Boffins automate silicon chip debugging

Boffins automate silicon chip debugging

University of Michigan unveils FogClear tool

US researchers have developed a technology that automates the process of debugging silicon chip designs.

Fixing design bugs and dodgy wiring connections is a lengthy trial-and-error process that often costs millions of dollars, according to the University of Michigan scientists.

"Today's silicon technology has reached such levels of small-scale fabrication and complexity that it is almost impossible to produce chips that work correctly in all scenarios," said Valeria Bertacco, University of Michigan assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and co-investigator in the new technology.

"Almost all manufacturers must produce several prototypes of a given design before they attain a working chip."

The university's 'FogClear' method uses puzzle-solving search algorithms to diagnose problems early on and automatically adjust the blueprint for the chip. It reduces parts of the process from days to hours.

"Practically all complicated chips have bugs, and finding all bugs is intractable," said Igor Markov, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Michigan.

"Manufacturers are producing chips that must work for almost all applications, from email to chess, but they cannot be validated for every possible condition. It is physically impossible."

In the current system, a chip design is first validated in simulations. Then a draft is cast in silicon, and this first prototype undergoes additional verification with more realistic applications.

If a bug is detected at this stage, an engineer must narrow down the cause of the problem and then craft a fix that does not disrupt the delicate balance of all other components of the system. This can take several days.

Engineers then produce new prototypes incorporating all the fixes. This process repeats until they arrive at a prototype that is free of bugs. For modern chips, the process of making sure a chip is free of bugs takes as much time as production.

FogClear automates this debugging process. Its creators say that the computer-aided design tool can catch subtle errors that several months of simulations would still miss.

Some bugs might take days or weeks before causing any miscomputation, and they might only do so under very rare circumstances, such as operating at high temperature.

The new tool searches for and finds the simplest way to fix a bug, i.e. the one that has the least impact on the working parts of the chip. The solution usually requires reconnecting certain wires, and does not affect transistors.