Extra fries, please

Have you ever had one of those days when nothing seems to go right? My friend Bill Turner and I were debugging a high-speed, heavily pipelined, multiclock-phasic hardware project one morning when we suddenly realized it would never work. The timing budget just didn’t add up. We were missing about 2 nsec of setup time at a key latch in the middle of the design.

At lunch, over burgers and fries, we put our heads together to find a solution. I marked out a crude timing chart on my place mat, with vertical lines representing the various clock phases. We then nibbled our french fries down to appropriate lengths and placed them horizontally on the chart to represent the setup-and-hold requirements around each clock edge. More french fries showed the minimum and maximum propagation delays out of each latch and through the surrounding logic. A blob of ketchup highlighted the main timing violation. When we finished, we had an accurate (and tasty) representation of the timing constraints for the whole system.

Next, we started sliding the french fries back and forth, adjusting the timing of each clock phase, seeking a combination of adjustments that would make the system function. We found that when phase 2 moved to the right about 1 in., it caused all of the other french fries to line up, and the system looked pretty solid. I made a drawing of this final configuration to take back to the office, and we ate the rest of the chart.

Timing adjustments like this one occur frequently in high-speed products. Designers often discover that a specific, predictable clock skew, applied at a few crucial nodes, can optimize the overall timing budget, increasing the maximum potential system-operating rate.

Until recently, designers implemented intentional clock skew with either fixed-length physical transmission-line delay structures or lumped-element RC delay circuits. Pure semiconductor chain-of-gates delay approaches are unpopular for fixed delays because it’s just impossible to produce MOSFET delays with sufficient accuracy. You can make a nice, electronically adjustable MOSFET delay pretty easily but not an accurate fixed delay—at least not if you are trying to produce a general-purpose delay line. For the intentional clock-skew application, however, the situation changes.

What’s different about a clock signal is that you may use a phase detector to accurately measure the delay of one clock signal relative to another. For example, imagine a simple clock buffer with an electronically adjustable delay (see Figure 1). The clock buffer has IN, OUT, and control-adjustment (CNTL) terminals. Using a phase detector, measure the delay of OUT relative to IN. If the phase detector says the output is ahead of schedule, feed that signal back into the adjustment circuit to slow the output. When the output is a little behind, speed it up. Working in this manner, you can program the feedback circuit to obtain any arbitrary output phase to within the tolerance limits of the phase detector.

Image: Figure 1

Figure 1—This clock buffer uses PLL technology to precisely control delay.

This technology is the same as that in PLLs. This basic feedback idea, combined with various internal ring-oscillator and divider-chain circuits, can produce a flexible array of precise output clock phases.

A number of vendors now offer clock repeater chips with just this sort of circuitry built-in. The repeaters provide varying degrees of individual adjustability in the output clock phases. Just to mention a few, there are the Cypress RoboClock, the Quality Semiconductor TurboClock, and the AMCC S4402. You can use each to produce arbitrary, precise, intentional clock skew where and when you need it.

In the high-speed world, timing is everything, so I predict these types of components will be really hot. If you think these parts could help your design, place your order now and order a basket of fries to go with them.