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Comparison of VHDL, Verilog and SystemVerilog

As the number of enhancements to various Hardware Description Languages (HDLs) hasincreased over the past year, so too has the complexity of determining which language is best for a particular design. Many designers and organizations are contemplating whether they should switch from one HDL to another.
This paper compares the technical characteristics of three, general-purpose HDLs:
• VHDL (IEEE-Std 1076): A general-purpose digital design language supported by multiple verification and synthesis (implementation) tools.
• Verilog (IEEE-Std 1364): A general-purpose digital design language supported by multiple verification and synthesis tools.
• SystemVerilog: An enhanced version of Verilog. As SystemVerilog is currently being defined by Accellera, there is not yet an IEEE standard.

General Characteristics of the Languages
Each HDL has its own style and heredity. The following descriptions provide an overall “feel” for each language. A table at the end of the
paper provides a more detailed, feature-by-feature comparison.

VHDL is a strongly and richly typed language. Derived from the Ada programming language, its language requirements make it more verbose than Verilog. The additional verbosity is intended to make designs self-documenting. Also, the strong typing requires additional coding to 
explicitly convert from one data type to another 
(integer to bit-vector, for example).

The creators of VHDL emphasized semantics that were unambiguous and designs that were easily portable from one tool to the next. Hence, race conditions, as an artifact of the language and tool implementation, are not a concern for VHDL users.
Several related standards have been developed to increase the utility of the language. Any VHDL design today depends on at least IEEE-Std 1164 (std_logic type), and many also depend on standard Numeric and Math packages as well. The development of related standards is due to another goal of VHDL’s authors: namely, to produce a general language and allow development of reusable packages to cover functionality not built into the language.
VHDL does not define any simulation control or monitoring capabilities within the language. These capabilities are tool dependent. Due to
this lack of language-defined simulation control commands and also because of VHDL’s userdefined type capabilities, the VHDL community usually relies on interactive GUI environments for debugging design problems.

Verilog is a weakly and limited typed language. Its heritage can be traced to the C programming language and an older HDL called Hilo.
All data types in Verilog are predefined in the language. Verilog recognizes that all data types have a bit-level representation. The supported
data representations (excluding strings) can be mixed freely in Verilog.

Simulation semantics in Verilog are more ambiguous than in VHDL. This ambiguity gives designers more flexibility in applying optimizations, but it can also (and often does) result in race conditions if careful coding guidelines are not followed. It is possible to have a design that generates different results on different vendors’ tools or even on different releases of the same vendor’s tool.

Unlike the creators of VHDL, Verilog’s authors thought that they provided designers everything they would need in the language. The more limited scope of the language combined with the lack of packaging capabilities makes it difficult, if not impossible, to develop reusable functionality not already included in the language.
Verilog defines a set of basic simulation control capabilities (system tasks) within the language.
As a result of these predefined system tasks and a lack of complex data types, Verilog users often run batch or command-line simulations and debug design problems by viewing waveforms from a simulation results database.

Though the parent of SystemVerilog is clearly Verilog, the language also benefits from a proprietary Verilog extension known as Superlog and tenants of C and C++ programming languages.
SystemVerilog extends Verilog by adding a rich, user-defined type system. It also adds strong-typing capabilities, specifically in the area of userdefined types. However, the strength of the type checking in VHDL still exceeds that in SystemVerilog. And, to retain backward compatibility, SystemVerilog retains weak-typing for the built-in Verilog types.

Since SystemVerilog is a more general-purpose language than Verilog, it provides capabilities for defining and packaging reusable functionality not already included in the language.

SystemVerilog also adds capabilities targeted at testbench development, assertion-based verification, and interface abstraction and packaging.

Pros and Cons of Strong Typing
The benefit of strong typing is finding bugs in a design as early in the verification process as possible. Many problems that strong typing uncover are identified during analysis/compilation of the source code. And with run-time checks enabled, more problems may be found during simulation.
The downside of strong typing is performance cost. Compilation tends to be slower as tools must perform checks on the source code.
Simulation, when run-time checks are enabled, is also slower due to the checking overhead. Furthermore, designer productivity can be lower initially as the designer must write type conversion functions and insert type casts or explicitly declared conversion functions when writing code.
The $1,000,000 question is this: do the benefits of strong typing outweigh the costs?
There isn’t one right answer to the question. In general, the VHDL language designers wanted a safe language that would catch as many errors as possible early in the process. The Verilog language designers wanted a language that designers could - use to write models quickly. The designers of SystemVerilog are attempting to provide the best of both worlds by offering strong typing in areas of enhancement while not significantly impacting code writing and modeling productivity.

Language Feature Comparison

The following table presents a feature-by-feature comparison of the three HDLs. Note that the red font color differentiates Verilog 2001 features from Verilog 1995 features.

With all of the recent publicity surrounding lan- guages and standards, many people are wonder- ing where to go next. The answer to this question will vary greatly by designer and organization. In addition to the language feature comparison above, here are some final points to consider:
• SystemVerilog is an emerging standard that is still evolving. With a compelling set of features, SystemVerilog is the likely migra- tion path for current Verilog users. However, widespread tool support won't be available until the specification stabilizes.
• For VHDL users, many of the SystemVerilog and Verilog 2001 enhance- ments are already available in the VHDL language. There is also a new VHDL enhancement effort underway that will add testbench and expanded assertions capabil- ities to the language (the two areas where SystemVerilog will provide value over VHDL 2002). Considering the cost in changing processes and tools and the investment required in training, moving away from VHDL would have to be very carefully considered.

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