The topic of Formal Verification (FV) and how it relates to Coverage Driven Verification (CDV) came up in some previous posts and in a comment thread. So allow me to briefly discuss it – I promise to get back to the main course soon.
Before I continue, let me define what I mean by CDV (expect a more comprehensive post “soon”). I am using CDV here loosely, to mean a verification technique which has all (or most) of the following attributes:
- It consists of performing many runs with lots of randomness in them
- Normally using a constraint solver to produce random values which obey constraints
- It aims at going to corner cases of the design
- And thus random distributions do not always follow expected real-life distributions
- It is guided by a test plan or coverage plan, and involves collecting of functional coverage
- Though paradoxically, the part of CDV most often skipped is coverage collection and analysis
- It runs autonomously, day and night
- Thus no “human in the loop”, and with automatic checking and recording of failures and coverage
- It normally runs in simulation
- But can run with HW-in-the-loop, various kinds of emulation etc.
- Recorded failures can be reconstructed (for debugging) using the random seed
- Though some environments are just “mostly repeatable”, a funny (but useful) concept reminding me of “mostly dead”
This is in stark contrast to FV: In model checking (the main kind of FV for our purpose here), one checks statically (without running) that some set of assertions always holds for some model (where the model can be an abstract description of the DUT written in some notation, or actual pieces of the DUT like C or Verilog code, or a combination of these).
It is also important to note that while I have done CDV forever, I am not an expert on FV.
My main point, finally
If you are intimately familiar with hardware verification, then you know that many more HW bugs (taking together bugs found at the module, subsystem and chip level) are found via CDV (as defined above) than are found via FV.
However, if you are coming from outside that pressure cooker, then quite possibly you never heard of CDV, and you are sure FV is king. This is because FV has much better public relations, especially in the academic world, where it is considered more, well, formal, and hence the only “verification” worthy of the name. In fact, many academic people call non-formal verification “testing”, with some disdain.
Now don’t get me wrong here:
- FV is really important, in fact indispensable, for certain things
- Some areas of hardware verification (e.g. floating point engines) are verified almost exclusively using FV
- Where it can be applied, FV will find every place where an assertion does not hold
- FV capacity is growing all the time (but so are the designs-to-be-verified)
- The terminology / methodology that has grown up around FV is helpful for all verification
- Some of my best friends are formal-heads (really)
However, usually the price-performance (in Important-Bugs-found-per-Person-Hour, alias IB/PH) of doing CDV is simply much, much better, especially for large, complex, fuzzy, exploratory areas.
So: I am certainly not advocating less FV research, or anything like that. In fact, most of the advances in verification coming out of academia are made by “formal” people. But one reason for that (and for the fact that FV has come as far as it has) is that it has such a bunch of smart, dedicated people hammering on it.
All I am saying is that I can’t help but imagine how much good these folks would do if more of them went into the relatively-neglected CDV field, or “dynamic, simulation-based verification” or whatever you want to call it. There are certainly a lot of excellent people there as well, but the FV people outnumber them by a huge margin.
And if you think that CDV, unlike FV, has no interesting problems to research, than you are (and I say this with the greatest respect) stark raving mad. For instance, just look at all the big, conceptual problems in applying CDV to big-system verification, the kind of problems we’ll be discussing in this blog.
There, I said it. I feel much better now.
A few more comments
Obviously, one needs a mix of verification techniques – for realistic projects, one needs FV, CDV and a whole bunch of other things. Also, there is a lot of good work done in combining these techniques (e.g. look at Concolic testing).
Some areas are, perhaps, better suited for FV. For instance, one could argue that security is one, because in security (unlike functional verification) once a bug (vulnerability) is known, the bad guys will jump on it, so the concept of “a very rare bug” does not exist, so techniques (like CDV) which (somewhat) rely on the frequency of bug occurrence are (somewhat) less useful.
But even in security, most of the security holes which are found “by machine” (by either the good guys or the bad guys) are found via a technique called fuzzing. And “fuzzing” is roughly “the name security people gave to CDV”. For instance, check out the excellent, free AFL.
Another area where formal verification may be more appropriate is that futuristic / all-important / slightly-weird area of friendly-AI verification (I actually wrote a whole post about that area, but then decided it would be a distraction for the normal readership of this blog. You can still read it here if you’d like to be distracted).
FV is used extensively in safety-critical domains such as railroad switching. And a lot of safety critical software is automatically generated from formal models that have been model checked (Lustre etc). And like I said, this is all good: I don’t want less FV research, just more CDV research.
One final thing to remember about formal techniques: The assertions and models used in FV are also code (or textual / graphical notations – same thing) and as such also have bugs in them. Similarly when formally deriving SW from formal models: When somebody says “X is correct by construction”, all they mean is “X was automatically generated from Y, which is hopefully shorter and easier to understand”. And this is sometimes a vain hope: Quite often those formal notations are indeed shorter, but not easier to understand (for the intended audience). So they will have bugs in them, and you’d better do CDV-style verification of the result.
I’d like to thank Laurent Fournier and Yaron Kashai for reading earlier versions of this post.
Edited 15-July to add: See my comments to this post, containing some feedback I got which sheds a more positive light on current FV practice.