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Will formal apps dominate verification?

11 Sep 2014  | Mike Bartley

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Editor's Note: Mike Bartley, founder and CEO of Test and Verification Solutions, shared insights about formal apps, which some see as disguising as a Trojan horse.

Mythology tells us that the Greeks finally sacked Troy after a 10-year siege by being invited into the city hidden inside a now famous wooden "Trojan" horse. Similarly, formal verification (FV) has threatened to become mainstream for as long as I can remember. However, could it be that "formal apps" are the disguised guest that finally see us realise the Kathryn Kranen prediction that "formal will dominate verification"?

Formal apps are automated applications to achieve specific verification tasks such as verifying that signals correctly cross clock domain boundaries, that post-reset X's do not cause functional issues, or that an SoC (system-on-chip) correctly implements signal connectivity as specified in a spreadsheet or an IP-XACT description. In this blog, I investigate such apps and whether they are leading us to full formal adoption.

For example, Cadence has been offering a portfolio of such apps since 2011. One of the fastest growing apps is Automated Coverage Hole Analysis, also known as Unreachability (UNR). The app automatically creates assertions that check for the reachability of coverage holes, based on the coverage database merged from multiple simulation regression runs. No user-defined assertions are required by the app, yet it uses the power of formal to accelerate coverage closure.

Joerg Mueller, a formal verification expert at Cadence, explains, "While each app may only utilise a subset of the power of FV, they pave the path to adoption of, and trust in, FV at many of our customers... The share of FV is increasing dramatically in the functional verification mix." Mueller believes the reason for this trend, apart from performance and capacity enhancements, is the dramatically increased applicability, enabled by automating the previously cumbersome process of creating assertions, targeted at solving well defined, commonly occurring, yet complex verification problems.

Pranav Ashar, CTO at Real Intent, sees several reasons FV is now mainstream: "The capacity of formal apps has improved dramatically. Secondly we know where to apply formal and to use it where it can make a real difference."

Real Intent believes the best places are where the scope is narrow and there is a full understanding of the failure modes, especially in the places where simulation just can't scale. Clock-domain crossing (CDC) is a great example of that. These kinds of failures are a mix of functionality and timing, and when these two things happen asynchronously, simulation falls apart. For example, Real Intent noted how a user at DVCon 2014 in Silicon Valley had finished simulation and then found another 20 bugs using a CDC tool. The more you understand a problem, and the design steps become more understood, there are more areas that are suitable to formal apps.

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