Effective Simulation and Debugging for a High-Level Hardware Language Using Software Compilers

Clément Pit-Claudel, Thomas Bourgeat, Stella Lau, Arvind, Adam Chlipala. Effective Simulation and Debugging for a High-Level Hardware Language Using Software Compilers. Proceedings of the 26th International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems (ASPLOS'21). April 2021.

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Rule-based hardware design languages (RHDLs) promise to enhance developer productivity by offering convenient abstractions. Advanced compiler technology keeps the cost of these abstractions low, generating circuits with excellent area and timing properties.

Unfortunately, comparatively little effort has been spent on building simulators and debuggers for these languages, so users often simulate and debug their designs at the RTL level. This is problematic because generated circuits typically suffer from poor readability, as compiler optimizations can break high-level abstractions. Worse, optimizations that operate under the assumption that concurrency is essentially free yield faster circuits but often actively hurt simulation performance on platforms with limited concurrency, like desktop computers or servers.

This paper demonstrates the benefits of completely separating the simulation and synthesis pipelines. We propose a new approach, yielding the first compiler designed for effective simulation and debugging of a language in the Bluespec family. We generate cycle-accurate C++ models that are readable, compatible with a wide range of traditional software-debugging tools, and fast (often 2 to 3x faster than circuit-level simulation). We achieve these results by optimizing for sequential performance and using static analysis to minimize redundant work. The result is a vastly-improved hardware-design experience, which we demonstrate on embedded processor designs and DSP building blocks using performance benchmarks and debugging case studies.

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