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Modeling Large Memories in SystemC

Comments(4)Filed under: Verilog, linux, SystemC, TLM, virtual platforms, Memory, virtual prototypes, Zynq, SystemC memories, SDRAM, memory models, modeling memories

Sometimes Virtual Platforms model systems with large amounts of memory. Many embedded systems have a gigabyte or more of SDRAM. For example, one of the Xilinx Zynq boards, known as ZC702, has a Linux Device Tree source file defining the memory size as 0x40000000, or 1 Gb. Thinking about a SystemC model with a memory size of 1 Gb is a little troubling since it immediately triggers thoughts of a simulation footprint larger than 1 Gb, unless something more complex than a simple array of bytes is used for the memory model.

Considering large memories triggers thoughts of the old days when things like sparse memory models were used in Verilog simulation. I remember back in 1996 or 1997 using something called "damem" that was part of Verilog-XL. It was a set of Verilog system tasks for modeling memory that did not allocate the memory until it was used. This was a convenient way to have large memories when much of the memory was not used in a particular simulation. I checked today and damem is still provided in the current Incisive release. Ordinary Verilog now has (or probably has had for a long time) a sparse pragma to do the same thing:

    reg [31:0] /*sparse*/ mem [0:3000000];

Let's get back to SystemC and TLM-2.0 Virtual Platforms to see how to deal with large memories. The Cadence Virtual System Platform provides an example memory model named simple_memory.h which is just like the name says, simple. It's very easy to use for various types of memory in a typical Virtual Platform. The interface looks like this:

    static sc_time LATENCY(10, SC_NS);
    static sc_time DMI_LATENCY(2.5, SC_NS);
    simple_memory( sc_module_name name_,
                   unsigned size_,
                   unsigned char init_val = 0x0,
                   bool do_wait_ = 0,
                   bool do_dmi_ = 1,
                   sc_time& rdelay_ = LATENCY,
                   sc_time& wdelay_ = LATENCY,
                   sc_time& dmi_rdelay_ = DMI_LATENCY,
                   sc_time& dmi_wdelay_ = DMI_LATENCY );

Usage in a platform may look like this:

    #define MYBUSWIDTH 32
    bool do_dmi = 1;
    bool do_wait = 0;

    simple_memory<MYBUSWIDTH> *program_memory = new simple_memory<MYBUSWIDTH> ("program_memory", 0x8000000L, 0x00, do_wait, do_dmi);

The memory is implemented as a simple array of bytes:

    m_mem_array = new unsigned char[m_size];

If an initial value is provided the array is initialized to the provided value using memset() and if no initial value is provided the array is initialized to a default value of 0:

    std::memset(m_mem_array, init_val_, m_size);

Using such a memory model for a 1 Gb memory will result in a simulation which uses a lot of memory. Below is the screenshot of top when the simple_memory is used with a size of 1 Gb in the Zynq Virtual Platform.

Of course when Linux is running it will not use all of the memory -- so immediately ideas of a sparse memory model, or a model that breaks up the full memory into chunks or pages and only allocates memory when needed, comes to mind. There are other ways to conserve memory usage such as not allocating a page when it is read from before any writes occur, since the default value can always be returned. All of this requires a more complex memory model.

There is a quick-and-dirty solution that avoids having to write a more complex memory model. The key is to not initialize the memory at all. In C++ the new operator allocates the memory, but the memory will not become resident until it is actually used. It becomes part of the processes virtual memory, but is not swapped into physical memory until used.

This is the beauty of virtual memory and demand paging. By simply skipping the memset() the amount of memory actually used by the process is much lower, because Linux doesn't actually use all of the memory for many applications. Of course, some applications could use all of the memory, but in that case a sparse memory model won't help either. Below is the screen shot of top without calling memset() for a 1 Gb memory model.

Read the descriptions of VIRT and RES on the top main page. I found one page that even stated this difference is a common interview question.

By adding another constructor parameter to indicate to skip the initial value of the memory and bypass memset(), we have seen a way to use less memory in TLM-2.0 Virtual Platform simulations. I'm sure readers have much more experience with different types of memory models and techniques used to conserve memory, or maybe memory is so cheap nobody cares about memory size anymore.

Reader thoughts are always welcome.

Jason Andrews


By Nizamudheen Ahmed on April 25, 2012
Hi Jason,
Good article. The memset trick was interesting one. No one would think from the host's MMU and memory management techniques while implementing the model. Invariably, memset would creep in so as to ensure determinism. However, one could always return a fixed pattern when a memory is allocated, but not written to. Thanks for the insight.

By Anup Zade on May 23, 2012
I tried to use this technique.
I get std::bad_alloc exception as soon as I try to allocate the memory  as follows  
m_mem_array = new unsigned char[m_size];
Because the memory size which I am asking to allocate to OS is too huge .
so Os throws exception for that .
I wonder how it worked for the author , may be it works for very small amount of memory .

By jasona on June 8, 2012
Anup, you are probably running out of virtual memory. Use the Linux free command to see how much memory and swap you have and compare to the size of memory you are trying to allocate. If your swap space is pretty small you will have trouble. My example was for 1 Gb of modeled memory and it will work on a machine with as little as 2 Gb RAM and 2 Gb swap space. I think most machines should have 4 or 8 Gb of RAM and an equal amount of swap space.

By Anup Zade on June 13, 2012
Hi Jason ,
Thanks for the reply .
My requirements is to model really large memories of several GBs .
As this article is titled as "Modeling Large Memories in SystemC"   I thought it would be useful .
But again the terms 'Large' is relative ...
Also I am on corporate network so I don't have any control on amount of memory installed on servers or amount of swap space allocated .
So I am back to my old techniques   ;-)

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