Chip Design Challenges: Driving the Need for Hardware-Assisted Verification

In the span of a few short months earlier this year, Mentor Graphics became Siemens EDA and introduced a suite of integrated hardware-assisted verification tools, the first product launch under the new Siemens EDA brand.

Jean-Marie Brunet, senior director of marketing, product management and product engineering at Siemens EDA, orchestrated the launch and connected with me for a discussion about the chip design verification space. As he pointed out, verification and validation of systems is a fast-growing and important market segment to the electronic system design ecosystem.

Smith: What trends do you see in chip design? What is driving these trends?

Brunet: Chip verification costs continue to grow faster than design costs because of factors such as increasing design complexity, rising computing power, surging I/O traffic activity, increasing energy consumption and the widespread use of peripherals. These dynamics are being driven by new data center networking, communications/5G, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and storage applications. 

These trends also indicate the need for more powerful verification tools and expanded verification objectives that include power and performance analysis. Hardware-assisted verification tools are perfect for meeting these demands.

Smith: Chip design verification consumes the most time in a project cycle. Why is this so?

Brunet: The verification of designs reaching multi-billion gates and supported by voluminous software stacks is fraught with challenges. To exhaustively check every

possible state in a billion-gate design with simulation alone would require up to trillions of verification cycles. That’s why hardware-assisted verification is one of the fastest-growing technologies in EDA. Given the complexity of today’s SoC design, it’s no surprise that verification is the largest undertaking in the entire project design cycle, consuming more than 50% of it.

It also has the greatest impact on quality, cost and schedule because it prevents designs from failing at first silicon. While a respin of a large design taped out at a node below 10 nanometers could cost more than $10 million, delaying delivery of a new product for a few months in a highly competitive market may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Smith: What other challenges do engineers face trying to verify a chip design will work as intended?

Brunet: Verifying an SoC design is a massive undertaking and, in parallel, verification teams are trying to streamline and optimize verification cycles.

SoC design groups are tasked with completing full system-level verification prior to creating production masks by thoroughly vetting all hardware blocks, interactions between those blocks, and the software developed for the end application before the chip is built.

To alleviate this enormous pressure, they are starting to adopt a shift-left methodology for early functional verification as soon as individual blocks of a SoC design become available. It helps jump-start embedded software validation before full system validation is completed to save time and allow engineers to work in parallel, not serially. While it is an effective approach, it creates the need for a complete and integrated suite of hardware-assisted verification tools to verify and validate a design’s hardware and software components.

Smith: How do you define hardware-assisted verification and how does it help solve these challenges?

Brunet: A typical definition of hardware-assisted verification is special purpose hardware to accelerate verification. In other words, hardware emulation and FPGA prototyping. Hardware-assisted verification is a mandatory investment as single-die or multi-die chips get larger with more complexity and more interfaces, making hardware and software code integration critical early in the design cycle.

Because software performance defines a chip’s success, the need to perform software workload-based analysis is acute, not just analysis of chip functionality, but also accurate performance and power consumption in the context of real-world applications.

Hardware-assisted verification is the only option when hardware and software meet. By combining emulation, desktop FPGA prototyping boards and enterprise FPGA prototyping platforms to work on the same SoC design, a verification group can assemble a complete hardware-assisted verification system for thorough and exhaustive verification and validation.

Smith: Where are the big opportunities for hardware-assisted verification?

Brunet: New end-user applications are coming from computing and storage, AI/ML, 5G, networking and automotive. Recently released market data from the ESD Alliance shows that in 2020, hardware-assisted verification revenues exceeded $700 million. It is reasonable to assume that revenues of $1 billion will be within reach in the next few years given the amount of chip design activity at advanced nodes below 10nm.

Smith: With the design/verification and manufacturing phases of the semiconductor supply chain more closely aligning, what role does hardware-assisted verification play?

Brunet: Semiconductor manufacturing and the supply chain that supports it benefits greatly from the continued innovation in verification and validation tools and methodologies. With this innovation, designs are delivered to the manufacturing flow with a much greater chance of passing first silicon with success. This reduces friction in the semiconductor supply chain since IP and chips are available when anticipated. Hardware-assisted verification is a quick-moving, highly leveraged resource that helps a design and verification team to ensure chips are manufacturable and meet the functionality, power and performance requirements for the end-product application.

Jean-Marie Brunet is the senior director of product management and engineering for the Scalable Verification Solutions Division at Siemens EDA. He has served for over 20 years in application engineering, marketing, and management roles in the EDA industry, and has held IC design and design management positions at STMicroelectronics, Cadence, and Micron, among other companies. Jean-Marie holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from I.S.E.N Electronic Engineering School in Lille, France. Jean-Marie Brunet can be reached at