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In digital circuit design, register-transfer level (RTL) is a design abstraction which models a synchronous digital circuit in terms of the flow of digital signals (data) between hardware registers, and the logical operations performed on those signals.
Register-transfer-level abstraction is used in hardware description languages (HDLs) like Verilog and VHDL to create high-level representations of a circuit, from which lower-level representations and ultimately actual wiring can be derived. Design at the RTL level is typical practice in modern digital design.
A synchronous circuit consists of two kinds of elements: registers and combinational logic. Registers (usually implemented as D flip-flops) synchronize the circuit's operation to the edges of the clock signal, and are the only elements in the circuit that have memory properties. Combinational logic performs all the logical functions in the circuit and it typically consists of logic gates.
For example, a very simple synchronous circuit is shown in the figure. The inverter is connected from the output, Q, of a register to the register's input, D, to create a circuit that changes its state on each rising edge of the clock, clk. In this circuit, the combinational logic consists of the inverter.
When designing digital integrated circuits with a hardware description language, the designs are usually engineered at a higher level of abstraction than transistor level (logic families) or logic gate level. In HDLs the designer declares the registers (which roughly correspond to variables in computer programming languages), and describes the combinational logic by using constructs that are familiar from programming languages such as if-then-else and arithmetic operations. This level is called register-transfer level. The term refers to the fact that RTL focuses on describing the flow of signals between registers.
As an example, the circuit mentioned above can be described in VHDL as follows:
D <= not Q; process(clk) begin if rising_edge(clk) then Q <= D; end if; end process;
Using an EDA tool for synthesis, this description can usually be directly translated to an equivalent hardware implementation file for an ASIC or an FPGA. The synthesis tool also performs logic optimization.
At the register-transfer level, some types of circuits can be recognized. If there is a cyclic path of logic from a register's output to its input (or from a set of registers outputs to its inputs), the circuit is called a state machine or can be said to be sequential logic. If there are logic paths from a register to another without a cycle, it is called a pipeline.
RTL in the circuit design cycle
An RTL description is usually converted to a gate-level description of the circuit by a logic synthesis tool. The synthesis results are then used by placement and routing tools to create a physical layout.
Logic simulation tools may use a design's RTL description to verify its correctness.
- Electronic design automation (EDA)
- Electronic system-level (ESL)
- Integrated circuit design (IC design)
- Synchronous circuit
- Algorithmic state machine (ASM)