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We care about processor verification – and you should too

Finding a hardware bug in silicon has consequences. The severity of these consequences for the end user can depend on the use case. For the product manufacturer, fixing a bug once a design is in mass-production can incur a significant cost. Investing in processor verification is therefore fundamental to ensure quality. This is something we care passionately about at Codasip, here is why you should too.

Luckily for the semiconductor industry, there are statistically more bugs in software than in hardware, and in processors in particular. However, software can easily be upgraded over the air, directly in the end-products used by consumers. With hardware, on the other hand, this is not as straightforward  and a hardware issue can have severe consequences. The quality of our deliverables, which will end up in real silicon, seriously matters.

Processors all have different quality requirements

Processors are ubiquitous. They control the flash memory in your laptop, the braking system of your car or the chip on your credit card. These CPUs have different performance requirements but also different security and safety requirements. In other words, different quality requirements.

Is it a major issue if the Wi-Fi chip in your laptop is missing a few frames? The Wi-Fi protocol retransmits the packet and it goes largely unnoticed. If your laptop’s SSD controller drops a few packets and corrupts the document you have been working on all day It will be a serious disruption to your work, there may be some shouting, but you will recover. It’s a bug that you might be able to accept.

Other hardware failures have much more severe consequences: What if your car’s braking system fails because of a hardware issue? Or the fly-by-wire communication in a plane fails? Or what if a satellite falls to earth because its orbit control fails? Some bugs and hardware failures are simply not acceptable.

Processor quality and therefore its reliability is the main concern of processor verification teams. And processor verification is a subtle art.

The subtle art of processor verification

Processor verification requires strategy, diligence and completeness.

Verifying a processor means taking uncertainty into account. What software will run on the end product? What will be the use cases? What asynchronous events could occur? These unknowns mean significantly opening the verification scope. However, it is impossible to cover the entire processor state space, and it is not something to aim for.

Processor quality must be ensured while making the best use of time and resources. At the end of the day, the ROI must be positive. Nobody wants to find costly bugs after the product release, and nobody wants to delay a project because of an inefficient verification strategy. Doing smart processor verification means finding relevant bugs efficiently and as early as possible in the product development.

In other words, processor verification must:

  • Be done during processor development, in collaboration with design teams. Verifying a processor design once it is finalized is not enough. Verification must drive the design, to some extent.
  • Be a combination of all industry standard techniques. There are different types of bugs of different levels of complexity that you might find using random testing, code coverage, formal proofs, power-aware simulation, etc. Using multiple techniques allows you to maximize the potential of each of them (what we could also call the Swiss cheese model) and efficiently cover as many corner cases as possible.
  • It is an ongoing science. What works is a combination of techniques that evolve as processors become more complex. We develop different approaches as we learn from previous bugs and designs to refine our verification methodology and offer best-in-class quality IP.

Processor quality is fundamental. The art of verifying a processor is a subtle one that is evolving as the industry is changing and new requirements arise. At Codasip, we put in place verification methodologies that allow us to deliver high-quality RISC-V customizable processors. With Codasip Studio and associated tools, we provide our customers with the best technology that helps them follow up and verify their specific processor customization.

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