SUNNYVALE, Calif. In a possible software simulation breakthrough, Cygnus Solutions Inc. has delivered a simulation package for the Sony Playstation 2 that allowed game developers to begin software testing before the proprietary game platform was even available.
Best known as a provider of open-source software tools on the GNU platform, Cygnus has been working to speed up software simulation. With Playstation 2, the company managed to deliver a functional simulator that let developers validate games prior to getting their hands on the actual hardware.
"The fundamental problem is that simulation is slow," said Sayan Chakraborty, vice president of engineering for Cygnus (Sunnyvale, Calif.). "When people have done simulation in the past, it's been hundreds of thousands, or millions, of times slower than real hardware."
Cygnus had developed a suite of software tools such as compilers and debuggers for the 128-bit Toshiba Corp. processor at the heart of the Playstation 2. Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. tapped Cygnus for additional software help, but also wanted to hedge its bets: In the event that the Playstation 2 hardware was late in coming, Sony didn't want game development to be stalled, since lack of game titles would jeopardize the system's launch.
"What they were afraid of, and what happened, is that complex hardware is delayed and often doesn't ship on schedule," Chakraborty said.
So Sony, which previously relied on hardware emulation, took a chance on software simulation, asking Cygnus to create a software-based replica of what the hardware was expected to do.
Neither company had any reason to believe the project would work. "It was to some degree a leap of faith," Chakraborty said. "Neither we nor Sony knew [if] this would be viable."
But Cygnus was hoping that a few proprietary tricks, coupled with advances in computer-desktop speeds, would make simulation run at usable rates.
The company didn't bother developing a cycle-accurate simulator one that would track all the data going through the system and concentrated instead on mimicking the system's functions. That means real-time tests or timing measurements weren't possible. But Cygnus was able to provide a level of simulation accurate enough to test major functionality within games.
"We found a software developer could do a reasonable amount of stuff" that way, Chakraborty said. "We could deliver the software performance that, while still not in the range of real hardware, was good enough."
The biggest single technique Cygnus brought to bear, he said, "was to simplify the hardware," ignoring the parts that didn't affect software development. The company did add some "rifle-shot" modifications for accurate modeling of specific hardware cases, Chakraborty said, but those were kept to a minimum. "The more you model of the hardware, the slower the simulator goes," he said.
Cygnus will expand its software-simulation offerings quickly, since executives expect the growing percentage of software in systems to increase the demand for simulators.
"The deal with Sony allowed them to get into creating these virtual hardware models," which gives Cygnus a "backdoor" into the hardware-software codevelopment market that other software houses are chasing, said Jerry Krasner, research editor for the Electronic Market Forecasters group of Miller Freeman. Moreover, Cygnus has an "in" with a consumer-electronics giant, something most software competitors don't enjoy.
"They're very smart," Krasner said of Cygnus. "Instead of draining their resources trying to be a big code maker, they're going in to iLogic [and others], saying 'Here's what we've got do you want to work with us?' "