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Beyond Pure RTL: Behavioural descriptions of hardware.

Circuit to swap two registers.

With RTL the designer is well aware what will happen on the clock edge and of the parallel nature of all the assignments and is relatively well aware of the circuit she has generated. For instance it is quite clear that this code

    always @(posedge clk) begin
        x <= y;
        y <= x;
will produce the circuit of Figure~\ref{fig:swapregs}. (If x and y were busses, the circuit would be repeated for each wire of the bus.) The semantics of the above code are that the right-hand sides are all evaluated and then assigned to the left-hand sides. The order of the statements is unimportant. However, the same circuit may be generated using a specification where assigment is made using the = operator. If we assume there is no other reference to the intermediate register t elsewhere, and so a flip-flop named t is not required in the output logic. On the other hand, if t is used, then its input will be the same as the flip-flop for y, so an optimisation step will use the output of y instead of having a flip-flop for t.
    always @(posedge clk) begin
        t = x;
        x = y;
        y = t;
With this style of specification the order of the statements is significant and typically such assignment statements are incorporated in various nested if-then-else and case commands. This allows hardware designs to be expressed using the conventional imperative programming style that is familiar to software programmers. The intention of this style is to give an easy to write and understand description of the desired function, but this can result in logic output from the synthesiser which is mostly incomprehensible if inspected by hand.

The word 'behavioural', when applied to a style of RTL or software coding, tends to simply mean that a sequential thread is used to express the sequential execution of the statements.

Despite the apparent power available using this form of expression, there are severe limitations in the offically synthesisable subset of Verilog and VHDL that might also be manifest in basic C-to-gates tool. Limitations are, for instance, each variable must be written by only one thread and that a thread is unable to leave the current file or module to execute subroutines/methods in other parts of the design.

The term ' behavioural model' is used to denote a short program written to substitute for a complex subsection of a structural hardware design. The program would produce the same useful result, but execute much more quickly because the values of all the internal nets and pipeline stages (that provide no benefit until converted to actual parallel hardware form) were not modelled. Verilog and VHDL enable limited forms of behavioural models to serve as the source code for the subsection, with synthesis used to form the netlist. Therefore limited behavioural models can sometimes become the implementation.

(C) 2008-10, DJ Greaves, University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory.