Processor design is the design engineering task of creating a processor, a key component of computer hardware. It is a subfield of computer engineering (design, development and implementation) and electronics engineering (fabrication). The design process involves choosing an instruction set and a certain execution paradigm (e.g. VLIW or RISC) and results in a microarchitecture, which might be described in e.g. VHDL or Verilog. For microprocessor design, this description is then manufactured employing some of the various semiconductor device fabrication processes, resulting in a die which is bonded onto a chip carrier. This chip carrier is then soldered onto, or inserted into a socket on, a printed circuit board (PCB).
The mode of operation of any processor is the execution of lists of instructions. Instructions typically include those to compute or manipulate data values using registers, change or retrieve values in read/write memory, perform relational tests between data values and to control program flow.
CPU design is divided into design of the following components:
CPUs designed for high-performance markets might require custom (optimized or application specific (see below)) designs for each of these items to achieve frequency, power-dissipation, and chip-area goals whereas CPUs designed for lower performance markets might lessen the implementation burden by acquiring some of these items by purchasing them as intellectual property. Control logic implementation techniques (logic synthesis using CAD tools) can be used to implement datapaths, register files, and clocks. Common logic styles used in CPU design include unstructured random logic, finite-state machines, microprogramming (common from 1965 to 1985), and Programmable logic arrays (common in the 1980s, no longer common).
Device types used to implement the logic include:
A CPU design project generally has these major tasks:
Re-designing a CPU core to a smaller die-area helps to shrink everything (a "photomask shrink"), resulting in the same number of transistors on a smaller die. It improves performance (smaller transistors switch faster), reduces power (smaller wires have less parasitic capacitance) and reduces cost (more CPUs fit on the same wafer of silicon). Releasing a CPU on the same size die, but with a smaller CPU core, keeps the cost about the same but allows higher levels of integration within one very-large-scale integration chip (additional cache, multiple CPUs or other components), improving performance and reducing overall system cost.
As with most complex electronic designs, the logic verification effort (proving that the design does not have bugs) now dominates the project schedule of a CPU.
Benchmarking is a way of testing CPU speed. Examples include SPECint and SPECfp, developed by Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation, and ConsumerMark developed by the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium EEMBC.
Some of the commonly used metrics include:
There may be tradeoffs in optimizing some of these metrics. In particular, many design techniques that make a CPU run faster make the "performance per watt", "performance per dollar", and "deterministic response" much worse, and vice versa.
There are several different markets in which CPUs are used. Since each of these markets differ in their requirements for CPUs, the devices designed for one market are in most cases inappropriate for the other markets.
The vast majority of revenues generated from CPU sales is for general purpose computing, that is, desktop, laptop, and server computers commonly used in businesses and homes. In this market, the Intel IA-32 and the 64-bit version x86-64 architecture dominate the market, with its rivals PowerPC and SPARC maintaining much smaller customer bases. Yearly, hundreds of millions of IA-32 architecture CPUs are used by this market. A growing percentage of these processors are for mobile implementations such as netbooks and laptops.
Since these devices are used to run countless different types of programs, these CPU designs are not specifically targeted at one type of application or one function. The demands of being able to run a wide range of programs efficiently has made these CPU designs among the more advanced technically, along with some disadvantages of being relatively costly, and having high power consumption.
In 1984, most high-performance CPUs required four to five years to develop.
Scientific computing is a much smaller niche market (in revenue and units shipped). It is used in government research labs and universities. Before 1990, CPU design was often done for this market, but mass market CPUs organized into large clusters have proven to be more affordable. The main remaining area of active hardware design and research for scientific computing is for high-speed data transmission systems to connect mass market CPUs.
As measured by units shipped, most CPUs are embedded in other machinery, such as telephones, clocks, appliances, vehicles, and infrastructure. Embedded processors sell in the volume of many billions of units per year, however, mostly at much lower price points than that of the general purpose processors.
These single-function devices differ from the more familiar general-purpose CPUs in several ways:
The embedded CPU family with the largest number of total units shipped is the 8051, averaging nearly a billion units per year. The 8051 is widely used because it is very inexpensive. The design time is now roughly zero, because it is widely available as commercial intellectual property. It is now often embedded as a small part of a larger system on a chip. The silicon cost of an 8051 is now as low as US$0.001, because some implementations use as few as 2,200 logic gates and take 0.0127 square millimeters of silicon.
As of 2009, more CPUs are produced using the ARM architecture instruction set than any other 32-bit instruction set. The ARM architecture and the first ARM chip were designed in about one and a half years and 5 human years of work time.
The 8-bit AVR architecture and first AVR microcontroller was conceived and designed by two students at the Norwegian Institute of Technology.
The 32 bit Berkeley RISC I and RISC II architecture and the first chips were mostly designed by a series of students as part of a four quarter sequence of graduate courses. This design became the basis of the commercial SPARC processor design.
For about a decade, every student taking the 6.004 class at MIT was part of a team--each team had one semester to design and build a simple 8 bit CPU out of 7400 series integrated circuits. One team of 4 students designed and built a simple 32 bit CPU during that semester.
Some undergraduate courses require a team of 2 to 5 students to design, implement, and test a simple CPU in a FPGA in a single 15-week semester.
The MultiTitan CPU was designed with 2.5 man years of effort, which was considered "relatively little design effort" at the time. 24 people contributed to the 3.5 year MultiTitan research project, which included designing and building a prototype CPU.
For embedded systems, the highest performance levels are often not needed or desired due to the power consumption requirements. This allows for the use of processors which can be totally implemented by logic synthesis techniques. These synthesized processors can be implemented in a much shorter amount of time, giving quicker time-to-market.