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Abstraction: the suppression of irrelevant detail

Abstraction is the single most important tool in designing complex systems. There is simply no way to design a million lines of code, whether it be hardware or software, without using multiple levels of abstraction. But, what exactly is abstraction? Most designers know intuitively that, for example, a high-level programming language ,such as C, is a higher level of abstraction than assembly language. Equivalently, in hardware, RTL is a higher level abstraction than gate-level. However, few designers understand the theoretical basis for abstraction. If we believe that the solution to designing ever more complex systems is higher levels of abstraction, then it is important to understand the basic theory of what makes one description of a design more or less abstract than another.

There are four types of abstraction that are used in building hardware/software systems:

  • structural
  • behavioral
  • data
  • temporal

Structural Abstraction

Structure refers to the concrete objects that make up a system and their composition For example, the concrete objects that make up a chip are gates. If we write at the RTL level of abstraction:

    a = b + c;

this is describing an adder, but the details of all the gates and their connections is suppressed because they are not relevant at this level of description. In software, the concrete objects being hidden are the CPU registers, program counter, stack pointer, etc. For example, in a high-level language, a function call looks like:


The equivalent machine-level code will have instructions to push and pop operands and jump to the specified subroutine. The high-level language hides these irrelevant details.

In general, structural abstraction means specifying functions in terms of inputs and outputs only. Structural abstraction is the most fundamental type of abstraction used in design. It is what enables a designer to enter large designs.

Behavioral Abstraction

Abstracting behavior means not specifying what should happen for certain inputs and/or states. Behavioral abstraction can really only be applied to functions that have been structurally abstracted. Structural abstraction means that a function is specified by a table mapping inputs to outputs. Behavioral abstraction means that the table is not completely filled in.

Behavioral abstraction is not used in design, but is extremely useful, in fact, necessary, in verification. Verification engineers instinctively use behavioral abstraction without even realizing it. A verification environment consists of two parts: a generator that generates input stimulus, and a checker, which checks that the output is correct. It is very common for checkers not to be able to check the output for all possible input values. For example, it is common to find code such as:

    if (response_received)
        if (response_data != expected_data)

The checker only specifies the correct behavior if a response is received. It says nothing about the correct behavior if no response is received.

A directed test is an extreme example of behavioral abstraction. Suppose I write the following directed test for an adder:

    a = 2;
    b = 2;
    if (out != 4)

The checker is the last two lines, but it only specifies the output for inputs, a=2, b=2, and says nothing about any other input values.

Data Abstraction

Data abstraction is a mapping from a lower-level type to a higher-level type. The most obvious data abstraction, which is common to both hardware and software, is the mapping of an N-bit vector onto the set of integers. Other data abstractions exist. In hardware, a binary digit is an abstraction of the analog values that exist on a signal. In software, a struct is an abstraction of its individual members.

An interesting fact about data abstraction is that the single most important abstraction, from bit vector to integer, is not actually a valid abstraction. When we treat values as integers, we expect that they obey the rules or arithmetic, however, fixed with bit vectors do not, specifically when operations overflow. To avoid this, a bit width is chosen such that no overflow is possible, or special overflow handling is done.

Temporal Abstraction

This last abstraction type really only applies to hardware. Temporal abstraction means ignoring how long it takes to perform a function. A simple example of this is the zero-delay gate model often used in gate-level simulations. RTL also assumes all combinational operations take zero time.

It is also possible to abstract cycles. For example, a pipelined processor requires several cycles to complete an operation. In verification, it is common to create an unpipelined model of the processor that completes all operations in one cycle. At the end of a sequence of operations, the architecturally visible state of the two models should be the same. This is useful because an unpipelined model is usually much simpler to write than a pipelined one.

The four abstractions described above comprise a basis for the majority of abstractions used in design and verification. That is, any abstraction we are likely to encounter is some combination of the above abstractions. However, we are still left with the question of what is a valid abstraction. I will defer answering this until the next post.

(note: this discussion is based on the paper, “Abstraction Mechanisms for Hardware Verification” by Tom Melham. There is slightly more high-level description of these abstractions in this paper along with a lot of boring technical detail that you probably want to skip.)


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Bugs Are Easy essays on designing complex systems About « Abstraction 101: Making Sense of Complex Systems […]

  2. […] does OOP represent an increase in the level of abstraction? We can answer this by looking at the four types of abstraction. OOP languages have the same level of structural abstraction as non-OOP procedural languages. The […]

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