Questions on the Construction/Synthesis of Hardware

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Questions on the Construction/Synthesis of Hardware


Please help. I'm dying of confusion.
p.s. For anyone who noticed this thread on the coursera website, I'm sorry for reposting, but I'm desperate for answers.


1. Going from your example about how the instructors are the system architects and how the students are the developers, you guys provided us a hardware simulator of your own. Does that mean you designed this overall chipset/HACK computer in some other high-level hardware simulator program by using behavioral simulation? Then you said that system architects create a “chip API”. Is that the hardware simulator you gave us? Is that some sort of lower-level hardware simulator, such as the one you’ve provided us, to interpret/translate the higher-level test scripts and compare files? I'm almost certain I have a misunderstanding. My understanding is that the system architect plans and designs a chip using a high-level language hardware simulator, then they create their own hardware simulator for their developers called "a chip API" in order actually get their design working in HDL code. Please elaborate and correct me if I'm wrong.

2. I also have real-life questions regarding the system architects position. Do they determine how many and which developers will be assigned or is that handled by management? Also is speed, cost, power all predetermined by the company depending on what kind of chip(set) they want to make? For example, a low-tier vs high-tier model.
When the developers write their HDL code, do they need to take into consideration the big picture of the entire chip design or can they solely just focus on getting their implementation working? Also, when developing their algorithm for the implementation, do they also have to consider speed, power, cost or is that something the system architect(s) already considers beforehand in the initial design and provides those guidelines in the documentation of the stub file? Basically, can the developers write the algorithm of their implementation however they like?

3. Whats the difference and relationship between HDL code, microcode, instruction set architecture, and assembly? These terminologies are extremely confusing. As a student, I never know if it's because I'm missing other pieces that fail to explain the term or that these terms are just tossed around synonymously and interchangeably. Honestly , it makes my studying and learning experience so frustrating and disheartening.

4. If you don't mind, could you use a real life example to explain to me the their process of tackling a creation of a chipset. What's the order? Does the system architect have to design first then the developers can engineer? Who's in charge of the microarchitecture vs instruction set architecture. For example, Intel creating the 8700k processor. There's multiple modules within the processor: ALU, Control unit, Memory(registers and cache). Within those modules, I'm guessing they are comprised of other modules which are composed from logic gates? Within those logic gates, there lies the circuitry? Who does what?
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Re: Questions on the Construction/Synthesis of Hardware

This is all guessing; I'm not one of the professors.

1. The Hack computer is simple enough that it was probably designed on paper. (OK, maybe a word processor and graphics program.) At some point is was probably simulated to prove the viability of the instructions set as something students could be expected to learn well enough to use it as the target language for the Jack compiler back-end (VM Translator). This would likely have been a primitive, non-GUI version of the CPUEmulator.

"Chip API" is in quotes because there is no "application" nor "programming" involved. When I was designing 35 years ago, we just called it "pinout", and that term came from the vacuum tube era.  The chip manufacturers published books with all the pinouts and electrical timing parameters and requirements in them. I assume the profs used API because that is how combined interface and action is taught in (software) programming class these days.

Hardware/Software/System Architect is like a building architect. They design what the oberall building looks like and the internal layout so that easy to live/work in. Engineers are the people who ensure that hardware works and buildings don't fall down.  These days they use simulation software; 50 years ago they did lots of hand calculations.

The hardware simulation tool the engineers use are generally commercially available tools.  VHDL and Verilog are the most popular digital logic tools.  The FPGA manufacturers supply tools that convert VHDL/Verilog into the files that can be loaded into their devices.

IC Engineers also need to use Analog simulation tools that can accurately simulate the continuous nature of the real world.

2. All the places I worked (no IC companies), there were no "architect" positions. The architect varied from product to product and was one of the senior/lead engineers. Often they collaborated with the other engineers if part of the design was awkward.  They functioned more or less as benign dictators. There were several times when I offered design improvements that were accepted.

For the companies I worked for, cost was the major driving factor since we were selling to end users.  We generally optimized for cost, speed, power in that order.  (Computers in the '70s-'80s were expected to have lots of fan noise and eat lots of electricity.)

We had to have at least an overview of the entire system.  For example the spec for a bus that an I/O card plugs into was usually well speced for signal electrical and timing requirements, but the command set was a negotiation between the card designer and the software guys, because it depended on what specific I/O chips were used on the card. The engineer designing the I/O card was responsible for his part selection and ensuring that his design met the timing specs. They were also responsible for the bill of material for the board, which tells purchasing and manufacturing which parts were used where.

HDL is basically a blueprint for a circuit board or the silicon in an IC.
Machine Language: the 1's and 0's the computer reads and executes.
Assembly Language: human readable version of machine language with useful additions like labels and symbol names.
Instruction Set Architecture: modern term for the definition of the machine language and a common assembly language representation of the instructions. Includes register descriptions which can be rater complex in modern processors.
Microcode: a specialized machine language that is used by the chip designers to implement the instructions in the ISA.  Sort of like subroutines that implement the actual instructions.

Part of the problem is that there is a lot of history and lore in the development of computers, and early manufacturers did not have a commonly agreed upon vocabulary for the new ideas. (I worked with an old computer that had BRING HOLD JERK and KEEP instructions for what we now call load and store!)

4.  I'll write something here later...