Status Report: Power-Aware Design Flow

Some pieces are still missing, but more pieces are available today than are being used; what needs to change.


By Ann Steffora Mutschler
While the term “design flow” can be a moving target, there are some specific requirements for a low-power/power-aware tool flow. Looking at this from a high level, where is the industry today, and where is it headed?

There are really two sides to power, which are almost like two sides of the same coin: power consumption and power integrity. And both of those are global, spanning the system and the package and the increasing convergence of both.

“One thing required in this day and age of ever-shrinking product lifecycles is some degree of predictability,” said William Ruby, senior director of RTL power product engineering at Apache Design. “You want to be able to predict early on, when you’re not even halfway finished with the design, what is your power consumption going to be with a reasonable degree of accuracy? What does the thermal picture looks, even spilling over into power integrity? If I can estimate my power, I should be able to also predict some of the power-induced noise considerations, as well. Looking at the power-aware flow from that perspective, early power analysis for the consumption side as well as the power integrity side is really one of the keys here.”

But what about the tools? The back-of-the-napkin or spreadsheet-type calculations worked to a certain extent when things were not very complicated. There needs to be more precision built in. Apache’s answer to this is the RTL power model (RPM) to get better accuracy and more predictability early on. Ruby explained the RTL description allows for a good power number early on, looking at various operating modes. It takes that data into the power integrity side for early chip power integrity analysis. The predictability comes also with the ability to use RPM throughout the design flow to maintain consistency.

Mary Ann White, director of Galaxy power marketing at Synopsys, said various tools exist today that can deal with many aspects of the complete low-power flow. The problem is that systems engineers don’t tend to think about tools in this way. “Just within the implementation flow, there’s verification and implementation, and we find that those engineers don’t exactly talk and work together as easily, so can you imagine what the challenge would be if it went all the way from system-level to somebody that has to deal with manufacturing and then packaging? Even though we tend to provide solutions in those spaces, we find that customers are still very specialized in their very specific areas.”

What engineers want
Krishna Balachandran, director of low-power verification marketing at Synopsys, said to understand what engineering teams really need it helps to segment customers into different buckets. “There are customers that are very advanced in their needs and there are some other customers who have some low-power needs but they kind of know what they are doing—they’ve been doing low-power for longer than the power formats have existed so they’ve evolved with what has happened in terms of power formats and they’ve started using that. Then there are some new customers that are being forced to think about power not because their devices are by themselves low-power, but by virtue of the fact that they are using smaller geometries to reduce the cost and to take advantage of the wafer pricing which can drop. Those customers think that if they drop down to the lower geometries they’ll have to use some power techniques now in their design, because if they don’t then the leakage power becomes unacceptable. So for these reasons some of these customers are coming into the flow and their requirements are very modest. They are almost able to address in an ad hoc way what they have to deal with, rather than by design aiming for lower power chips. There is a whole range of sophistication when it comes to low-power designs and flows. I see that their needs are very different.”

Barry Pangrle, solutions architect for low-power design at Mentor Graphics, said in the future there will be more emphasis on front-end tools. “That will include architectural-level, system-level type stuff, especially hardware/software tools that will allow designers and even software developers to be able to get a better understanding of how the code they are writing impacts the overall power of the products they are developing. You can have really great hardware and if the software doesn’t take advantage of all the capabilities of the hardware, you throw all that effort away.”

Power formats, mixed-signal designs
In the middle part of the flow, one positive step forward last year was that all major EDA vendors came together to pledge their support on the IEEE 1801 power format standard, which should help with tying everything together. More than just the power format support, the underlying methodology is also critical. Qi Wang, technical marketing group director of solutions marketing Cadence, said a converged methodology is still needed—a single power-intent description that can be used in every stage of the design flow to provide consistency.

Overall, he said, it looks as if we have all the pieces of the power-aware design flow, but there’s still a long way to go to address the multi-vendor flow. “Right now we have two formats. Even if we have one format there will still be challenges, but that will play out over the years because at least the whole market on the customer side will be adopting the same power format approach. Right now some of them use CPF, some of them use UPF. The methodology shift is happening. That train has left the station; that will not be changed. It just takes time for the vendors to work out this multi-vendor flow.”

However, he pointed out, there still are technical areas that need more investment. “One big important thing is in the area of mixed-signal design. If you look at all the hard products right now, it’s all about mixed-signal and low power: you have a mobile application, you want to access everywhere, you have wireless, you have Wi-Fi here and there. It’s all about a mobile and battery powered. This means low power and mixed signal. Customers have combined these together. The technologies need to be combined, as well.”

Another key area is verification. Erich Marschner, product marketing manager for functional verification at Mentor Graphics said, “The verification aspects of low power are largely related to methodology because of the capabilities in the tools have been developed over the last four or five years to model the effects of low power, power management and active power management. Users are still behind the curve in terms of trying to understand what to do with those capabilities. Most of the low power simulations that are done today are still done in the context of UPF 1.0 – the previous version of the standard.”

In this regard, many users still have a way to go to take full advantage of the technology available today.