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Hardware/firmware interface co-design fundamentals

Posted: 18 Jul 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Hardware  firmware  co-design  USB  CPU 

Hardware and firmware engineering design teams usually encounter problems and conflicts when trying to work together. They come from different development environments, have different tool sets and use different terminology. Often they are in different locations within the same company or work for different companies.

The two teams have to work together, but often have conflicting differences in procedures and methods. Since their resulting hardware and firmware work have to integrate successfully to build a product, it is imperative that the hardware/firmware interface – including people, technical disciplines, tools and technology – be designed properly

This article provides seven principles hardware/firmware co-design that if followed will ensure that such collaborations are a success. They are:
 • Collaborate on the Design;
 • Set and Adhere to Standards;
 • Balance the Load;
 • Design for Compatibility;
 • Anticipate the Impacts;
 • Design for Contingencies; and
 • Plan Ahead.

Collaborate on the design
Designing and producing an embedded product is a team effort. Hardware engineers cannot produce the product without the firmware team; likewise, firmware engineers cannot produce the product without the hardware team.

Even though the two groups know that the other exists, they sometimes don't communicate with each other very well. Yet it is very important that the interface where the hardware and firmware meet—the registers and interrupts—be designed carefully and with input from both sides.

Collaborating implies proactive participation on both sides. Figure 1 shows a picture of a team rowing a boat. Some are rowing on the right side and some on the left. There is a leader steering the boat and keeping the team rowing in unison. Both sides have to work and work together. If one side slacks off, it is very difficult for the other side and the leader to keep the boat going straight.

Figure 1: Both sides row to keep the boat going straight. (Photo: iStockphoto.com/Steve Pepple Photography)

In order to collaborate, both the hardware and firmware teams should get together to discuss a design or solve a problem. Collaboration needs to start from the very early stages of conceptual hardware design all the way to the late stages of final firmware development. Each side has a different perspective, that is, a view from their own environment, domain, or angle.

Collaboration helps engineers increase their knowledge of the system as a whole, allowing them to make better decisions and provide the necessary features in the design. The quality of the product will be higher because both sides are working from the same agenda and specification.

Documentation is the most important collaborative tool. It ranges from high-level product specification down to low-level implementation details. The hardware specification written by hardware engineers with details about the bits and registers forming the hardware/ firmware interface is the most valuable tool for firmware engineers. They have to have this to correctly code up the firmware. Of course, it goes without saying that this specification must be complete and correct.

Software tools are available on the market to assist in collaborative efforts. In some, the chip specifications are entered and the tool generates a variety of hardware (Verilog, VHDL. . . ), firmware (C, C++ . . . ), and documentation (*.rtf, *.xls, *.txt . . . ) files. Other collaborative tools aid parallel development during the hardware design phase, such as co-simulation, virtual prototypes, FPGA-based prototype boards, and modifying old products.

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