Design of VLSI Systems - Chapter 5
Design of VLSI Systems

Chapter 5

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5.1 On-Chip Clock Generation and Distribution

Clock signals are the heartbeats of digital systems. Hence, the stability of clock signals is highly important. Ideally, clock signals should have minimum rise and fall times, specified duty cycles, and zero skew. In reality, clock signals have nonzero skews and noticeable rise and fall times; duty cycles can also vary. In fact, as much as 10% of a machine cycle time is expended to allow realistic clock skews in large computer systems. The problem is no less serious in VLSI chip design. A simple technique for on-chip generation of a primary clock signal would be to use a ring oscillator as shown in Fig. 5.1. Such a clock circuit has been used in low-end microprocessor chips.

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Figure 5.1: Simple on-chip clock generation circuit using a ring oscillator.

However, the generated clock signal can be quite process-dependent and unstable. As a result, separate clock chips which use crystal oscillators have been used for high- performance VLSI chip families. Figure 5.2 shows the circuit schematic of a Pierce crystal oscillator with good frequency stability. This circuit is a near series-resonant circuit in which the crystal sees a low load impedance across its terminals. Series resonance exists in the crystal but its internal series resistance largely the determines the oscillation frequency. In its equivalent circuit model, the crystal can be represented as a series RLC circuit; thus, the higher the series resistance, the lower the oscillation frequency. The external load at the terminals of the crystal also has a considerable effect on the frequency and the frequency stability. The inverter across the crystal provides the necessary voltage differential, and the external inverter provides the amplification to drive clock loads. Note that the oscillator circuit presented here is by no means a typical example of the state-of-the-art; design of high-frequency, high-quality clock oscillators is a formidable task, which is beyond the scope of this section.

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Figure-5.2: Circuit diagram of a Pierce crystal oscillator circuit.

Usually a VLSI chip receives one or more primary clock signals from an external clock chip and, in turn, generates necessary derivatives for its internal use. It is often necessary to use two non-overlapping clock signals. The logical product of such two clock signals should be zero at all times. Figure 5.3 shows a simple circuit that generates CK-1 and CK-2 from the original clock signal CK. Figure 5.4 shows a clock decoder circuit that takes in the primary clock signals and generates four phase signals.

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Figure-5.3: A simple circuit that generates a pair of non-overlapping clock signals from CK.
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Figure-5.4: Clock decoder circuit: (a) symbolic representation and (b) sample waveforms and gate-level implementation.
Since clock signals are required almost uniformly over the chip area, it is desirable that all clock signals are distributed with a uniform delay. An ideal distribution network would be the H-tree structure shown in Fig. 5.5. In such a structure, the distances from the center to all branch points are the same and hence, the signal delays would be the same. However, this structure is difficult to implement in practice due to routing constraints and different fanout requirements. A more practical approach for clock-signal distribution is to route main clock signals to macroblocks and use local clock decoders to carefully balance the delays under different loading conditions.
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Figure-5.5: General layout of an H-tree clock distribution network.

The reduction of clock skews, which are caused by the differences in clock arrival times and changes in clock waveforms due to variations in load conditions, is a major concern in high-speed VLSI design. In addition to uniform clock distribution (H-tree) networks and local skew balancing, a number of new computer-aided design techniques have been developed to automatically generate the layout of an optimum clock distribution network with zero skew. Figure 5.6 shows a zero-skew clock routing network that was constructed based on estimated routing parasitics.

Regardless of the exact geometry of the clock distribution network, the clock signals must be buffered in multiple stages as shown in Fig. 5.7 to handle the high fan-out loads. It is also essential that every buffer stage drives the same number of fan-out gates so that the clock delays are always balanced. In the configuration shown in Fig. 5.8 (used in the DEC Alpha chip designs), the interconnect wires are cross- connected with vertical metal straps in a mesh pattern, in order to keep the clock signals in phase across the entire chip.

So far we have seen the needs for having equal interconnect lengths and extensive buffering in order to distribute clock signals with minimal skews and healthy signal waveforms. In practice, designers must spend significant time and effort to tune the transistor sizes in buffers (inverters) and also the widths of interconnects. Widening the interconnection wires decreases the series resistance, but at the cost of increasing the parasitic resistance.

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Figure-5.6: An example of the zero-skew clock routing network, generated by a computer-aided design tool.
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Figure-5.7: Three-level buffered clock distribution network.
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Figure-5.8: Genaral structure of the clock distribution network used in DEC Alpha microprocessor chips.

The following points should always be considered carefully in digital system design, but especially for successful high-speed VLSI design:

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This chapter edited by Y. Leblebici