling the start of multi-core SoC prototyping earlier and facilitating high-performance execution of system-level models, which include direct connections to real-world hardware interfaces.

hybrid-prototyping-framework-synopsisA block diagram illustrating the hybrid prototyping framework and workflow. Source: Faster Software Development using Hybrid Prototyping - Synopsys YouTube

  • Synopsys Platform Architect for Multi-Core Optimization (MCO): Synopsys provides the Platform Architect tool for creating virtual prototypes geared towards architecture design. This tool is designed to cater to the specific requirements for simulation speed and timing accuracy, and it is used alongside Virtualizer for a comprehensive virtual prototyping environment tailored to software development use cases.
  • Virtual Prototyping Services: Synopsys provides full-service solutions where they take charge of modeling, assembling, and delivering a virtual prototype tailored to the specific needs of end-user teams. This service may include integrating software tools, environment models, test environments, and customizing virtual prototype tools for debugging and analysis to meet particular requirements.

Each of these offerings is designed to support different aspects of the development process, from the early stages of software development to the optimization of multi-core system architectures.

Conclusion

Virtual prototyping marks a turning point in digital design, fundamentally transforming the way we approach the development of complex systems. By allowing for early software development and thorough system validation, it significantly shortens time-to-market and enhances product quality. The ability to test and iterate designs within a virtual environment translates to a leap in efficiency and cost-effectiveness, driving innovation at a faster clip than ever before.

As the complexities of design increase, virtual prototyping offers the agility and foresight needed to keep pace with rapid technological advancements. It is more than a tool; it is a strategic imperative for any organization aiming to lead in the fiercely competitive landscape of digital technology.

References

[1] What is Virtual Prototyping? – How it Works & Benefits. Synopsys; [Online]. Available from: https://www.synopsys.com/glossary/what-is-virtual-prototyping.html

[2] Chang KH. Introduction to e-Design. In: Chang KH, editor. Design Theory and Methods Using CAD/CAE. Academic Press; 2015. p. 1-37. [Online]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780123985125000013

[3] Bidanda B, Bártolo PJ, editors. Virtual Prototyping & Bio Manufacturing in Medical Applications. Springer International Publishing; 2020.

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