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Quartus: The importance of derive_pll_clocks in the SDC file

Introduction

Whenever a PLL is used in a logic design to generate one clock from another, it’s quite common to expect that the timing tools to will figure out the frequencies and how the timing is related between the different clocks.

With Intel’s Quartus, this isn’t the case by default. A derive_pll_clocks command is required in the SDC constraints file for this happen. And indeed, this command appears in virtually any SDC file that is generated automatically by the tools.

But here’s the scary thing: If derive_pll_clocks is omitted, one would expect that correct timing constraints would be applied to the clocks that are generated by the PLL. Another possibility would be that no timing constraints would be applied at all. Unfortunately, the reality is different: As shown below, calculations for the timing are made for these clocks, but with wrong constraints. So one might get the impression that the timing constraints were achieved and all is fine, but in fact nothing was made correctly.

An example

Let’s say that the FPGA has an oscillator input with 48 MHz (hence the period is 20.833 ns). The PLL generates a clock with 240 MHz (i.e. 4.166 ns).

First let’s take a simple and properly written SDC file, which says:

create_clock -name root_clk -period 20.833 [get_ports {osc_clock}]

derive_pll_clocks
derive_clock_uncertainty

Note that the derive_pll_clocks command is present.

Now let’s look at the timing report for a path between two registers, which are driven by the clock that is generated by the PLL. The only interesting part is marked with red:

+-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Data Arrival Path                                                                                                                               ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Total   ; Incr     ; RF ; Type ; Fanout ; Location               ; Element                                                                      ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; 0.000   ; 0.000    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; launch edge time                                                             ;
; 4.937   ; 4.937    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock path                                                                   ;
;   0.000 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; source latency                                                               ;
;   0.000 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ; 1      ; PIN_B12                ; osc_clock                                                                    ;
;   0.000 ;   0.000  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|i                                                            ;
;   0.667 ;   0.667  ; RR ; CELL ; 2      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|o                                                            ;
;   2.833 ;   2.166  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|inclk[0]                     ;
;   1.119 ;   -1.714 ; RR ; COMP ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|observablevcoout             ;
;   1.119 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|clk[0]                       ;
;   3.274 ;   2.155  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|inclk[0] ;
;   3.274 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 8      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|outclk   ;
;   4.336 ;   1.062  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; FF_X40_Y24_N27         ; clkrst_ins|main_state[0]|clk                                                 ;
;   4.937 ;   0.601  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; FF_X40_Y24_N27         ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|main_state[0]                                              ;
; 6.774   ; 1.837    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; data path                                                                    ;
;   5.169 ;   0.232  ;    ; uTco ; 1      ; FF_X40_Y24_N27         ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|main_state[0]                                              ;
;   5.169 ;   0.000  ; FF ; CELL ; 5      ; FF_X40_Y24_N27         ; clkrst_ins|main_state[0]|q                                                   ;
;   5.591 ;   0.422  ; FF ; IC   ; 1      ; LCCOMB_X40_Y24_N24     ; clkrst_ins|Equal1~0|dataa                                                    ;
;   6.002 ;   0.411  ; FR ; CELL ; 1      ; LCCOMB_X40_Y24_N24     ; clkrst_ins|Equal1~0|combout                                                  ;
;   6.370 ;   0.368  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst_ins|the_register|d                                                    ;
;   6.774 ;   0.404  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|the_register                                               ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+

+-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Data Required Path                                                                                                                              ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Total   ; Incr     ; RF ; Type ; Fanout ; Location               ; Element                                                                      ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; 4.166   ; 4.166    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; latch edge time                                                              ;
; 9.005   ; 4.839    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock path                                                                   ;
;   4.166 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; source latency                                                               ;
;   4.166 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ; 1      ; PIN_B12                ; osc_clock                                                                    ;
;   4.166 ;   0.000  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|i                                                            ;
;   4.833 ;   0.667  ; RR ; CELL ; 2      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|o                                                            ;
;   6.912 ;   2.079  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|inclk[0]                     ;
;   5.119 ;   -1.793 ; RR ; COMP ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|observablevcoout             ;
;   5.119 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|clk[0]                       ;
;   7.187 ;   2.068  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|inclk[0] ;
;   7.187 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 8      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|outclk   ;
;   8.199 ;   1.012  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst_ins|the_register|clk                                                  ;
;   8.736 ;   0.537  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|the_register                                               ;
;   9.005 ;   0.269  ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock pessimism removed                                                      ;
; 8.985   ; -0.020   ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock uncertainty                                                            ;
; 8.890   ; -0.095   ;    ; uTsu ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|the_register                                               ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+

Note the "latch edge time" row, which is the time of the clock's edge that will propagate through the clock network (and accumulate the delay of the clock buffers and wiring) and become the clock that the receiving register uses. The "latch edge time" is simply the clock’s period, because this is a path between two registers that use the same rising edge of the same clock. And indeed, it says 4.166 ns. So far so good.

But then disaster

Let’s see what happens if the derive_pll_clocks command is omitted. In other words, the SDC file says:

create_clock -name root_clk -period 20.833 [get_ports {osc_clock}]

derive_clock_uncertainty

For exactly the same path, the timing report says:

+-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Data Arrival Path                                                                                                                               ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Total   ; Incr     ; RF ; Type ; Fanout ; Location               ; Element                                                                      ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; 0.000   ; 0.000    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; launch edge time                                                             ;
; 4.937   ; 4.937    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock path                                                                   ;
;   0.000 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; source latency                                                               ;
;   0.000 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ; 1      ; PIN_B12                ; osc_clock                                                                    ;
;   0.000 ;   0.000  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|i                                                            ;
;   0.667 ;   0.667  ; RR ; CELL ; 2      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|o                                                            ;
;   2.833 ;   2.166  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|inclk[0]                     ;
;   1.119 ;   -1.714 ; RR ; COMP ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|observablevcoout             ;
;   1.119 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|clk[0]                       ;
;   3.274 ;   2.155  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|inclk[0] ;
;   3.274 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 8      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|outclk   ;
;   4.336 ;   1.062  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; FF_X40_Y24_N19         ; clkrst_ins|main_state[0]|clk                                                 ;
;   4.937 ;   0.601  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; FF_X40_Y24_N19         ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|main_state[0]                                              ;
; 6.765   ; 1.828    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; data path                                                                    ;
;   5.169 ;   0.232  ;    ; uTco ; 1      ; FF_X40_Y24_N19         ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|main_state[0]                                              ;
;   5.169 ;   0.000  ; FF ; CELL ; 5      ; FF_X40_Y24_N19         ; clkrst_ins|main_state[0]|q                                                   ;
;   5.583 ;   0.414  ; FF ; IC   ; 1      ; LCCOMB_X40_Y24_N24     ; clkrst_ins|Equal1~0|datab                                                    ;
;   5.994 ;   0.411  ; FR ; CELL ; 1      ; LCCOMB_X40_Y24_N24     ; clkrst_ins|Equal1~0|combout                                                  ;
;   6.361 ;   0.367  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst_ins|the_register|d                                                    ;
;   6.765 ;   0.404  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|the_register                                               ;
+---------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+

+--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Data Required Path                                                                                                                               ;
+----------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; Total    ; Incr     ; RF ; Type ; Fanout ; Location               ; Element                                                                      ;
+----------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+
; 20.833   ; 20.833   ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; latch edge time                                                              ;
; 25.672   ; 4.839    ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock path                                                                   ;
;   20.833 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; source latency                                                               ;
;   20.833 ;   0.000  ;    ;      ; 1      ; PIN_B12                ; osc_clock                                                                    ;
;   20.833 ;   0.000  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|i                                                            ;
;   21.500 ;   0.667  ; RR ; CELL ; 2      ; IOIBUF_X19_Y29_N8      ; osc_clock~input|o                                                            ;
;   23.579 ;   2.079  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|inclk[0]                     ;
;   21.786 ;   -1.793 ; RR ; COMP ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|observablevcoout             ;
;   21.786 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; PLL_3                  ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|pll1|clk[0]                       ;
;   23.855 ;   2.069  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|inclk[0] ;
;   23.855 ;   0.000  ; RR ; CELL ; 8      ; CLKCTRL_G13            ; clkrst_ins|altpll_component|auto_generated|wire_pll1_clk[0]~clkctrl|outclk   ;
;   24.867 ;   1.012  ; RR ; IC   ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst_ins|the_register|clk                                                  ;
;   25.404 ;   0.537  ; RR ; CELL ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|the_register                                               ;
;   25.672 ;   0.268  ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock pessimism removed                                                      ;
; 25.572   ; -0.100   ;    ;      ;        ;                        ; clock uncertainty                                                            ;
; 25.477   ; -0.095   ;    ; uTsu ; 1      ; DDIOOUTCELL_X41_Y24_N4 ; clkrst:clkrst_ins|the_register                                               ;
+----------+----------+----+------+--------+------------------------+------------------------------------------------------------------------------+

So it’s exactly the same analysis, only assuming that the clock period is 20.833 ns (note the "latch edge time" again). Note that the analysis traverses the PLL, but simply ignores the fact that the PLL’s output has another frequency. It’s as if the tools were saying: You forgot the derive_pll_clocks command? No problem. We’ll pretend as if the PLL’s input clock went right through it.

Frankly, I can’t think about a single case where this behavior would make sense. Either don’t calculate the timing of the paths using the PLL's clock, or do it correctly. But just throwing in the original clock’s period? These incorrectly calculated paths don’t appear in the unconstrained path summary, nor is there any other indication that the timing is horribly wrong.

To the tools’ defense, the timing analysis produces warnings on this matter, but none at a Critical level, so it’s easy to miss them in the sea of warnings that FPGA tools always generate.

Conclusion

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