Using Z3 to Find Clock Configurations Values for ARM Cortex Microcontrollers

Chris Woodall | 2016-11-06

A few weeks ago I was setting up multiple embedded systems using the NXP Kinetis K64F12 family of microcontrollers. Do to an oversight a few of the different systems had different input clock frequencies, but all were intended to work at the same output clock frequency. This is not a major issue and the ARM Cortex-M4 processors are designed to solve this issue using a phase-locked loop (PLL). A PLL can take a clock, of one frequency and output a rather clean clock of another frequency; however, it must be properly configured. My problem now was a configuration, and mathematics problem. The parameters are calculated using the following equation:

$f_{out} = VDIV * \frac{f_{in}}{PRDIV}$, where $VDIV$ and $PRDIV$ are the parameters needed for the configuration. and $f_{in}$ and $f_{out}$ are your input and output frequency which you know ahead of time.

A solution to this equation is straightforward but requires a little bit of guessing, and also checking your answers against a series of constraints specified in the datasheet. The details of this equation and its related constraints will be approached later. I wanted to automate this task so in the future I could just adjust these values without having to dig out the datasheet and do the math again. Also to possibly automate making the clock configuration code to prevent me from being the only person who understood how to configure the clocks.

What is someone who loves automation to do? Well, you could solve the equation directly. However, Michael Abed introduced me to a program and library called Z3 which is a constraints solver from Microsoft Research which I found interesting and wanted to do a simple project with since I thought it might be useful in the future. Also, this problem is well-suited as it can take a series of equations and constraints and search the solution space rather trivially easily. Also, it has a way of deciding if no solution is possible. So I decided to use the Z3 python bindings to create a python library, with a command line tool and a web API for solving this problem. This is most certainly overkill, but considering how easily it all went together I would do it again to solve similar problems.

You can see the code on GitHub and also play with see the resulting website and API demo. But read on for more details!

Constraining The Problem

Z3 is a constraint solver, so the constraints needs to be specified in a way that Z3 can understand and used. For those who want to follow along at home I created an ipython notebook. To get started with it you will need to install the Z3 python package:

$ sudo pip install z3-solver

The first step is to specify the parameters we will be dealing with. Looking at the equation above and the datasheet the parameters can be determined to be f_in, f_out, d ($PRDIV$) and m ($VDIV$) which can all be constrained to the set of Integers. The z3.Int() type will handle this.

from z3 import *

# Lets create a dictionary of all of our parameters.
# Where:
#    - f_in: Input Frequency
#    - f_out: Output Frequency
#    - d: PRDIV from datasheet. This is the division term
#    - m: VDIV from datasheet. This is the multiply term
params = {k: Int(k) for k in ['f_in', 'f_out', 'd', 'm']}

Now that the model parameters have been determined and appropriately constrained to the Integer space, the remaining constraints need to be set. To do this an array of “facts” will be created which will tell Z3 about our solution space. This will include our equation for f_out in terms of f_in, d and m, but there are also other constraints to make the values valid. These are found in the datasheet for the K64F12 family on pages 589 and 590, and come in the form of ranges for d and m. The most important performance based constraint is formed around f_in / d which determines the frequency of the input to the phase-locked loops (PLL) multiplier stage. The facts are easy to write now. It is important to note that the parameters are used to specify the constraints:

# Lets look at the datasheet and define some constraints on value ranges
# The range tuples are in the format (lower_bound, upper_bound)
divide_range = (2e6, 4e6) # From K64F12 datasheet page 589
d_range = (1, 25)         # From K64F12 datasheet page 589
m_range = (24, 55)        # From K64F12 datasheet page 590

# Get the input and output frequency as user inputs.
# This is a quick and dirty handling of the inputs.
freq_in = 25e6
freq_out = 120e6

# Now we can constrain the equation with the "facts" we know
facts = [
    # define
    params['f_in'] == freq_in,
    params['f_out'] == freq_out,

    # Setup the equation which uses PRDIV (d) and VDIV (m)
    # This equation is set up from the K64 datasheet
    params['f_out'] == (params['f_in'] / params['d']) * params['m'],

    # From K64 datasheet page 589
    params['f_in'] / params['d'] >= divide_range[0],
    params['f_in'] / params['d'] <= divide_range[1],

    # From K64 datasheet page 589
    params['d'] >= d_range[0],  
    params['d'] <= d_range[1],

    # From K64 datasheet page 590
    params['m'] >= m_range[0],  
    params['m'] <= m_range[1]]

Now the z3.solve() function can be used to solve the model:

# To print out the results
model = solve(facts)

Which results in:

[d = 10, m = 48, f_out = 120000000, f_in = 25000000]

Now it would be great to be able to take the newly found model parameter values and use them. So let’s print out the model directly to see what we have:

# But the model returns none
print model

Yielding a resounding:


Oh no… It turns out that convenient solve() function does not return the model, it just prints out the results to STDIO. To me this was not obvious at all. What do we do instead? We use the Z3 Solver class, which is much more versatile. However, for this particular case I wrote a function solve_return_model(), which acts like the solve() function but returns the solved model instead of printing it, or an Z3Exception if there is no constrained solution:

#This method is defined in k64_pll_calculator/
def solve_return_model(fact_list):
    The default z3.solve() method prints to the screen. This uses the basis of
    that function to take a list of facts, add it to a solver and then return
    a z3 model with a solution.

    Relies on exceptions raised by calling s.mode() on an invalid model.

    @param a list of z3 facts and constraints
    @return A valid z3 model
    @raises Z3Exception
    s = Solver()
    r = s.check()
    if r == unsat:
        print("no solution")
    elif r == unknown:
        print("failed to solve")

    return s.model()

model = solve_return_model(facts)


So now we can print the model out:

[d = 10, m = 48, f_out = 120000000, f_in = 25000000]

And we can access our individual parameters:

print("Now we can play with the model: f_in == {}".format(model[params['f_in']]))


Now we can play with the model: f_in == 25000000

Once a solution for $PRDIV$ and $VDIV$ has been found those values can be reported and modified as needed. In this particular case they still need to be modified to be in the actually bit-wise representation from the datasheet (p 589). One idea I had was to feed these values into a clock configuration struct so I could generate my clock configuration header files directly.

Dressing Up The Solution

Once I finished learning about Z3 I decided to wrap the results up into two applications. The first was a CLI application which uses a library called click which is a:

Python package for creating beautiful command line interfaces in a composable way with as little code as necessary.

Usage is simple:

$ k64_pll_calculator --help
Usage: k64_pll_calculator [OPTIONS]

  Simple program which takes an input frequency and an output frequency and
  returns the PRDIV and vdiv necessary for the pll in the freescale k64

  -i, --freq_in FLOAT   Input frequency value in Hz
  -o, --freq_out FLOAT  Output frequency value in Hz
  -v, --verbosity       Verbosity of output
  --version             Show the version and exit.
  --help                Show this message and exit.

$ k64_pll_calculator -i 25e6 -o 120e6
[d = 10, m = 48, f_out = 120000000, f_in = 25000000]

$ k64_pll_calculator -i 1e6 -o 120e6
No results found.

And more importantly it was very easy to throw together. I have found click to be very easy to use and have been using it for more complicated command line applications.

The other interface I made was for the web demo which uses flask to create an API endpoint at /solve. I then used heroku to host it and a little bit of old school jQuery to make the form asynchronous. You can use the end point with HTTP GET requests and query strings as follows, returning JSON:

$ curl ""
  "payload": {
    "d": "8",
    "f_in": "20000000",
    "f_out": "80000000",
    "m": "32"
  "status": "success"

In the case where the model has no solution:

$ curl ""
  "payload": {
    "error": "model is not available"
  "status": "error"

And here is a little .gif example of the demo in action.

K64 PLL Calculator Demo


This was a fun distraction of a project. I got acquainted with a powerful tool Z3 and also spent some time with python unit testing, click, flask and dusting off some of my JavaScript skills (which made me want to update my skill set in that region). I am mostly excited about future applications of Z3 to my work, as it seems that many embedded systems problems and configuration problems follow a similar template, which is they are constraint solving problems. This particular problem was easy enough to do by hand, but I can think of many other cases where using Z3 to solve a problem off-target, and putting the final model parameters onto the embedded system could yield a high performance, low footprint solution.

Go forth and constrain your problems!

Please checkout the code on GitHub!