The diagram below summarizes the high level design flow for an ASIC (ie. gate array, standard cell) or FPGA. In a practical design situation, each step described in the following sections may be split into several smaller steps, and parts of the design flow will be iterated as errors are uncovered.
As a first step, VHDL may be used to model and simulate aspects of the complete system containing one or more devices. This may be a fully functional description of the system allowing the FPGA/ASIC specification to be validated prior to commencing detailed design. Alternatively, this may be a partial description that abstracts certain properties of the system, such as a performance model to detect system performance bottle-necks.
RTL design and testbench creation
Once the overall system architecture and partitioning is stable, the detailed design of each FPGA/ASIC can commence. This starts by capturing the design in VHDL at the register transfer level, and capturing a set of test cases in VHDL. These two tasks are complementary, and are sometimes performed by different design teams in isolation to ensure that the specification is correctly interpreted. The RTL VHDL should be synthesizable if automatic logic synthesis is to be used. Test case generation is a major task that requires a disciplined approach and much engineering ingenuity: the quality of the final FPGA/ASIC depends on the coverage of these test cases.
The RTL VHDL is then simulated to validate the functionality against the specification. RTL simulation is usually one or two orders of magnitude faster than gate level simulation, and experience has shown that this speed-up is best exploited by doing more simulation, not spending less time on simulation.
In practice it is common to spend 70-80% of the design cycle writing and simulating VHDL at and above the register transfer level, and 20-30% of the time synthesizing and verifying the gates.
Although some exploratory synthesis will be done early on in the design process, to provide accurate speed and area data to aid in the evaluation of architectural decisions and to check the engineer's understanding of how the VHDL will be synthesized, the main synthesis production run is deferred until functional simulation is complete. It is pointless to invest a lot of time and effort in synthesis until the functionality of the design is validated.
70% of design time at RTL!
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