Difference between simulation and emulation

Car_racing_simulator_-_SBR_Racing,_Construma,_2015.04.17A simulation is a system that behaves similar to something else, but is implemented in an entirely different way. It provides the basic behaviour of a system but may not necessarily abide by all of the rules of the system being simulated. It is there to give you an idea about how something works.

Think of a flight simulator as an example. It looks and feels like you are flying an airplane, but you are completely disconnected from the reality of flying the plane, and you can bend or break those rules as you see fit. E.g.; Fly an Airbus A380 upside down between London and Sydney without breaking it.

An emulation is a system that behaves exactly like something else, and abides by all of the rules of the system being emulated. It’s like duplicating every aspect of the original device’s behaviour. It is effectively a complete replication of another system, right down to being binary compatible with the emulated system's inputs and outputs, but operating in a different environment to the environment of the original emulated system. The rules are fixed, and cannot be changed or the system fails.

Today hardware emulation has become an very popular tool for verification because of following reasons:

In the past few years, the emulation user community has expanded exponentially by the addition of software developers to the traditional base of hardware designers and verification engineers. 

Also, uses of hardware emulation have multiplied because of its versatility as a resource for debugging both the hardware and software of complex system-on-chip (SoC) designs. Hardware emulation is the only verification tool that can be deployed in more than one mode. In fact, it can be used in four main modes, some of which can be combined for added versatility. Because of this resourcefulness, hardware emulation can be used to achieve several verification objectives.

Following are the deployment modes for hardware emulator. These are characterized by type of stimulus applied to DUT:

  • In Circuit Emulation (ICE) : This was considered to be the traditional method when hardware emulation was deployed. In this case, the DUT is mapped inside the emulator and connected in in-circuit emulation (ICE) mode to the target system in place of a chip or processor for debug prior to silicon availability.
  • Transaction Based Acceleration (TBX) : Transaction-based emulation moves verification up a level of abstraction from the register transfer level (RTL), improving performance and debug productivity. It’s gaining popularity over the ICE mode because the physical target system is replaced by a virtual target system using a hardware verification language (HVL) such as
    SystemVerilog, SystemC, or C++.
  • Simulation Testbench Acceleration : In this mode, an RTL testbench drives the DUT in the emulator via a programmable logic interface (PLI). In general, this is the slowest performance mode, but it has some advantages, such as the fact that it does not require changes to the testbench.
  • Embeded Software Acceleration : In this mode, the software code is executed on the DUT processor mapped inside the emulator. This is the fastest performance mode, making it the choice for processing billions of verification cycles necessary to boot an operating system.

It is possible to mix some of the above modes, such as processing embedded software together with a virtual testbench driving the DUT via verification IP or even in ICE mode.

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