Tensilica Automates Optimized RTL Block Design from Standard C Code

7/8/2004 - Tensilica, Inc. announced that it has achieved a major design automation breakthrough – the automated design of optimized configurable processors from standard C code using the company’s new XPRESTM (Xtensa PRocessor Extension Synthesis) Compiler. This tool enables the rapid development of optimized system-on-chip (SOC) devices without requiring designers to hand code their hardware using design languages like VHDL and Verilog, which take months of design and verification effort. Instead, designers input the original algorithm that they’re trying to optimize, written in standard ANSI C/C++, and the XPRES Compiler, coupled with Tensilica’s automated processor generation technology, automatically generate an RTL (register transfer level) hardware description and associated software tool chain. In less than an hour, the resulting hardware block is delivered in the form of a pre-verified Xtensa LX processor core, enabling customers to future proof their designs due to its inherent programmability, and avoid the cost and risk associated with verifying custom logic. Additionally, the generated RTL fully rivals the performance and efficiency of hand-coded RTL blocks with many concurrent operations, efficient data types, and optimized multiple wide deep pipelines.

Until now, most early approaches for IC design concentrated on generating custom RTL hardware for tasks that could not be performed by the processor due to performance constraints. In May, Tensilica unveiled Xtensa LX with a new architecture that eliminates these performance barriers and allows the processor to be used in place of RTL. The use of processors not only reduces design time, complexity and cost, but also helps future-proof products. Because processors are inherently programmable, small changes due to standards updates or new market requirements can be easily made in software rather than hardware, eliminating the need to completely re-spin a chip. With average chip design cost now exceeding $5 million, Tensilica’s technology has the potential to significantly change the ROI (return on investment) in the semiconductor business.

“It’s not just that XPRES can automatically generate custom hardware from C/C++ code, a focus of widespread research and development,” stated Tom Halfhill, senior analyst for In-Stat/MDR (www.mdronline.com). “Rather, it’s the whole tool chain and design flow that sets Tensilica’s technology apart. Tensilica is closer than any other company to realizing a vision of software-driven automated hardware design that has mesmerized engineers, academic researchers, and entrepreneurs for decades.”

“Our XPRES Compiler is the next step in Tensilica’s vision of an automated IC-design and firmware-development process based on multiple configurable processors instead of RTL blocks,” added Chris Rowen, Tensilica’s President and CEO. “With XPRES, we can automatically determine which functions should be accelerated in hardware and generate a comprehensive hardware/software solution for those functions. No RTL coding is required – our XPRES compiler automatically generates the necessary RTL code that is pre-verified to be correct by construction.”

Tensilica’s XPRES compiler innovation is expected to drive a transition in the industry similar to the transition in the late 1980s from schematic capture to a synthesis driven methodology using the Verilog or VHDL programming languages. By the early 1990s, it was apparent that these languages produced equivalent or better results in a fraction of the time it took to use schematic capture. Similarly, today designers can replace RTL blocks designed with these languages with configurable processors. The XPRES Compiler allows designers to get high-performance results similar to hand-coding RTL, but in a much shorter time period. As a result, Tensilica projects a fast transition to its methodology – using multiple configurable processors instead of RTL blocks.

In 1999, Tensilica introduced the first configurable processor generator with automated software, hardware, modeling and EDA support. Changes can be made in the form of configuration options or designer-defined TIE (Tensilica Instruction Execution) instructions. Now, with the XPRES Compiler, designers no longer have to manually select configuration options and write TIE (Tensilica Instruction Extension) instructions to modify the processor design.

Preserves C Code Portability
Tensilica’s XPRES Compiler can generate an optimized Xtensa LX processor that is reusable over a range of similar application software code. Similar code can take advantage of the acceleration without any modification. This is a crucial difference between using an Xtensa LX processor to speed an application and today’s co-processor acceleration method, which uses RTL design to create a block of hard-wired logic that is not programmable and must communicate with the processor across a narrow 32-bit bus. Because RTL isn’t programmable, it can’t be used across related applications without modifying the hardware and creating a new IC. If changes are needed in hardware, the RTL has to be redesigned and a new IC must be produced. However, with the XPRES Compiler, changes can easily be made in software, preserving the initial hardware investment.

Using the XPRES Compiler
The XPRES Compiler gives the design team complete usage flexibility. It can be used in full automation mode, where a C/C++ program is input and optimized TIE instructions are output, or it can be used under full designer control, so the designer can guide the tool, select instructions, and even tune the original application to take better advantage of the added hardware instructions.

“We expect that many design teams will run their code through the XPRES compiler, check the results, and find that their performance goals have been met without any further optimization,” stated Bernie Rosenthal, Tensilica’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales. “But we also have a large group of power users that will want to check and tweak every optimization and possibly even re-code sections of the original application to ensure that the fastest possible results are achieved.”

A simple 5-step process explains how the XPRES Compiler is used.

Step 1. Compile the original C/C++ application code. No recoding is required. Tensilica’s C/C++ compiler generates information about the application, performing such functions as ranking code regions by frequency, determining which loops can be vectorized, generating dataflow graphs for important regions, and performing operation counts for each type of opcode for every region.

Step 2. Run the XPRES Compiler to determine the best processor configuration and extensions for that code. The XPRES Compiler evaluates all generated configurations across all regions and determines the best set of merged configurations given a particular gate-count budget. The XPRES Compiler is able to conduct abstract evaluations and search through millions of configuration possibilities, usually in less than an hour.

Step 3. (Optional) Manually tune the automatically generated custom configuration. Power users will want to refine or optimize the code and add additional instructions for algorithms or functions that other programs might need.

Step 4. Generate the optimized processor. Use Tensilica’s proven processor-generator technology and, in less than one hour, generate the complete processor RTL with EDA support, complete software-development tool chain, simulations and modeling environment, and RTOS support.

Step 5. Compile and use the original, unmodified C/C++ application using the newly optimized processor configuration. No need to modify the C code to make it Tensilica-specific. No need to use time-consuming assembly level optimizations. No need to design custom hardware accelerators using traditional RTL design methods.

The XPRES Compiler will be available in the third quarter of 2004. The XPRES Compiler license requires a license for the Xtensa LX processor.

About Tensilica
Tensilica was founded in July 1997 to address the growing need for optimized, application-specific microprocessors for high-volume embedded applications. With the Xtensa and Xtensa LX configurable and extensible microprocessor cores, Tensilica is the only company that has automated and patented the time-consuming process of generating a customized microprocessor core along with a complete software-development tool environment, producing new configurations in a matter of hours. These customized processors rival hand-coded RTL in performance and add a needed level of programmability. For more information, visit www.tensilica.com.

Tensilica, Xtensa and Xtensions Network are registered trademarks belonging to Tensilica Inc.

Tensilica’s announced licensees include Agilent, ALPS, AMCC (JNI Corporation), Astute Networks, Avision, Bay Microsystems, Berkeley Wireless Research Center, Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Conexant Systems, Cypress, Crimson Microsystems, ETRI, FUJIFILM Microdevices, Fujitsu Ltd., Hudson Soft, Hughes Network Systems, Ikanos Communications, LG Electronics, Marvell, MediaWorks, NEC Laboratories America, NEC Corporation, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT), Olympus Optical Co. Ltd., S2io, Solid State Systems, Sony, STMicroelectronics, Stretch Inc., TranSwitch Corporation, and Victor Company of Japan (JVC)

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