Sunday 23 February 2020

The Robin SoC on the iCEbreaker: current status

The main focus in the last couple of weeks has been on the simplification of the CPU and ALU.


The main decoding loop in the CPU was rather convoluted so both were redesigned a bit to improve readability of the Verilog code as well as reduce resource consumption. (The ALU code was updated in place, the CPU code got a new file)

Because by now I also have some experience with the code that is being generated by the compiler, I was able to remove unused instructions and ALU operations. Previously the pop, push and setxxx instructions were considered sub-instructions within one special opcode, now they are individual instructions (in case of pop and push) or rolled into a single set-and-branch instruction. The new instruction set architecture was highlighted in a separate article.

Less resources

All in all this redesign shrunk the number of LUTs consumed from 5279 (yes, just one LUT removed from 100%) to 4879 (92%), which is pretty neat because it leaves some room for additional functionality or tweaks. The biggest challenge by the way is Yosys: even slight changes in the design, like assigning different values to labels of a case statement that is not full, may result in a different number of LUTs consumed. This is something that needs some more research, maybe Yosys offers additional optimization options that let me get the lowest resource count in a more predictable manner.

Better testing

A significant amount of effort was spent on designing more and better regression tests. Both for the SoC and the support programs (assembler, simulator, ...) regression tests and syntax checkers were added. Most of these were also added to GitHub push actions, with the exception of the actual hardware tests because I cannot run those on GitHub. And of course this mainly done to show a few green banners on the repository home page 😀

Bug fixes

With a better testing framework in place it is far easier to check whether changes don't inadvertently break something. This was put to work in fixing one of the more annoying bugs left in the ALU design: previously shift left by more than 31 and shift right by 0 did not give a proper result. This is now fixed.


The up5k on the iCEbreaker board has 8 dsp cores. We currently use 4 of them to implement 32x32 bit multiplication. The SB_MAC16 primitives we use for this are inferred by Yosys from some multiplication statements we use in the ALU (i.e. we do not instantiate them directly) and work fine.
However, when I want to instantiate some of them directly and configure them to be used as 32 bit adders these instantiations will still multiply instead of add! No matter what I do, the result stays teh same. I have to admit I have no idea how Yosys infers stuff so it might very well be that my direct instantiation gets  rewritten by some Yosys stage, so I will have to do some more research here.

What next?

I think next on the agenda is performance: I think I use too many read states for the fetch/decode/execute cycle. The Lattice technical documentation seems to imply we can read and write new data every clock cycle, at least for block ram. Unfortunately the docs for the SPRAM are less clear. Anyway, this area for sure needs some attention.

CPU design

The CPU design as currently implemented largely follows the diagram shown below. It features a 16 x 32bit register file and 16 bit instructi...