VLSI : An article about VLSI field and How to make career in this field


Mr. Dilip Risbud (risbud@yahoo.com)
Vice President, IC Operations
Silicon Bridge, Inc.
Fremont, CA

Mr. Sameer D. Sahasrabuddhe (Home Page)
MTech Student
Reconfigurable Computing Lab
KReSIT, IIT-Bombay

Compiled by
Ms. Shailaja Kulkarni (shailuk77@hotpop.com)
Software Engineer
Lotus Automations Pvt. Ltd. Mumbai


Most of the students of Electronics Engineering are exposed to Integrated Circuits (IC's) at a very basic level, involving SSI (small scale integration) circuits like logic gates or MSI (medium scale integration) circuits like multiplexers, parity encoders etc. But there is a lot bigger world out there involving miniaturisation at levels so great, that a micrometer and a microsecond are literally considered huge! This is the world of VLSI - Very Large Scale Integration. The article aims at trying to introduce Electronics Engineering students to the possibilities and the work involved in this field.


What is VLSI?

VLSI stands for "Very Large Scale Integration". This is the field which involves packing more and more logic devices into smaller and smaller areas.Thanks to VLSI, circuits that would have taken boardfuls of space can now be put into a small space few millimeters across! This has opened up a big opportunity to do things that were not possible before. VLSI circuits are everywhere ... your computer, your car, your brand new state-of-the-art digital camera, the cell-phones, and what have you. All this involves a lot of expertise on many fronts within the same field, which we will look at in later sections.

VLSI has been around for a long time, there is nothing new about it ... but as a side effect of advances in the world of computers, there has been a dramatic proliferation of tools that can be used to design VLSI circuits. Alongside, obeying Moore's law, the capability of an IC has increased exponentially over the years, in terms of computation power, utilisation of available area, yield. The combined effect of these two advances is that people can now put diverse functionality into the IC's, opening up new frontiers. Examples are embedded systems, where intelligent devices are put inside everyday objects, and ubiquitous computing where small computing devices proliferate to such an extent that even the shoes you wear may actually do something useful like monitoring your heartbeats! These two fields are kinda related, and getting into their description can easily lead to another article.


Digital VLSI circuits are predominantly CMOS based. The way normal blocks like latches and gates are implemented is different from what students have seen so far, but the behaviour remains the same. All the miniaturisation involves new things to consider. A lot of thought has to go into actual implementations as well as design. Let us look at some of the factors involved ...

1. Circuit Delays. Large complicated circuits running at very high frequencies have one big problem to tackle - the problem of delays in propagation of signals through gates and wires ... even for areas a few micrometers across! The operation speed is so large that as the delays add up, they can actually become comparable to the clock speeds.

2. Power. Another effect of high operation frequencies is increased consumption of power. This has two-fold effect - devices consume batteries faster, and heat dissipation increases. Coupled with the fact that surface areas have decreased, heat poses a major threat to the stability of the circuit itself.

3. Layout. Laying out the circuit components is task common to all branches of electronics. Whats so special in our case is that there are many possible ways to do this; there can be multiple layers of different materials on the same silicon, there can be different arrangements of the smaller parts for the same component and so on.

The power dissipation and speed in a circuit present a trade-off; if we try to optimise on one, the other is affected. The choice between the two is determined by the way we chose the layout the circuit components. Layout can also affect the fabrication of VLSI chips, making it either easy or difficult to implement the components on the silicon.


A typical digital design flow is as follows:

RTL Coding
RTL Verification
Tape Out to Foundry to get end product….a wafer with repeated number of identical Ics.

All modern digital designs start with a designer writing a hardware description of the IC (using HDL or Hardware Description Language) in Verilog/VHDL. A Verilog or VHDL program essentially describes the hardware (logic gates, Flip-Flops, counters etc) and the interconnect of the circuit blocks and the functionality. Various CAD tools are available to synthesize a circuit based on the HDL. The most widely used synthesis tools come from two CAD companies. Synposys and Cadence.

Without going into details, we can say that the VHDL, can be called as the "C" of the VLSI industry. VHDL stands for "VHSIC Hardware Definition Language", where VHSIC stands for "Very High Speed Integrated Circuit". This languages is used to design the circuits at a high-level, in two ways. It can either be a behavioural description, which describes what the circuit is supposed to do, or a structural description, which describes what the circuit is made of. There are other languages for describing circuits, such as Verilog, which work in a similar fashion.

Both forms of description are then used to generate a very low-level description that actually spells out how all this is to be fabricated on the silicon chips. This will result in the manufacture of the intended IC.

A typical analog design flow is as follows:

In case of analog design, the flow changes somewhat.
Circuit Design
SPICE Simulation
Parametric Extraction / Back Annotation
Final Design
Tape Out to foundry.

While digital design is highly automated now, very small portion of analog design can be automated. There is a hardware description language called AHDL but is not widely used as it does not accurately give us the behavioral model of the circuit because of the complexity of the effects of parasitic on the analog behavior of the circuit. Many analog chips are what are termed as “flat” or non-hierarchical designs. This is true for small transistor count chips such as an operational amplifier, or a filter or a power management chip. For more complex analog chips such as data converters, the design is done at a transistor level, building up to a cell level, then a block level and then integrated at a chip level. Not many CAD tools are available for analog design even today and thus analog design remains a difficult art. SPICE remains the most useful simulation tool for analog as well as digital design.


1. Analog:
Small transistor count precision circuits such as Amplifiers, Data converters, filters, Phase Locked Loops, Sensors etc.

2. ASICS or Application Specific Integrated Circuits:
Progress in the fabrication of IC's has enabled us to create fast and powerful circuits in smaller and smaller devices. This also means that we can pack a lot more of functionality into the same area. The biggest application of this ability is found in the design of ASIC's. These are IC's that are created for specific purposes - each device is created to do a particular job, and do it well. The most common application area for this is DSP - signal filters, image compression, etc. To go to extremes, consider the fact that the digital wristwatch normally consists of a single IC doing all the time-keeping jobs as well as extra features like games, calendar, etc.

3. SoC or Systems on a chip:
These are highly complex mixed signal circuits (digital and analog all on the same chip). A network processor chip or a wireless radio chip is an example of an SoC.

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