Step Away From the Spreadsheet

Complex system-level power analysis requires more than just a worst-case scenario. Planning for power needs to happen earlier in the design process.


By Ann Steffora Mutschler
Engineers today spend more than a quarter of their time trying to meet power specifications.

A survey of more than 700 engineers by Calypto illustrates just how important and time-consuming power management is today for engineering teams. As consumer devices grow ever more complex, the need to deal with, analyze and optimize power at not just the RTL but at the system level is the next challenge, even if the path to reach that goal is not yet clear.

The opportunities for optimizing a design for power efficiency are greatest at the architectural level of abstraction. The further a design moves downstream the less effective optimization techniques become, noted Yossi Veller, chief scientist for ESL at Mentor Graphics, in a white paper he co-authored for ARM’s IQ Magazine. “Power optimization must begin with architectural analysis, exploration, and optimization of power and timing at the electronic system level (ESL). According to a study by LSI Logic, techniques available at the RTL synthesis phase have the ability to reduce power by 20%; those at the gate level offer a 10% reduction; while those at the layout level can reduce power by only 5%. Waiting until the RTL to begin optimizing for power is a wasted opportunity because power usage can be reduced by 80% at the ESL.”

Fig. 1: The ability to optimize power at the architectural far exceeds that at lower levels of abstraction.

“Traditional power optimization tools are really working at the lower levels of abstraction,” explained William Ruby, senior director of RTL power product engineering at Apache Design. “If you look at synthesis, if you look at physical design, there are some automated techniques that are available in those tools. But those are in a category of additional refinement-type steps. Once you have the design architecture nailed down, then you can add in some optimizations based on those tools and you can get some additional incremental power savings, but the part that is missing is enabling the true design-for-power efficiency. If you look at modern chip architectures, they are extremely complex and the RTL descriptions of these architectures are even more complex such that RTL in some cases is no longer seen as a viable architectural description language. You want to be able to describe the architecture of the design in a high level of abstraction.”

With this description comes the requirement to be able to analyze power. Today, this is done by synthesizing the design from a high-level description such as C++ down to RTL, and then an RTL power analysis tool can function and give feedback into the architectural domain. But what needs to accompany this synthesis-loop-back type of flow and give some indication of what the power numbers is more intelligence in those high level tools. They need to point out inefficiencies in a design at both the RTL and architectural levels.

Chris Rowen, CTO and co-founder of Tensilica sees two big challenges for power analysis tools. “One, it is very, very difficult to isolate where the real problem is. It only makes sense to really measure power at the level when you have really synthesized the logic and laid it out and you actually know what the physical design looks like, because the physical design has a huge impact on what the power dissipation of the circuit it.”

By the time it has gone through synthesis and place and route, you have really very little visibility into what was the original logic being questioned. “It all goes into the Cuisinart and all you get is this amorphous mush of gates at the end. So if someone asks you, ‘How much power is being dissipated in my multiplier versus in my divider versus in my register file,’ I don’t know anymore because I have to process them all together in order to get good physical results. But then it all has been aggressively remapped into other logic forms and I can’t isolate the power easily. So you have to work in rather indirect ways to figure out whether the power was being dissipated in one function versus another.”

A second problem, he said, involves system-level tracking of different scenarios. “It is extremely difficult to reach your power goal if you say, ‘Let me use the worst case assumption about each subsystem. I’m going to assume that every piece of my baseband is on, and every piece of my Layer 2 and Layer 3 protocol stack is on, and my image processor is on, and my apps processor is running full out, and all of my RF subsystems are running,’ because of course you’d exceed your power budget by a factor of two or three. Instead people recognize they’re not all on at the same time, the system doesn’t work that way. When you are doing one thing, then you’re typically not doing something else. Therefore, you only have to look at the particular combination of subsystems that is on at that time. However, the software guys have really poor tools to correlate what’s going on in the higher-level operating modes to what’s going on in terms of actual power dissipation in different subsystems. They are completely shooting in the dark where they do not have anything like the kind of accuracy for the modeling of these things.”

As a step towards true system-level power analysis, engineering teams are gradually figuring out that they need to build approximate models of power in addition to simulation environments that are fast enough to run realistic scenarios and to capture real activity. “Ironically getting power information is more than anything else probably a function of getting fast enough simulation, because only if you can run realistic size scenarios will you really gain interesting information,” he said.

This has become one of the big drivers of ESL, which until recently has been relatively slow to catch on. But complexity at advanced nodes, including power considerations, have significantly boosted it’s appeal.

“What the user would like is to have at the very early stages, when he has a TLM model of the design, is at least a relative assessment what architecture decisions will impact the energy in which direction,” said Frank Schirrmeister, group director for product marketing of the system development suite at Cadence. “He will also want to know how the software impacts all of that. From a technology perspective, TLM models allow you to do that so it’s fairly straightforward to annotate power-related data into TLM models,” he asserted.

Annotating models with data just like annotating performance is a challenge and can be approached in three ways:

First, he said, “You can start with your assumptions, with your power budget. TLM models and virtual prototypes allow you to then execute your assumptions so you have in your power envelope/power budget. You say, ‘These tasks should take that much power, I know that from past experience,’ and then you execute your virtual platform with those annotated, estimated data or budgeted data. And you get dynamic results depending on what tasks the software ends up calling, how long a cell phone is used for which task in a day, and so forth.”

Second, annotate back from when you have RTL. “At the RTL level you have these switching formats that you can derive from the RTL to get a good idea about the activity,” Schirrmeister continued.

And third, it can be dealt with at the silicon level by taking previous designs, measuring power information and annotating back into TLM models.

Design engineers are undoubtedly looking for analysis and optimization at the system level so they can do power analysis and power estimation before RTL is available and before they can do gate-level simulations. But are they truly ready to adopt it?

Achim Nohl, technical marketing manager for Synopsys’ solutions group pointed out that today, power analysis starts with gate-level simulation. “If you talk to a hardware engineer and tell him, ‘We are going to employ virtual prototyping and high-level models to do power analysis,’ he will certainly look at you a little strange because he thinks, ‘I’m doing all those back-end optimizations and all those specific things to optimize power. How will you ever be able to reflect that in a virtual prototype simulation?’ But that’s not the point. For virtual prototyping, the granularity of a system is very much different. You’re not looking at just the memory controller. You’re looking at the CPU with the memory controller, the buses, the interconnect, the peripherals and how all those things are orchestrated to find out where the different hot spots are and what is best way to program all those pieces. What is the best scheduling technique? That is the concern at that level.”

When a new chip is architected today, estimates are done to determine whether the chip is feasible at all from a power perspective, he said. “Today, people are using spreadsheets in order to do this analysis, and this can only be a worst case analysis because they don’t know the dynamics and can’t reflect the dynamics of the system in those spreadsheets.”

While the pure architectural level tools don’t exist yet, many users are likely content with high-level synthesis tools for the time being. Apache’s Ruby believes they are good in their own respects but they are not actually meant to give architectural guidance; they are just meant to synthesize the design above the RTL.

One final thought for nervous system architects: The architectural tools of the near future will not replace the actual architect unless they become truly artificial intelligence, which is not likely to happen any time soon, Ruby concluded.

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