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Chapter: Digital Logic Circuits : VHDL

HDL and programming languages

A HDL is analogous to a software programming language, but with major differences.

HDL and programming languages


A HDL is analogous to a software programming language, but with major differences. Programming languages are inherently procedural (single-threaded), with limited syntactical and semantic support to handle concurrency. HDLs, on the other hand, can model multiple parallel processes (such as flipflops, adders, etc.) that automatically execute independently of one another. Any change to the process's input automatically triggers an update in the simulator's process stack. Both programming languages and HDLs are processed by a compiler (usually called a synthesizer in the HDL case), but with different goals. For HDLs, 'compiler' refers to synthesis, a process of transforming the HDL code listing into a physically realizable gate netlist. The netlist output can take any of many forms: a "simulation" netlist with gate-delay information, a "handoff" netlist for post-synthesis place and route, or a generic industry-standard EDIF format (for subsequent conversion to a JEDEC-format file).


On the other hand, a software compiler converts the source-code listing into a microprocessor-specific object-code, for execution on the target microprocessor. As HDLs and programming languages borrow concepts and features from each other, the boundary between them is becoming less distinct. However, pure HDLs are unsuitable for general purpose software application development, just as general-purpose programming languages are undesirable for modeling hardware. Yet as electronic systems grow increasingly complex, and reconfigurable systems become increasingly mainstream, there is growing desire in the industry for a single language that can perform some tasks of both hardware design and software programming. SystemC is an example of suchembedded system hardware can be modeled as non-detailed architectural blocks (blackboxes with modeled signal inputs and output drivers). The target application is written in C/C++, and natively compiled for the host-development system (as opposed to targeting the embedded CPU, which requires host-simulation of the embedded CPU). The high level of abstraction of SystemC models is well suited to early architecture exploration, as architectural modifications can be easily evaluated with little concern for signal-level implementation issues.


In an attempt to reduce the complexity of designing in HDLs, which have been compared to the equivalent of assembly languages, there are moves to raise the abstraction level of the design. Companies such as Cadence, Synopsys and Agility Design Solutions are promoting SystemC as a way to combine high level languages with concurrency models to allow faster design cycles for FPGAs than is possible using traditional HDLs. Approaches based on standard C or C++ (with libraries or other extensions allowing parallel programming) are found in the Catapult C tools from Mentor Graphics, and in the Impulse C tools from Impulse Accelerated Technologies. Annapolis Micro Systems, Inc.'s CoreFire Design Suite and National Instruments LabVIEW FPGA provide a graphical dataflow approach to high-level design entry. Languages such as SystemVerilog, SystemVHDL, and Handel-C seek to accomplish the same goal, but are aimed at making existing hardware engineers more productive versus making FPGAs more accessible to existing software engineers. Thus SystemVerilog is more quickly and widely adopted than SystemC. There is more information on C to HDL and Flow to HDL in their respective articles.

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