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 Limerick(2) - Why SpinalHDL? The History of HDL/HVL 2/20/2023

Hello, everyone. Welcome to the second episode of FPGA limerick. In this episode, we will talk about the benefit of SpinalHDL. And we will start by visiting the evolution history of HDL (Hardware Description Language).

History 101 for HDL/HVL

In the beginning of time when digital circuits started to emerge, everything was handcrafted. A typical example of such design practice is the ubiquitous presence of Texas Instruments’ 74-Series IC back then. At that time, a large digital circuit was usually composed of multiple discrete ICs (AND gate, OR gate, FlipFlop etc.). And the whole system was often bulky and slow.

But as Moore’s law settles in, the scale of digital circuit grew exponentially over the years. It calls for a better methodology and automation in design. And thus comes in the hardware description language.

The first hardware description language is VHDL. It was developed in 1983 under the funding of the Department of Defense. It was such a big deal at that time, and the VHDL was put under export control initially. As of today, a lot of US defense companies still use VHDL due to their DoD legacy.

At the same time, Verilog also emerged in the commercial world. Verilog was introduced by a company called Gateway Design Automation in 1984. (This company was later acquired by Cadence.). It offers similar design features to VHDL, but in a more concise fashion.

Oh! At this point, please allow me to hit a tangent on this. Because people often ask me: Between VHDL and Verilog, which one you think is better? And my answer is the following:

First of all, most of the time, you probably don’t have the privilege to choose. As for those well-established companies, the decision was made long time ago when the design team was initially formed. And libraries and code were created based that choice since then. New designs will always gravitate toward the same language for the sake of code reuse.

However, if you do have the chance to choose between VHDL and Verilog, I would recommend Verilog over VHDL for the following reasons:

a) VHDL is a strong typed language while Verilog is not. To use programming language as analogy, VHDL to Verilog is what Pascal to C. However, since VHDL and Verilog are both intended to describe hardware, every value eventually boils down to ones and zeros. The strong type offers little help besides making things awkward. And modern lint tools can do a much better job without using strong type.

b) The evolution of VHDL is lagging behind that of Verilog. Many useful features of Verilog 2001 can only find their counterparts in VHDL 2008. Wildcard and external names are two of the conspicuous examples.

c) Both VHDL and Verilog are weak on verification. In the early days, they have to rely on other languages, such as Vera, e or even tcl, for more advanced verification. But Verilog made up for this by upgrading itself to Systemverilog. As a superset of Verilog, Systemverilog is rich in features to enhance verification. 

d) For gate level simulation, Verilog holds a performance advantage over VHDL, because it has built-in primitives to describe gate level components. While VHDL has to rely on VITAL library in this regard. As a result of that, most 3rd party simulation libraries are in Verilog. So if your design is in VHDL, you have to acquire a mixed language license in addition to your existing VHDL license when you simulate a design that contains 3rd party library. As you might know, EDA licenses are notoriously expensive!

OK, let’s go back to our history lesson. After the VHDL / Verilog appeared in 1980s, the size of the design gets bigger and bigger. And their weakness on verification becomes prominent. So in 1990s, HVL (Hardware Verification Language) were introduced. The first HVL was Vera by Sun Microsystems in 1995. Followed by e language in 1996. And the Vera later turned into OpenVera, which becomes the foundation of SystemVerilog

And in 2001, the HDL and HVL finally merged into one language called SystemVerilog. The SystemVerilog borrowed pages from a lot of other languages, and it supports class for Object Oriented feature. And it also has interface feature for transaction level simulation. The UVM standard is also mainly based on SystemVerilog (Which is the random verification approach by introducing random stimulus and comparing the result with reference model.)

And around the same time, those folks in the CS (Computer Science) world starts to get their hands on the HDL/HVL as well. Now come to think of it, every digital component, such as NAND gate, Flip-Flop can all be modelled as a class. In that sense, the digital design and verification can all be accomplished using high level programming language, such as C++. This approach is also favored by system designers, as the system model is often in C++. With the System C, everything (all the way from system design to RTL design) can be completed using C++ only. That is a brilliant idea by itself!

However, due to the combination of multiple unfavorable circumstances, System C did not pan out. In particular, it failed to win the hearts of FPGA vendors. As of today, the main stream FPGA vendors (both AMD and Intel) only accept VHDL, Verilog and SystemVerilog as input for synthesis.

The reason for System C’s unpopularity is still up to debate. And here is an answer provided by ChatGPT.

And a decade after System C’s debut, the idea of using high level programming language to do hardware design revived. And this time, Scala has replaced C++ to do the job, and Chisel and SpinalHDL are the two offspring of such idea. To distinguish them from VHDL/Verilog/SystemVerilog, people have coined a tech term for them: HCL (Hardware Construction Language). As mentioned in previous episode, for HCL, our bet is on the SpinalHDL side. And here is why:

1. The design done in HDL (VHDL/Verilog/SystemVerilog) is still too wordy. Practically, for the same design, the number of lines in SpinalHDL is only half of that for SystemVerilog.

2. The HDL (VHDL/Verilog/SystemVerilog) lacks high level data structure for design. Although SystemVerilog has introduced some high-level features like OO, they are mainly used for verification. The design in HDL is still done with very low-level data structure (like always for Verilog or process for VHDL). Again, to use programming language as analogy, HDL is more like Assembly while the HCL is more like modern high level programming language. 

3. To choose SpinalHDL over Chisel, the SpinalHDL holds certain advantages like those shown here.

Important Links for SpinalHDL 

And here are some important links for SpinalHDL:

Invented by Charles Papon








Synthesis Flow for SpinalHDL

As for the synthesis flow, the SpinalHDL relies on SBT as the make for build. And it will produce VHDL, Verilog or SystemVerilog as the result.

Simulation Flow for SpinalHDL

And for simulation, behind the scene, the SpinalHDL will be compiled into Verilog, and simulated by Verilator. The verilator will actually turn the Verilog into C++, and running the simulation under GCC and JDK. 

And please don’t worry about those details at this point, as we will elaborate on SpinalHDL in later episodes. 

For the next episode, we will get hands-on for SpinalHDL, starting by setting up the development environment and a hello-world example.

    Posted by FPGA Limerick at February 20, 2023


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