HDLs are standard text-based expressions of the spatial and temporal structure and behaviour of electronic systems. In contrast to a software programming language, HDL syntax and semantics include explicit notations for expressing time and concurrency, which are the primary attributes of hardware. Languages whose only characteristic is to express circuit connectivity between a hierarchy of blocks are properly classified as netlist languages used on electric computer-aided design (CAD).
HDLs are used to write executable specifications of some piece of hardware. A simulation program, designed to implement the underlying semantics of the language statements, coupled with simulating the progress of time, provides the hardware designer with the ability to model a piece of hardware before it is created physically. It is this executability that gives HDLs the illusion of being programming languages. Simulators capable of supporting discrete-event (digital) and continuous-time (analog) modeling exist, and HDLs targeted for each are available.
It is certainly possible to represent hardware semantics using traditional programming languages such as C++, although to function such programs must be augmented with extensive and unwieldy class libraries. Primarily, however, software programming languages do not include any capability for explicitly expressing time, and this is why they do not function as a hardware description language.
Using the proper subset of virtually any (hardware description or software programming) language, a software program called a synthesizer can infer hardware logic operations from the language statements and produce an equivalent netlist of generic hardware primitives to implement the specified behaviour. This typically (as of 2004) requires the synthesizer to ignore the expression of any timing constructs in the text. The ability to have a synthesizable subset of the language does not itself make a hardware description language.
Designing a system in HDL is generally much harder and more time consuming than writing a software program to do the same thing. Consequently, there has been much work done on automatic conversion of C code into HDL, but this has not reached a high level of commercial success.
The first modern HDL, Verilog, was introduced by Gateway Design Automation in 1985. Cadence Design Systems later acquired the rights to Verilog-XL, the HDL-simulator which would become the de-facto standard (of Verilog simulators) for the next decade. In 1987, a request from the U.S. Department of Defense led to the development of VHDL (Very High Speed Integrated Circuit Hardware Description Language.) Initially, Verilog and VHDL were used to document and simulate circuit-designs already captured and described in another form (such as a schematic file.) HDL-simulation enabled engineers to work at a higher level of abstraction than simulation at the schematic-level, and thus increased design capacity from hundreds of transistors to thousands.
The introduction of logic-synthesis for HDLs pushed HDLs from the background into the foreground of digital-design. Synthesis tools compiled HDL-source files (written in a constrained format called "RTL") into a manufacturable gate/transistor-level netlist description. Writing synthesizeable RTL files required practice and discipline on the part of the designer; compared to a traditional schematic-layout, synthesized-RTL netlists were almost always larger in area and slower in performance. Circuit design by a skilled engineer, using labor-intensive schematic-capture/hand-layout, would almost always outperform its logically-synthesized equivalent, but synthesis's productivity advantage soon displaced digital schematic-capture to exactly those areas which were problematic for RTL-synthesis: extremely high-speed, low-power, or asynchronous circuitry. In short, logic synthesis not only propelled HDLs into a central role for digital design, it was a revolutionary technology for digital-circuit design industry.
Within a few years, both VHDL and Verilog emerged as the dominant HDLs in the electronics industry, while older and less-capable HDLs gradually disappeared from use. But VHDL and Verilog share many of the same limitations: neither HDL is suitable for analog/mixed-signal circuit simulation. Neither possesses language constructs to describe recursively-generated logic structures. Specialized HDLs (such as Confluence) were introduced with the explicit goal of fixing a specific Verilog/VHDL limitation, though none were ever intended to replace VHDL/Verilog.
Over the years, a lot of effort has gone into improving HDLs. The latest iteration of Verilog, formally known as IEEE 1800-2005 Systemverilog, introduces many new features (classes, random variables, and properties/assertions) to address the growing need for better testbench randomization, design hierarchy, and reuse. A future revision of VHDL is also in development, and is expected to match Systemverilog's improvements. Both VHDL and Verilog, with their continual refinements, are expected to remain in active use for years to come.
Most designs begin as a written set of requirements or a high-level architectural diagram. The process of writing the HDL description is highly dependent on the designer's background and the circuit's nature. The HDL is merely the 'capture language'—often begin with a high-level algorithmic description such as MATLAB or a C++ mathematical model. Control and decision structures are often prototyped in flowchart applications, or entered in a state-diagram editor. Designers even use scripting languages (such as PERL) to automatically generate repetitive circuit structures in the HDL language. Advanced text editors (such as Emacs) offer editor templates for automatic indentation, syntax-dependent coloration, and macro-based expansion of entity/architecture/signal declaration.
As the design's implementation is fleshed out, the HDL code invariably must undergo code review, or auditing. In preparation for synthesis, the HDL description is subject to an array of automated checkers. The checkers enforce standardized code guidelines, identifying ambiguous code constructs before they can cause misinterpretation by downstream synthesis, and check for common logical coding errors, such as dangling ports or shorted outputs.
In industry parlance, HDL design generally ends at the synthesis stage. Once the synthesis tool has mapped the HDL description into a gate netlist, this netlist is passed off to the back-end stage. Depending on the physical technology (FPGA, ASIC gate-array, ASIC standard-cell), HDLs may or may not play a significant role in the back-end flow. In general, as the design flow progresses toward a physically realizable form, the design database becomes progressively more laden with technology-specific information, which cannot be stored in a generic HDL-description. Finally, a silicon chip is manufactured in a fab.
To simulate an HDL model, an engineer writes a top-level simulation environment (called a testbench). At minimum, a testbench contains an instantiation of the model (called the device under test or DUT), pin/signal declarations for the model's I/O, and a clock waveform. The testbench code is event driven: the engineer writes HDL statements to implement the (testbench-generated) reset-signal, to model interface transactions (such as a host–bus read/write), and to monitor the DUT's output. An HDL simulator—the program that executes the testbench—maintains the simulator clock, which is the master reference for all events in the testbench simulation. Events occur only at the instants dictated by the testbench HDL (such as a reset-toggle coded into the testbench), or in reaction (by the model) to stimulus and triggering events. Modern HDL simulators have a full-featured graphical user interfaces, complete with a suite of debug tools. These allow the user to stop and restart the simulation at any time, insert simulator breakpoints (independent of the HDL code), and monitor or modify any element in the HDL model hierarchy. Modern simulators can also link the HDL environment to user-compiled libraries, through a defined PLI/VHPI interface. Linking is system-dependent (Win32/Linux/SPARC), as the HDL simulator and user libraries are compiled and linked outside the HDL environment.
Design verification is often the most time-consuming portion of the design process, due to the disconnect between a device's functional specification, the designer's interpretation of the specification, and the imprecision of the HDL language. The majority of the initial test/debug cycle is conducted in the HDL simulator environment, as the early stage of the design is subject to frequent and major circuit changes. An HDL description can also be prototyped and tested in hardware—programmable logic devices are often used for this purpose. Hardware prototyping is comparatively more expensive than HDL simulation, but offers a real-world view of the design. Prototyping is the best way to check interfacing against other hardware devices and hardware prototypes. Even those running on slow FPGAs offer much faster simulation times than pure HDL simulation.
In formal verification terms, a property is a factual statement about the expected or assumed behavior of another object. Ideally, for a given HDL description, a property or properties can be proven true or false using formal mathematical methods. In practical terms, many properties cannot be proven because they occupy an unbounded solution space. However, if provided a set of operating assumptions or constraints, a property checker can prove (or disprove) more properties, over the narrowed solution space.
The assertions do not model circuit activity, but capture and document the "designer's intent" in the HDL code. In a simulation environment, the simulator evaluates all specified assertions, reporting the location and severity of any violations. In a synthesis environment, the synthesis tool usually operates with the policy of halting synthesis upon any violation. Assertion-based verification is still in its infancy, but is expected to become an integral part of the HDL design toolset.
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 such—embedded 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.
The two most widely-used and well-supported HDL varieties used in industry are: