Early Hardware/Firmware Collaboration

A few years ago, I was invited to a high-level design review of a new SoC. The proposed design contained an I/O block that needed features added. I successfully convinced them to replace that block instead with an existing block that had the needed features, had seen silicon, and had a functional driver. Months later on real hardware, bringing up the driver for that block was painless.

This incident illustrates the benefits of early collaboration between hardware and firmware engineers. All too often, though, the early phases of embedded systems projects consist solely of hardware engineers working on the design of the hardware without firmware engineers involved. This practice makes it difficult to produce designs flexible and robust enough to support features that also rely on firmware. By working together, however, hardware and firmware engineers can avoid these problems.

Early collaboration of hardware and firmware engineers (both formally and informally) gets both groups talking to each other. Each group has a different perspective of their respective needs and of the embedded system. Here are some benefits you can expect:

  • Reviewing the system requirements together helps reconcile differences and produce a more comprehensive view of the requirements. This helps assure the design meets the requirements.
  • Some features can be implemented in either hardware or firmware. Working together, engineers can discuss where the line should be drawn between hardware and firmware, taking into account trade-offs such as performance, flexibility and ease of implementation.
  • Collaboration ensures the design of the hardware/firmware interface leads to a smoother integration of hardware and firmware into the embedded product as a whole.

Hardware and firmware engineers reap these and other benefits when they collaborate early.

Best Practice: Start collaboration between hardware and firmware engineers during the initial hardware high-level design phase.

Formal hardware development processes typically include checkpoints with formal reviews and signoffs by key personnel, assuring successful completion of all criteria. Firmware participation in the hardware checkpoints encourages hardware and firmware engineers to review the documentation together and jointly resolve any issues they uncover.

Best Practice: Include firmware representation in reviews and signoffs of hardware checkpoints throughout the life cycle.

Until our next collaboration…