What is AMBA, and why use it?

The Arm Advanced Microcontroller Bus Architecture, or AMBA, is an open-standard, on-chip interconnect specification for the connection and management of functional blocks in system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs.

Essentially, AMBA protocols define how functional blocks communicate with each other.

The following diagram shows an example of an SoC design. This SoC has several functional blocks that use AMBA protocols like AXI4 and AXI3 to communicate with each other:

Where is AMBA used?

AMBA simplifies the development of designs with multiple processors and large numbers of controllers and peripherals. However, the scope of AMBA has increased over time, going far beyond just microcontroller devices.

Today, AMBA is widely used in a range of ASIC and SoC parts. These parts include applications processors that are used in devices like IoT subsystems, smartphones, and networking SoCs.

Why use AMBA?

AMBA provides several benefits:

Efficient IP reuse
IP reuse is an essential component in reducing SoC development costs and timescales. AMBA specifications provide the interface standard that enables IP reuse. Therefore, thousands of SoCs, and IP products, are using AMBA interfaces.
Flexibility
AMBA offers the flexibility to work with a range of SoCs. IP reuse requires a common standard while supporting a wide variety of SoCs with different power, performance, and area requirements. Arm offers a range of interface specifications that are optimized for these different requirements.
Compatibility
A standard interface specification, like AMBA, allows compatibility between IP components from different design teams or vendors.
Support
AMBA is well supported. It is widely implemented and supported throughout the semiconductor industry, including support from third-party IP products and tools.

Bus interface standards like AMBA, are differentiated through the performance that they enable. The two main characteristics of bus interface performance are:

Bandwidth
The rate at which data can be driven across the interface. In a synchronous system, the maximum bandwidth is limited by the product of the clock speed and the width of the data bus.
Latency
The delay between the initiation and completion of a transaction. In a burst-based system, the latency figure often refers to the completion of the first transfer rather than the entire burst.

The efficiency of your interface depends on the extent to which it achieves the maximum bandwidth with zero latency.

How has AMBA evolved?

AMBA has evolved over the years to meet the demands of processors and new technologies, as shown in the following diagram:

 

AMBA 1

Arm introduced AMBA in the late 1990s. The first AMBA buses were the Advanced System Bus (ASB) and the Advanced Peripheral Bus (APB). ASB has been superseded by more recent protocols, while APB is still widely used today.

APB is designed for low-bandwidth control accesses, for example, register interfaces on system peripherals. This bus has a simple address and data phase and a low complexity signal list.

AMBA 2

In 1999, AMBA 2 added the AMBA High-performance Bus (AHB), which is a single clock-edge protocol. A simple transaction on the AHB consists of an address phase and a subsequent data phase. Access to the target device is controlled through a MUX, admitting access to one requester at a time. AHB is pipelined for performance, while APB is not pipelined for design simplicity.

AMBA 3

In 2003, Arm introduced the third generation, AMBA 3, which includes ATB and AHB-Lite.

Advanced Trace Bus (ATB), is part of the CoreSight on-chip debug and trace solution.

AHB-Lite is a subset of AHB. This subset simplifies the design for a bus with a single requester.

Advanced eXtensible Interface (AXI), the third generation of AMBA interface defined in the AMBA 3 specification, is targeted at high performance, high clock frequency system designs. AXI includes features that make it suitable for high-speed submicrometer interconnect.

AMBA 4

In 2010, the AMBA 4 specifications were introduced, starting with AMBA 4 AXI4 and then AMBA 4 AXI Coherency Extensions (ACE) in 2011.

ACE extends AXI with additional signaling introducing system-wide coherency. This system-wide coherency allows multiple processors to share memory and enables technology like big.LITTLE processing. At the same time, the ACE-Lite protocol enables one-way coherency. One-way coherency enables a network interface to read from the caches of a fully coherent ACE processor.

The AXI4-Stream protocol is designed for unidirectional data transfers from requester to completer with reduced signal routing, which is ideal for implementation in FPGAs.

AMBA 5

In 2014, the AMBA 5 Coherent Hub Interface (CHI) specification was introduced, with a redesigned high-speed transport layer and features designed to reduce congestion. There have been several editions of the CHI protocol, and each new version adds new features.

In 2016, the AHB-Lite protocol was updated to AHB5, to complement the Armv8-M architecture, and extend the TrustZone security foundation from the processor to the system.

In 2019, the AMBA Adaptive Traffic Profiles (ATP) was introduced. ATP complements the existing AMBA protocols and is used for modeling high-level memory access behavior in a concise, simple, and portable way.

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