Architecture and Hardware Practice

Abstraction in Hardware System Design

Applying lessons from software languages to hardware languages using Bluespec SystemVerilog.
  1. Introduction
  2. Why Not Use Existing Software Language for Hardware Design?
  3. The Inadequacy of Software Simulation
  4. Bluespec SystemVerilog
  5. Synthesis into Hardware
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Author
  9. Figures
Abstraction in Hardware System Design

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The history of software engineering is one of continuing development of abstraction mechanisms designed to tackle ever-increasing complexity. Hardware design, however, is not as current. For example, the two most commonly used hardware description languages (HDLs)—Verilog and VHDL9,12—date back to the 1980s. Updates to the standards lag behind modern programming languages in structural abstractions such as types, encapsulation, and parameterization. Their behavioral semantics lag even further. They are specified in terms of event-driven simulators running on uniprocessor von Neumann machines (and this is true even for their recent descendents, SystemVerilog and SystemC10,11).

These HDLs all have “synthesizable subsets” that constrain them in an effort to narrow this behavioral gap, but the mismatch is never completely eliminated. The strain is beginning to show as hardware chip capacity has grown exponentially according to Moore’s Law and we are called upon to design entire systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) of astonishing diversity and complexity.

Another important issue is that verification (testing) has so far been done using simulation, but this is decreasingly practical.3 In modern SoCs, the hardware is large and complex, and it runs heavy software loads such as full-featured operating systems and applications. Verification involves simulating all of these together, and it is not unusual for software simulations to run for days or weeks. Simulation speeds are typically cited in the 10s to 100s of KHz, whereas what are needed are MHz speeds.

The only feasible solution to this problem is what hardware people call emulation, which is simulation of the hardware design on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). This FPGA-based emulation cannot be left to final drafts of a design, however; it must begin at the very start of the design process, from early models onward. Doing so places further requirements on the behavioral semantics of HDLs.

Simple emulation is not enough, however. Previously it might have been acceptable to use separate high-level languages for models and test benches that run only in software simulation, such as SystemC TLM (Transaction Level Modeling)19 and SystemVerilog VMM (Verification Methodology Manual).2 Today, however, what is needed is an HDL that can be used for all these purposes—from early models and test benches to detailed implementation—where these different components can be mixed freely and where all these components can be synthesized for FPGA simulation. Thus, the HDL needs to be universal, both in the sense that it is suitable for all kinds of digital designs (for example, not just signal processing) and in the sense that it should be fully synthesizable, whether used for models, test benches, or implementations.

These requirements mean a radical reconsideration of HDLs. This article describes Bluespec SystemVerilog (BSV),18 the design of which was motivated by just such a reconsideration while reusing features from SystemVerilog wherever possible. BSV’s structural extensions (involving more expressive types, overloading, encapsulation, and parameterization) are inspired by Haskell,20 the functional programming language. Its behavioral semantics are inspired by Term Rewriting Systems13 (or Guarded Atomic Actions), which are best suited for describing complex, concurrent hardware. This is more than a theoretical exercise—BSV and its tools have been used in industry for more than five years (your smartphone or tablet may well contain components designed with BSV).

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Why Not Use Existing Software Language for Hardware Design?

Before looking at BSV, it is useful to consider whether a new language is necessary at all. Although from a functional point of view “it’s all just computation,” hardware system design is characterized by features very different from software design.

Concurrency/parallelism. Hardware systems typically have parallelism that is massive, fine-grain, heterogeneous, and reactive. (Unlike some authors, I make no distinction between the terms concurrency and parallelism). This parallelism results in increased speed, which is often the main reason to implement something in hardware. Massive in this context means that the number of parallel activities may number in the thousands or even millions. Fine-grain means that parallel activities interact frequently (measured in time scales of clock cycles) over possibly very small shared resources (such as individual registers of a few bits). Heterogeneous means that parallel activities involve diverse tasks—in contrast, for example, to SIMD (single instruction, multiple data) or SPMD (single process, multiple data) computation. Finally, reactive means that parallel activities are often triggered by asynchronous events, such as unpredictable data arrival, interrupts, arbitration resolution, and I/O.

Unfortunately, most software languages are not parallel at all, but instead are entirely sequential. Some extensions for massive parallelism address only SIMD parallelism. Thread extensions can handle heterogeneity, but they are notoriously difficult for massive, fine-grain, or reactive parallelism.1,15,22

Architecture and algorithm. In hardware system design, good architecture (with its attendant cost model) is a central design goal and an outcome of design activity, whereas software is mostly designed for a fixed, given input architecture (typically von Neumann, perhaps with extensions such as SIMD), as illustrated in Figure 1. Thus, in hardware design, algorithm and architecture are inseparable, and it is meaningless to talk about “pure algorithm design” in the abstract, without some architectural model that gives it a concrete cost metric.

Since they are all Turing-complete, any architecture can be modeled or simulated with existing programming languages, but there are two fundamental problems with this. First, it takes extraordinary discipline (and therefore a lot of time and effort) to model a complex architecture accurately. Second, modeling an architecture often means losing orders of magnitude in execution speed, both because of the extra layer of interpretation and because the natural parallelism of the architecture being modeled is essentially completely discarded.3 Domain-specific languages (DSLs) can address the first issue, but not the second. For most software programming languages, the “native” architectural model is the von Neumann model (one sequential process, with constant-time access to a large, flat memory), and it is only native von Neumann algorithms that execute at speed.

The term architectural transparency expresses the idea that the source program directly reflects the desired architecture. Abstraction mechanisms can hide detail but should not distort the resulting architecture. This property is essential for the programmer/designer, for whom abstraction is good, provided that it does not compromise predictability and control. This property is also essential for compilers (synthesis) to produce efficient implementations.

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The Inadequacy of Software Simulation

As mentioned, today’s SoCs need FPGA-based emulation to achieve acceptable simulation speed, and this requires universal applicability of HDL (models, test benches, and implementations of the full gamut of SoC components) and universal synthesizability. Unfortunately, no software languages are suitable for this.

Many in the industry advocate using a combination of C++ and SystemC—the former to describe the algorithmic content of individual intellectual property (IP) blocks, and the latter to describe system-level communication, hierarchy, and integration of these IP blocks into an SoC. The C++ inside IP blocks can then be subjected to so-called high-level synthesis5 (HLS), using tools that automatically generate parallel hardware from sequential C++, given declarative objectives such as latency, throughput, area, power, and target silicon technology. A detailed critique would require another article, but this section and Stephen A. Edwards’ article on the topic7 provide some background.

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Bluespec SystemVerilog

Let’s focus first on the computation model of BSV (that is, its behavioral semantics), because that is the greatest limitation of existing software languages for hardware design. Then we present an example to demonstrate the use of modern structural abstraction mechanisms.

Rules: The basic computation model. Verilog and VHDL, with their origins as simulation languages, are built on the uniprocessor von Neumann model: sequential processes, stack-based procedure calls, traditional stack-based updatable variables, and cooperative multitasking. BSV, on the other hand, is born out of direct hardware description—state and parallel state transitions. The computer science literature has a computation model that is well suited for this, variously called Term Rewriting Systems,13 Guarded Atomic Actions, or Rewrite Rules. It is used in many formal specification languages for complex concurrent systems, including Dijkstra’s Guarded Commands,6 Chandy and Misra’s UNITY,4 Lamport’s TLA+,14 Abrial’s Event-B,16 and many more. The following BSV excerpt illustrates a computation to sort four integers in ascending order.


The first few lines instantiate four registers (storage elements) named x1 ... x4, containing values of type int. The mkRegU right-hand sides are the constructors, whose details are not important here.

The rule (or Guarded Atomic Action) swap12 is like a reactive process (that is, it can “fire” whenever its Boolean condition x1>x2 is true). The body of a rule is an Action and is semantically an instantaneous event. Here it is composed of two smaller Actions: one that assigns the value in x1 into x2, and vice versa. The net effect is to swap the values in the two registers. Rules swap23 and swap34 are similar.

There is no inherent sequencing between rules—a rule can fire whenever its condition is true. Thus, in the example, it may happen that rules swap12 and swap34 perform their swaps in parallel. But what about rules that act on shared state, such as swap12 and swap23, both of which update x2? Rules have the semantics of atomic transactions, and thus, in this case, those two rules can fire only in some order (such as, sequentially). For this example, it does not matter which of the two possible orderings is chosen; the registers will eventually be sorted anyway.

The strain is beginning to show as hardware chip capacity has grown exponentially according to Moore’s Law and we are called upon to design entire systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) of astonishing diversity and complexity.

The previous fragment seems repetitive—four similar registers and three similar rules—but we wrote it that way first to explain the semantics. It would more likely be written this way:


This expands (“statically elaborates,” in hardware language jargon) to what is essentially the same fragment as before. Of course, the 4 here could be abstracted into a parameter. The fragment represents the classic bubble-sort algorithm of introductory programming texts—with the same O(N2) worst-case complexity—except that here the “bubbling” can happen in parallel, modulo atomicity (that is, any pair of enabled rules that do not conflict on a shared register can fire in parallel).

When atomicity requires two enabled conflicting rules to be sequenced, the order chosen can be left unspecified. This is at first alarming to hardware designers, where nondeterminism is equated with unpredictable (bad) results. It is usually welcomed for formal specifications, however, where insisting on a schedule too early is regarded as an unnecessary over-specification. In BSV various techniques are available to nail down particular scheduling choices whenever necessary.

What rules mean for hardware, and why they matter. All hardware design involves specifying parallel activities that update state. The classic style in Verilog (all of these remarks apply to VHDL as well) is state-centric. For each state element x:


More generally, multiple state elements may be updated in each conditional arm, the conditional could be written as a case statement. In synthesizable code, however, each state element may be updated in only one always block and may be updated at most once in each conditional arm.

This is how the problem of parallel updates to a shared resource is solved in (synthesizable) Verilog: it is updated in only one “process” (always block) and, for every clock, exactly one possible new value for x is specified. It is almost a direct, explicit specification of the hardware that is generated: the conditional represents a multiplexer on the input of the x register; the conditions specify how one of the multiplexer inputs is selected to be clocked into the register; and the conditions may also specify whether the register is updated at all. Collectively, all this logic is referred to as control logic.

This organization of behavior in terms of states is, unfortunately, orthogonal to how behavior is typically conceptualized: as a collection of steps, or transactions. Each step of behavior may involve updates (perhaps conditionally) to multiple state elements. This “transpose” from the transaction-centric dimension to the state-centric dimension is at the heart of the problem with Verilog. The state-centric view does not scale well as the number of parallel activities increases and becomes more complex in regard to how the activities compete for shared state. Consider the problem in Figure 2, which illustrates two registers x and y updated by three parallel processes under certain conditions. Assuming that process 0 has lower priority than process 1 for the update of x, and process 1 has lower priority than process 2 for the update of y, the Verilog solution may look like this:


This Verilog code could be written in many styles, but they are all state-centric. The “transpose” from problem statement into state-centric code has intertwined and obscured the original transactions. Also, the priorities are wired into the code structure—the priority of process 2 over process 1 is expressed in the sequentiality of if ... else. The priority of process 1 over process 0 is expressed in the !cond1 term. In fact, a clever designer may recognize that when cond2 is true, process 1 cannot update x, thus opening an opportunity for process 0 to do so. Therefore, the designer might “improve” the last two lines to:


Note the transitivity of control: Process 0’s update of x is affected by the condition of the nonadjacent Process 2. Third, some of the process conditions are duplicated in multiple clauses, with the usual risks of incorrect duplication.

Imagine a change to the spec (this happens all too frequently in the real world) requesting a different priority among the three processes. Or imagine adding another process, or possibly another shared state variable, or both, with new control conditions. The whole code would need to be revised; it’s hard to make local incremental changes.

The fact that even such a small example carries such subtleties in control logic should sensitize the reader to the fact that reasoning about parallel updates in a state-centric manner on a per-clock basis can get very tricky while scaling to more parallel activities and shared state elements, and scaling the complexity of the update conditions.

The BSV code for this example looks like this:


The rules are a direct expression of the process descriptions (i.e., they are transaction-centric, not state-centric), and the final line expresses the scheduling priority. Synthesis from this code produces essentially the same Verilog code shown earlier—namely, the complex control logic necessary to manage parallel update to shared state. It is easy to add more processes, or more shared state, or more complex update conditions.

Rules matter even more when scaling up to systems organized into modules; we will return to this discussion after describing modularity mechanisms.

Organizing rules into modules. In object-oriented programming, complex systems are organized into objects. The key behavioral construct is a process or thread (just one in a sequential language). A process is rooted in some module (perhaps “main”), but it may span object boundaries through method calls. Because methods may themselves call methods, a process may thus access an unbounded number of objects. Each method is semantically a fragment of a process.

Similarly, in BSV a syntactic rule in one module can invoke a method in another module. Methods can, in turn, invoke other methods. Each method is semantically a fragment of a Rule. Thus, a method is more than just a procedure—it is a guarded expression. A semantic Rule is composed of syntactic components: a rule construct and (transitively) all the methods it invokes; this semantic Rule is the unit of parallelism and atomicity.

A small module that implements a FIFO containing integers illustrates this. First its interface declaration:


Like a C++ virtual class, it merely describes the externally visible methods of a module. The enq method enqueues an item x. Its Action type indicates that it returns no value and just has an effect. The first method takes no arguments and returns the value of the element at the head of the queue. The deq method is a pure Action—it has no arguments or results; it just has the effect of discarding the first element in the queue.

Figure 3 illustrates the code for one possible module that implements this interface. This is a module constructor that can be instantiated multiple times to create actual modules (hence the stylistic choice of mk in the module name mkFIFOint, suggesting the word make). FIFOint in the header specifies the interface. The next two lines instantiate two registers: data, containing an integer, initially unspecified; and empty containing a Boolean, initially True. The enq method is guarded by the condition if (empty)—any rule from which it is invoked will be enabled only if the guard is true. When invoked, it stores its argument x in the data register and sets empty to False. The first and deq methods are guarded by the condition if (! empty)—any rule from which they are invoked will be enabled only if this guard is true. The first method returns data‘s value and does not change the FIFO. The deq method has the effect of setting empty to True.

This example is simple, but it could be generalized to an N-element FIFO by extending data to a vector of registers and maintaining the usual head and tail pointers. The FIFO could also be generic (polymorphic) in its content type, instead of just containing int values.

Many modules have FIFO-like interfaces—that is, flow-controlled ports that accept or yield values. We can define polymorphic interfaces for this:


Other than in the syntactic details, these capabilities are similar to what is seen in object-oriented languages. The key difference is that while OO methods are fragments of sequential processes, BSV methods are fragments of rules and have guards.

A larger example. Figure 4 illustrates a Butterfly crossbar switch, which is a hardware device with N input ports and N output ports (here, N=4). Packets enter at input ports, and each is routed to an output port. Note that the switch has a recursive structure: the 4×4 switch shown contains, as components, two 2×2 switches, and each of those in turn contains two 1×1 switches (buffers). Two of these 4×4 switches, in turn, could be used to make an 8×8 switch, and so on. Also note that there are three basic components: FIFOs (1 in, 1 out), merge boxes (2 in, 1 out), and routing logic (1 in, 2 out). Figure 5 shows the interface type declaration.

It is generic, or polymorphic, in the type packet _ t of packets flowing through the switch. It is nested, or hierarchical, in that it is defined in terms of two sub-interfaces: input _ ports and output _ ports. These, in turn, use standard List data structures to refer to collections of FIFOin and FIFOout interfaces. Figure 6 shows a module mkXBar implementing this interface.

P1–P3 are parameters: n requests an n x n switch; destinationOf is a function from packets (of type t) to destinations (of type UInt #(32), unsigned 32b integers) that can be used to take routing decisions; and mkMerge2x1 is a constructor for the 2-input, 1-output merge modules. In the semantics, a module constructor is just a function from parameters to modules. Further, it is a higher-order function—that is, its parameters may themselves be functions and module constructors. These features are standard in advanced programming languages such as Haskell20 and Standard ML (SML)17 but are very unusual in HDLs, particularly in synthesizable HDLs.

The bulk of the module is a recursive definition of the module. The then part of the big conditional is the base case (n==1). A 1×1 switch is implemented using mkFIFO. The next line uses functions toFIFOin and toFIFOout (easy; not shown) to separate the FIFO interface into FIFOin and FIFOout interfaces, and builds them into singleton lists iports and oports.

The else part is the recursive case (n>1). The code first recursively instantiates mkXBar twice, at size n/2, for the upper and lower 2×2 subswitches. It appends their input _ ports and output _ ports and holds them in the lists iports and midports, respectively. It then instantiates the vertical column of n 2×1 merge blocks at the right edge of the switch shown in Figure 4 using the library higher-order function replicateM on parameter mkMerge2x1. It uses the standard library list-processing higher-order function map with the oport _ of function (not shown; simply returns the output port of a mkMerge2x1 module) to create the oports list.

The for loop generates n instances of the rule. In any one instance, the name x refers to the packet at the head of the jth port in midports. The function computeRoute (not shown; a simple numeric calculation) is applied to get the index of the merge module into which x should be forwarded, which is done in the small conditional. The rule also dequeues the packet.

Each rule expressing the switch’s behavior hides much control detail:

  • The rule is enabled only when a packet is available on the rule’s upstream FIFO (because of guards on the first and deq methods).
  • The rule is enabled only when a packet can be sent into its downstream merge block (because of the guard on enq). For example, it may be blocked as a result of flow control.
  • This last control condition is further nuanced by the fact that the downstream merge block is dynamically selected, depending on the packet, and, therefore, only the enq guard of the selected block matters.

An even subtler control condition arises out of conflict between two rules. In the for loop, pairs of rules enqueue into the same merge blocks. This contention may require one of the competing rules to be stalled (that is, not enabled) to satisfy atomicity.

Why rules matter (continued). In Verilog, all of the above control considerations manifest themselves as explicit, visible control wires on the physical input and output ports of the merge modules, together with a protocol on how to use those wires. These are specified explicitly by the designer, and require effort on a permodule basis. They are ad hoc in that these control interfaces and protocols vary from module to module, from designer to designer, and even from day to day for the same designer. The protocol (semantics) is usually conveyed in accompanying text and timing diagrams and, as you might imagine, is often incomplete, ambiguous, and sometimes wrong. When working with rules, the compiler handles this control complexity naturally, automatically, and formally.

This automation is especially important in accommodating change (for fixing a bug, reacting to changing specs, and so on). The mkMerge2x1 module is a formal parameter, a black box. One actual parameter may permit both enq ports to be activated simultaneously, whereas another may not, perhaps because one has separate internal buffering, while the other shares internal buffers. This affects whether competing rules in mkXBar can fire simultaneously or not (this is another example of the transitivity of control). With ad hoc control logic (as in register-transfer level, or RTL), it may not be able to accommodate such a change without redesigning mkXBar, whereas with rules, the compiler handles it.

Rules are part of a good DSL for hardware description because they are like state machine transitions, familiar and intuitive to hardware engineers. Rules, however, are more profoundly powerful because they are parallel and atomic.

Consider this analogy: in compiling software, imagine doing register allocation by hand, and designing and documenting an ad hoc calling convention for every function you write. It is rather difficult and painful doing it even once, but it’s much worse if the source code changes because register allocation has a transitive effect across function boundaries, such as control logic across hardware module boundaries. Just adding an argument to a function may require redoing register allocation for both the callers and the callees, and this may have a ripple effect across multiple functions. Fortunately, compilers automate this, and adding an argument to a function is trivial for the programmer. Similarly, Rules simplify writing source code and modifying it; the compiler (synthesis) figures out the required changes in control logic.

Rules are part of a good DSL for hardware description because they are like state machine transitions, familiar and intuitive to hardware engineers. Rules, however, are more profoundly powerful because they are parallel and atomic.

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Synthesis into Hardware

Historically, rules in programming and specification languages were concerned just with functionality and not performance; there is only an abstract notion of time in the sense that one rule may fire before another. In hardware design, performance is usually a central requirement, not merely an implementation detail; so the computation model must make this visible to the designer.

Space does not permit a full description here, but BSV indeed defines such a concrete mapping of rules into clocked hardware. Clocks and Resets are abstract data types, and rules and methods are mapped into clock and reset domains. Strong static type checking verifies the isolation of these domains. In summary, BSV has easy-to-use and semantically rigorous facilities for the robust creation of designs with multiple clock domains.

Another very important consideration today is power consumption. At a fine granularity, BSV clocks can be gated, with gating conditions integrated organically into rule conditions. At the coarser granularity of IP blocks, BSV has power-management facilities to switch off or scale power and clocks to entire modules or subsystems in a disciplined manner.

One intriguing thought is that BSV could also be compiled into asynchronous logic (which has many potential advantages relating to circuit timing and power consumption), but how to do this, and how to reason about system performance in this regime, are still open research questions.

Synthesis quality for ASICs. Technology to compile Rules into efficient hardware was first developed more than a decade ago.8 It has been improved continuously since then and has been used on hundreds of designs. In some there was an existing RTL design for apples-to-apples comparisons, and in general, quality has been comparable (as measured in silicon area and performance), typically within 5%.

In a few cases, BSV-generated RTL has significantly better quality (15%–25%) than hand-coded RTL. This is surprising at first because in software you typically pay a performance penalty for higher abstraction. As illustrated in Figure 1, however, higher abstraction in hardware design can yield significant algorithmic advantages (that is, more efficient architectures).

Synthesis for FPGA-based simulation. The universal applicability and synthesizability of BSV has opened the door for many to use FPGAs as their standard simulation engine, from the earliest stages of design, and with a “design-by-refinement” methodology.

Bluespec Inc., by “eating its own dog food,” has used BSV to create highly parameterized communication, debugging, and IP libraries for FPGA boards. These form a kind of operating system for FPGAs, so that the user has high-level facilities for communicating with a host and debugging a model or design instead of the customary painful wrestling with the raw FPGA board hardware.

Where users previously might have written test generators or analyzers or models in C++, they can now write them in BSV without loss of abstraction but with the ability now also to synthesize them and run them on the FPGA adjacent to their designs.

As a result, given that boards with significant FPGA capacity can now be purchased for less than $2,000 (such as Xilinx ML605), with comfortable high-level abstractions for communications, debugging, and libraries in BSV, designers can now treat FPGAs as another computation weapon in their arsenal, just like GPGPUs (general-purpose computing on graphics processing units).21

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Historically there has been an almost total separation between software and hardware designers, much of it attributable to the wide cultural (semantic) gap between the languages they use to design their respective systems. Modern systems demand a reduction or elimination of this specialization. All interesting hardware systems today must run sophisticated software, and many complex software computations must move to hardware to meet performance and power consumption goals.21

BSV is an attempt to address this problem. Rather than trying to force fit solutions for von Neumann machines (such as C++ and threads) into hardware description, BSV has taken excellent ideas from software that are naturals for hardware description. It describes behavior using Rules (from Term Rewriting Systems), which are excellent for massive, fine-grain, heterogeneous, reactive concurrency (hardware!). It describes structure and structural abstraction using types, overloading, higher-order functions, parameterization, and even monads from Haskell. These ideas have been tested in the field for well over five years and used in finished products, one of which might be in your pocket right now.

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F1 Figure 1. Hardware vs. software design.

F2 Figure 2. Two registers updated by three parallel processes.

F3 Figure 3. A FIFO module.

F4 Figure 4. Butterfly crossbar switch

F5 Figure 5. Interface type declaration.

F6 Figure 6. A crossbar switch module.

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