Netlist Format

The output from the parse and elaboration steps is a “netlist” rooted in a Design object. Parsing translates the design described in the initial source file into a temporary symbolic “pform”. Elaboration then expands the design, resolving references and expanding hierarchies, to produce a flattened netlist. This is the form that optimizers and code generators use.

The design optimization processes all manipulate the netlist, translating it to a (hopefully) better netlist after each step. The complete netlist is then passed to the code generator, the emit function, where the final code (in the target format) is produced.

Structural Items: NetNode and NetNet

Components and wires, memories and registers all at their base are either NetNode objects or NetNet objects. Even these classes are derived from the NetObj class.

All NetNode and NetNet objects have a name and some number of pins. The name usually comes from the Verilog source that represents that object, although objects that are artifacts of elaboration will have a generated (and probably unreadable) name. The pins are the ports into the device. NetNode objects have a pin for each pin of the component it represents, and NetNet objects have a pin for each signal in the vector.

Node and net pins can be connected together via the connect function. Connections are transitive (A==B and B==c means A==C) so connections accumulate on a link as items are connected to it. The destructors for nets and nodes automatically arrange for pins to be disconnected when the item is deleted, so that the netlist can be changed during processing.

Behavioral Items: NetProcTop, NetProc and derived classes

Behavioral items are not in general linked to the netlist. Instead, they represent elaborated behavioral statements. The type of the object implies what the behavior of the statement does. For example, a NetCondit object represents an if statement, and carries a condition expression and up to two alternative sub-statements.

At the root of a process is a NetProcTop object. This class carries a type flag (initial or always) and a single NetProc object. The contained statement may, depending on the derived class, refer to other statements, compound statements, so on. But at the root of the tree is the NetProcTop object. The Design class keeps a list of the elaborated NetProcTop objects. That list represents the list of processes in the design.

Interaction Of Behavioral And Structural: NetAssign_

The behavioral statements in a Verilog design effect the structural aspects through assignments to registers. Registers are structural items represented by the NetNet class, linked to the assignment statement through pins. This implies that the l-value of an assignment is structural. It also implies that the statement itself is structural, and indeed it is derived from NetNode.

The NetAssign_ class is also derived from the NetProc class because what it does is brought on by executing the process. By multiple inheritance we have therefore that the assignment is both a NetNode and a NetProc. The NetAssign_ node has pins that represent the l-value of the statement, and carries behavioral expressions that represent the r-value of the assignment.


The netlist form includes the NetMemory type to hold the content of a memory. Instances of this type represent the declaration of a memory, and occur once for each memory. References to the memory are managed by the NetEMemory and NetAssignMem_ classes.

An instance of the NetEMemory class is created whenever a procedural expression references a memory element. The operand is the index to use to address (and read) the memory.

An instance of the NetAssignMem_ class is created when there is a procedural assignment to the memory. The NetAssignMem_ object represents the l-value reference (a write) to the memory. As with the NetEMemory class, this is a procedural reference only.

When a memory reference appears in structural context (i.e. continuous assignments) elaboration creates a NetRamDq. This is a LPM_RAM_DQ device. Elaboration leaves the write control and data input pins unconnected for now, because memories cannot appear is l-values of continuous assignments. However, the synthesis functor may connect signals to the write control lines to get a fully operational RAM.

By the time elaboration completes, there may be many NetAssignMem_, NetEMemory and NetRamDq objects referencing the same NetMemory object. Each represents a port into the memory. It is up to the synthesis steps (and the target code) to figure out what to do with these ports.


Expressions are represented as a tree of NetExpr nodes. The NetExpr base class contains the core methods that represent an expression node, including virtual methods to help with dealing with nested complexities of expressions.

Expressions (as expressed in the source and p-form) may also be elaborated structurally, where it makes sense. For example, assignment l-value expressions are represented as connections to pins. Also, continuous assignment module items are elaborated as gates instead of as a procedural expression. Event expressions are also elaborated structurally as events are like devices that trigger behavioral statements.

However, typical expressions the behavioral description are represented as a tree of NetExpr nodes. The derived class of the node encodes what kind of operator the node represents.

Expression Bit Width

The expression (represented by the NetExpr class) has a bit width that it either explicitly specified, or implied by context or contents. When each node of the expression is first constructed during elaboration, it is given, by type and parameters, an idea what its width should be. It certain cases, this is definitive, for example with signals. In others, it is ambiguous, as with unsized constants.

As the expression is built up by elaboration, operators that combine expressions impose bit widths of the environment or expose the bit widths of the sub expressions. For example, the bitwise AND (&) operator has a bit size implied by its operands, whereas the comparison (==) operator has a bit size of 1. The building up of the elaborated expression checks and adjusts the bit widths as the expression is built up, until finally the context of the expression takes the final bit width and makes any final adjustments.

The NetExpr::expr_width() method returns the calculated (or guessed) expression width. This method will return 0 until the width is set by calculation or context. If this method returns false, then it is up to the context that wants the width to set one. The elaboration phase will call the NetExpr::set_width method on an expression as soon as it gets to a point where it believes that it knows what the width should be.

The NetExpr::set_width(unsigned) virtual method is used by the context of an expression node to note to the expression that the width is determined and please adapt. If the expression cannot reasonably adapt, it will return false. Otherwise, it will adjust bit widths and return true.

I do not yet properly deal with cases where elaboration knows for
certain that the bit width does not matter. In this case, I
really should tell the expression node about it so that it can
pick a practical (and optimal) width.

Interaction Of Expressions And Structure: NetESignal

The NetAssign_ class described above is the means for processes to manipulate the net, but values are read from the net by NetESignal objects. These objects are class NetExpr because they can appear in expressions (and have width). They are not NetNode object, but hold pointers to a NetNet object, which is used to retrieve values with the expression is evaluated.

Hierarchy In Netlists

The obvious hierarchical structure of Verilog is the module. The Verilog program may contain any number of instantiations of modules in order to form an hierarchical design. However, the elaboration of the design into a netlist erases module boundaries. Modules are expanded each place they are used, with the hierarchical instance name used to name the components of the module instance. However, the fact that a wire or register is a module port is lost.

The advantage of this behavior is first the simplification of the netlist structure itself. Backends that process netlists only need to cope with a list of nets, a list of nodes and a list of processes. This eases the task of the backend code generators.

Another advantage of this flattening of the netlist is that optimizers can operate globally, with optimizations freely crossing module boundaries. This makes coding of netlist transform functions such as constant propagation more effective and easier to write.

Scope Representation In Netlists

In spite of the literal flattening of the design, scope information is preserved in the netlist, with the NetScope class. The Design class keeps a single pointer to the root scope of the design. This is the scope of the root module. Scopes that are then created within that (or any nested) module are placed as children of the root scope, and those children can have further children, and so on.

Each scope in the tree carries its own name, and its relationship to its parent and children. This makes it possible to walk the tree of scopes. In practice, the walking of the scopes is handled by recursive methods.

Each scope also carries the parameters that are applicable to the scope itself. The parameter expression (possibly evaluated) can be located by name, given the scope object itself. The scan of the pform to generate scopes also places the parameters that are declared in the scope. Overrides are managed during the scan, and once the scan is complete, defparam overrides are applied.

Tasks In Netlists

The flattening of the design does not include tasks and named begin-end blocks. Tasks are behavioral hierarchy (whereas modules are structural) so do not easily succumb to the flattening process. In particular, it is logically impossible to flatten tasks that recurse. (The elaboration process does reserve the right to flatten some task calls. C++ programmers recognize this as inlining a task.)

Time Scale In Netlists

The Design class and the NetScope classes carry time scale and resolution information of the elaborated design. There is a global resolution, and there are scope specific units and resolutions. Units and resolutions are specified as signed integers, and interpreted as the power of 10 of the value. For example, a resolution “-9” means that “1” is 1ns (1e-9). The notation supports units from -128 to +127. It is up to the back-ends to interpret “-4” as “100us”.

Delays are expressed in the netlist by integers. The units of these delays are always given in the units of the design precision. This allows everything to work with integers, and generally places the burden of scaling delays into elaboration. This is, after all, a common task. The Design::get_precision() method gets the global design precision.

Each NetScope also carries its local time_units and time_precision values. These are filled in during scope elaboration and are used in subsequent elaboration phases to arrange for scaling of delays. This information can also be used by the code generator to scale times back to the units of the scope, if that is desired.