PSS Fundamentals: Actions, Components, and Test Generation · Bits, Bytes, and Gates

PSS Fundamentals: Actions, Components, and Test Generation

Complex engineering endeavors require complex calculations. It’s open to debate as to when the first engineering project that required complex calculations occurred. What we do know is that those calculations would have been done by hand. And this state largely remained until the broad availability of the electronic calculator in the 1950s and 1960s, even as engineering projects and the technology we used to accomplish them become more ambitious.

Computing Division of the US Veterans Bureau, 1924. Image Courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

But this doesn’t mean that “computers” (those individuals performing computations with pen and ink or simple mechanical machines) were left to compute everything from the ground up. Fortunately, books were published containing mathematical tables that provided the pre-computed results of standard trigonometric functions for various input values. The data in these books of mathematical tables would, of course, have been produced laboriously by some other “computer” or “computers” working with pen and paper. But, they were invaluable at increasing the speed with which complex calculations could be completed by hand.

Logarithmic and Trigonometric Tables Book. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

What does this have to do with Portable Test and Stimulus (PSS)? PSS is specifically designed to enable PSS processing tools to pre-compute the result of complex test scenario relationships in order to make the best use of instructions running at a few Hertz on a simulated RTL model of the design processor. But, before we get to how PSS creates tests, we need to learn about two fundamental PSS concepts: Actions and Components

Actions and Layered Test Modeling

Our next key topic is the Action. As it so happens, several languages and description formats use the notion of Action. After all, it is a very intuitive term to capture an element that is all about describing and encapsulating behavior. Before digging into actions, it is helpful to understand how PSS divides a description of test behavior into two portions.

PSS Modeling and Realization Layers.

The upper portion, called the Modeling Layer, contains the constraintt-driven features for modeling test scenarios, and is responsible for capturing the space of interesting and useful behaviors.

In contrast, the realization layer is more-or-less intended to carry out the instructions of the modeling layer, and contains familiar procedural statements such as appear in other programming languages like C, Java, and Python. The realization layer is also where we’ll find constructs for reading and writing registers and memory. While the realization layer makes local decisions, often related to handshaking with the device it controls, the modeling layer is intended to make the big-picture decisions about how the system is exercised.

Connecting Modeling and Realization Layers

As the diagram suggests, Actions bridge the boundary between modeling and realization layer because they can contain both modeling and realization aspects. In all cases, actions group the data, constraints, and implementation for a given behavior.

action check_reg_reset_vals {
    list<bit[32]> reset_vals = {0x0000_0000, 0x0180_2FFF, 0x8000_0000};
    rand bit[8] start;

    constraint start in [0..reset_vals.size()-1];

    exec body {
        bit[32] off, addr, val;
        repeat (i : reset_vals.size()) {
            off = ((start + i)%reset_vals.size());
            addr = 0x1000_0000 + 4*off;
            val = read32(addr);

            if (val != reset_vals[off]) {
                error("Failed to read register at 0x%08x: read 0x%08x ; expected %08x",
                    addr, val, reset_vals[off]);

The example above is an action that checks the reset value of registers in the design. It contains a list of register expected values, and a random variable that will specify the order in which the action checks the reset values – just to be sure that the order in which we access registers doesn’t change behaviors. This is our modeling layer.

The realization layer of the example is contained in the body block. This is the code that carries out the ‘higher-level’ decisions made by the modeling layer. In this case, we:

  • Loop over the set of registers we need to check
  • Compute the offset and address of the selected register which are relative to a random starting point.
  • Read it, check against the expected value, and report any mismatches.

Even this tiny action begins to show some of the value of modeling scenarios with PSS. Our code is similar to what we might write in C and, if anything, is a bit more compact. Let’s come back to this example to see how PSS can help us with generating test variants.

One other thing that we’ll come back to are activities. The action above is called an atomic action. An atomic action is a leaf-level action that is implemented in terms of procedural code. We can also implement the behavior of an action in terms of other actions. This so-called activity provides us an expanded set of modeling features.


Components are the other key PSS fundamentals construct for this post. The requirement for components stems from the observation that actions in a system act on a specific context. A DMA transfer action must act on a specific DMA controller, because there are likely to be several in a system. A DMA transfer action needs to know things like what the base address is for the DMA controller registers. The PSS Component construct fills this requirement for a persistent, static entity to model physical entities, the resources they contain, and the operations that can be performed on them.

component dma_c {
    action mem2mem_a {
        // ...

    // ...

component subsys_c {
    dma_c           dma0;
    dma_c           dma1;

    // ...

Components may be composed hierarchically, much as designs are. So, if your subsystem design contains two instances of a DMA controller IP, your PSS component that represents the subsystem from a test perspective will as well.

Components is another topic that we will revisit in greater depth in a future post. For now, their fundamental attributes are:

  • The component tree remains constant for the lifetime of the test
  • A component type groups the supported behaviors and resources required by those behaviors
  • Each action execution is associated with a corresponding instance of a component

Test Creation Flow

PSS breaks the execution of a PSS model into two large phases:

  • Solve – Constraints are solved, random variable values are assigned, etc
  • Target – Behavior executes on the target platform

The goal is to enable separating or combining these phases depending on the characteristics of the environment.

PSS Pre-Gen Test Generation Flow.

The figure above shows a typical pre-generation flow targeted at producing bare-metal test software for SoC integration verification. In this case, simplifying computations performed on the target platform is a key goal, since the simulated RTL processor model runs at a very low effective clock speed.

Looking back at our ‘register reset test’ action, the implementation code might look like the following:

int main() {
  uint32_t val;
  uint32_t ret = 0;

  val = *((volatile uint32_t *)0x10000004);
  if (val != 0x01802FFF) {
    error("Failed to read register at 0x%08x: read 0x%08x ; expected %08x",
         0x10000004, val, 0x01802FFF);
    ret |= 1;
  val = *((volatile uint32_t *)0x10000008);
  if (val != 0x80000000) {
    error("Failed to read register at 0x%08x: read 0x%08x ; expected %08x",
        0x10000008, val, 0x80000000);
    ret |= 1;
  val = *((volatile uint32_t *)0x10000000);
  if (val != 0x00000000) {
    error("Failed to read register at 0x%08x: read 0x%08x ; expected %08x",
        0x10000000, val, 0x00000000);
    ret |= 1;
  return ret;

Note that, in this case, the PSS processing tool has pre-computed the random starting index, unrolled the loop, and pre-computed addresses in order to minimize instructions executed on the target platform. It could also have locally-computed a random value between 0 and 2 for the starting index. Due to the abstraction level at which the test behavior is defined, the PSS processing tool has many implementations options that can be traded off against the requirements of the implementation platform.

Much as mathematical tables helped human computers to maximize the results they were able to produce by hand, the PSS semantics that enable pre-computation of results help PSS-created tests maximize test throughput on simulated hardware platforms.

Looking Forward

In this post, we have learned about two key PSS constructs: actions and components. Actions describe model-level behavior and connect that high-level behavior to test realization implementation via exec blocks. Components describe structure, and group behaviors (actions) with the resources they require. From now on, every example will be built from Actions and Components, and we will add new ways that PSS enables actions and components to interact.

In the next post, we will begin to look in more detail at the declarative basis of the PSS language. Being, first and foremost, declarative makes PSS a bit different as languages go, but also enables many of its most impressive capabilities.

Copyright 2014-2023 Matthew Ballance. All Rights Reserved
The views and opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or any other party.

Posts in the series "Intro to PSS"

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