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Overview of Memory Types and DDR Interface Design Implementation

Memory Overview

Over the past several years the electronics market and, more specifically, the memory market has undergone significant change. Prior to the electronics industry downturn in 2000, electronic system designers were less concerned with the cost of the components going into their next design, and more concerned with the raw, maximum performance they could achieve.

Today, increasing competition and decreasing profit margins have forced system designers to reduce next generation product cost while maintaining, or even increasing, system performance. One industry segment that has experienced substantial growth as a result of this transition is DRAM memory, particularly Double Data Rate (DDR) SDRAM memory.

DDR Memory first came on the scene as a high performance, low-cost memory solution targeted primarily at the personal computer and other cost sensitive consumer markets. More recently, due to the economic pressures squeezing the entire electronics industry, non-consumer products have also begun to incorporate DDR memory (Figure 1).

DDR is an evolutionary memory technology based on SDRAM. DDR SDRAM access is twice as fast as SDRAM, because DDR data transfers occur on both edges of the clock, compared to SDRAM, which transfers data only on the rising edge of a clock. Consequently, DDR can transfer data at up to 2133MB/s. DDR also consumes much less power than conventional SDRAM, with an operational Vcc of just 2.5Vdc instead of 3.3Vdc for SDRAM.

Figure 1

Market analyses indicate that DDR is currently utilized in over 50% of all electronic systems, and usage is expected to increase to 80% over the next several years. DDR is not, and will never be, an “all things to all designs” technology. DDR memory is well suited for those designs that have a high read to write ratio. Quad Data Rate memory, for example, is designed for applications that require a 50% read/write ratio. Figure 2 identifies various state of the art memory technologies and where on the read/write curve they reside.

Figure 2 – Read/Write Ratio Comparison of Various Memory Types

As noted, each system has its own unique memory requirements. In the case of server applications, the READ-to-WRITE ratio tends to be high, indicating a need for DDR. In the case of a network processor interfacing a MAC supporting jumbo packets, where the packets need to be buffered and stored before being processed, a near equal 1:1 READ-to-WRITE ratio exists, indicating QDR as a more appropriate memory architecture.

Figure 3 highlights a generic communications line card Printed Circuit Board (PCB) example. The block diagram shows where several common memory types may be utilized, based on the system designer’s requirements. A similar decision process is used in a wide variety of systems in order to choose the appropriate memory architecture.

Figure 3 – Utilization of Common Memory Types

The following list indicates the appropriate memory architecture for a variety of systems and functions. These selections are based on the system architecture and the respective performance/cost trade off requirements.

Lookup – Fast Switching/Access time
–Latency Critical, Read Oriented, Smaller Bus Width (32/64bit)
–Memory Choice: ZBT ( QDR/DDR (>10Gb/s)
–Operation: Address Translation

Lookup – Large Size, High Throughput (Core Router)
–Parity Required: Wide I/O (>64)
–Bandwidth and Granularity Required is Top Priority
–Memory Choice: SDR ( DDR/FCRAM (10Gb/s) -> RLDRAM/DDR II (10Gb/s-40Gb/s)
–Operation: Address Translation

Queue/Packet Management
–Latency #1, Random Read & Write – Unpredictable data pattern
–Memory Choice: ZBT -> QDR
–Operation: Queue management and flow control

Traffic Shaping/Policing
–Burst Oriented, Narrow I/O Bus (x18/x36)
–Memory Choice: ZBT/QDR
–Operation: Policy based routing tables

–Random Read/Write, Read Dominant, Narrow I/O Bus (x18/x36)
–Memory Choice: ZBT/QDR
–Operation: Tracking data for packets, traffic statistics

Packet Cell Buffer
–Large Granularity, Wide I/O Bus (>64bit)
–Bandwidth top priority
–Cost sensitive
–Memory choice: SDR -> DDR/FCRAM->RLDRAM/DDR II
–Operation: Handling IP Packets that vary in size (128B)

DDR Interface Design Implementation

Until now we have discussed various memory architectures and where they fit within the system. Due to the relatively high acceptance rate of DDR in a growing variety of digital designs, the remainder of this article will focus on DDR memory, and implementation of the DDR interface within an FPGA.

In many system designs, the engineer will elect to use an FPGA as the memory controller (Figure 4). The advantage of using an FPGA is its inherent flexibility. Regardless of the protocol or microprocessor, an FPGA fabric can generally provide the DDR memory control and required electrical interface. A common challenge in using an FPGA as a memory controller is the need for the high-speed interface, such as that required by DDR. The required I/O speeds and associated clocking are often challenging to implement, due to the non-deterministic FPGA routing resources and limited I/O speeds of many FPGAs. At DDR speeds over 200Mbps, environmental conditions such as temperature and voltage will also affect the performance of the required I/O.

DDR memory’s ability to transfer data at double the standard SDRAM data rate is not an unmixed blessing. The high speeds of DDR I/O, and the very short data windows of DDR data, pose significant challenges. The speeds at which the memory controller must reliably operate (200 MHz across FR-4 PCB traces) make the PCB layout challenging. Furthermore, incorporating the DDR interface into a flexible FPGA fabric presents the designer with the related complexity of meeting very critical and tight timing in an inherently non-deterministic routing fabric. Designers accustomed to the high-speed and flexibility of FPGAs are often surprised to find that they have a difficult, if not impossible, experience getting a high-speed DDR interface operating in an FPGA. These difficulties arise not from a functionality issue, but from the physical realities of working with data windows that are well within the magnitude of signal propagation delays in FR4 and FPGA routing. These timing requirements are further complicated by the variation in logic speed over process, temperature and voltage. Further complicating the implementation of a DDR design is the need to handle and pre-process strobe signals, as opposed to generic clock signals. The design engineer can no longer simply connect data and address lines and expect to have a robust, high-speed memory interface.

Figure 4- FPGA As Memory Controller

Each FPGA vendor has approached the problem of DDR memory interfacing in its own way. At one extreme, where limited resources are allocated in the I/O block, the data de-muxing and/or clock transfer logic must be implemented in the FPGA core logic, and the designer is likely to be forced to hand-route the interface logic in order to guarantee the critical timing. At the other extreme, Lattice Semiconductor’s recently introduced EC and ECP families provide a complete hard-wire interface in the I/O block that addresses all of the functionality and timing issues (including compensation for temperature and voltage) associated with the interface, eliminating the problem of meeting timing in the FPGA core routing resources. The latter approach guarantees success by design.

Due to the complexity of a DDR memory design, it is worth considering some of the aspects of the interface in more detail.

DDR SDRAM Interfaces Overview

In a typical non-DDR system, both the controller and memory in a system transmit or capture data in response to a single system clock (Figure 5). Designers became familiar with the timing constraints in these systems, which, over time, have become tighter as clock speeds have increased.

The typical timing budget for the synchronous common clock system below would include:

  • Memory Access time (tAC)

  • Data Propagation Delay (tPROP)

  • Clock Skew from Controller to Memory (tSKEW)

  • Temperature, Voltage Data-to-Clock (tTV)

Figure 5-Typical Non-DDR System

As designers moved to a Double Data Rate implementation of these systems, they achieved a 2X effective increase in the bit rate of the system. This effectively cut the data window in half. Whereas the older common-clock systems might have a data window of 6ns or more, designers are now faced with DDR systems with windows of 2.5ns or less. The incremental speed improvements, provided by smaller process geometries, that designers depend on for performance gains are insufficient to make up for this halving of the data window. To further complicate matters, these bit times are now approaching the propagation time of signals on FR4 and in FPGA routing. Put another way, a more substantial piece of the timing budget for a memory cycle is being taken up by physical board routing delays and variations due to temperature and voltage that do not improve as silicon geometries shrink.

Figure 6-Tight Timing of a 3ns Window

Figure 6 illustrates the tight timing of a 3ns window, typical of a DDR transfer. It is clear that the access and propagation times of today’s memories make it impossible for DDR transfers to take place with a clock-controlled data launch and capture system. For a DDR system to operate, the ability to launch the data from the memory device at the same instant as a data-valid signal is needed. This would effectively eliminate the memory access time and data propagation time (both the strobe and data would experience the same propagation time) from the timing budget, and significantly open the data-valid window. The only remaining skews in this approach would be the small but finite difference in the ability to launch both the data strobe and the data simultaneously (tALIGN) (Figure 7).

Figure 7-DDR Timing Margin: A Workable Solution

An Alternate Approach

To accomplish this method of data transfer, DDR SDRAM interfaces rely on the use of a data strobe signal called DQS. DQS is generated from the differential clock fed to the DDR memory and a DLL inside the DDR memory used to generate and align DQS to outgoing data. Although a DDR memory does not use the differential input clock to launch or capture data, the DQS signal that is used is related to the incoming clock frequency. Figure 8 illustrates the new timing parameters of a data window based on a DQS-based READ transfer. As noted earlier, there is a finite skew between the launch of DQS and the last lane of data (DQ) to become valid. This data-valid-to-data alignment error is called tDQSQ. This delay reduces the size of the data valid window. In this system, there is also a finite alignment delay between validity of the first valid data line and the last valid data line. This parameter is tQH. After calculating the real data valid window, we are left with:

tValid = tQH-tDQSQ

When a read operation is performed, the DDR memory outputs both data and DQS edge-aligned with each other. In order to capture the data at the controller (FPGA) input register with proper setup and hold times, the DQS from the memory needs to be phase shifted 90 degrees. This has the effect of “centering” the DQS edge with the center of the data window, providing maximum setup and hold time. Figure 9 illustrates the required DQS phase shift relative to data.

Figure 8-READ Interface Timing Requirements


Figure 9-Required DQS Phase Shift Relative to Data

It is clear that there is now a reasonable data window from which to capture data.

The DQS signal has several characteristics:

  • DQS is bi-directional

  • A DQS line is typically generated for 8 lanes of data from the DDR memory

  • The phase of DQS relative to the data depends on the operation being performed (Write or Read)

  • DQS is not free running

  • In the memory device, DQS is generated by DLL to minimize the skew between it and data

  • DQS has a Preamble state just after the signal comes out of tristate where DQS goes low

  • DQS has a Postamble state just before returning to tristate where DQS goes low

Figure 10 depicts a DDR memory and FPGA controller with the associated data and control lanes. Again, note that DQS is bi-directional. Note that the clock signal provided to the memory is differential (CLKP and CLKN) to minimize duty cycle variations. It is important to understand that it is not the clock signal that is used to capture or launch data to or from the memory. DDR memory also requires a Data Mask (DM) signal, which is used to mask data bits during the write cycles. This allows writes to the memory on only one of the two edges of DQS that occur in a cycle.

Figure 10 Typical DDR interface

Figure 11 illustrates the WRITE timing for a DDR interface. Here we are looking at the signals as they exit from the FPGA controller. Note that the FPGA controller launches DQS center-aligned with the data window. This differs from the edge-aligned launch from the memory described earlier. Also note the requirement that all data (for DDR400) must meet the setup and hold times of 0.4ns relative to any DQS edge.

Figure 11 DQ-DQS during WRITE

SDRAM interfaces typically are implemented with x8, x16 or x32 bits for each DQS signal. Note that the ratio of DQS to data bits is independent of the overall width of the memory.

Implementing DDR Memory Interfaces with FPGA Devices

Now that we have defined the requirements of a typical DDR interface, we can turn to implementation of that DDR memory interface in an FPGA.

Memory Read Implementation

Here we will examine the challenges encountered in the design of a READ interface and the available solutions.

Challenges Encountered by the FPGA During Memory READ

  1. DQS-DQ Alignment – DQS must be re-aligned (90 degree phase shift) to capture read data within the narrow data valid window. The system level skew and skew across multiple DQ lines must be managed.

  2. Data Mux and De-Mux – During READ, the DDR input data must be de-muxed into two SDR streams.

  3. Clock Domain Transfer – After the data is demuxed, the data must be aligned to a common clock edge and then must be synchronized to an unrelated FPGA system clock. The transfer to the FPGA clock domain must consider the relative phase of the DQS strobe and the FPGA system clock to avoid setup and hold violations.

The Solution

FPGAs include features that simplify the implementation of the READ portion of a DDR interface. These may include:

  • DLL compensated DQS delay elements

  • DDR input registers

  • Half-Clock transfer register

  • Automatic DQS to system clock domain transfer circuitry

DDR input Circuitry

A full implementation of a DDR receiver or input interface requires all of the elements listed above. Figure 12 depicts the LatticeECP/EC FPGA implementation that connects all of these elements together to implement the read portion of a DDR memory interface.

Figure 12 LatticeECP/EC DDR Input Circuitry

The DQS Delay Block receives the edge-aligned DQS signal from the memory and performs the phase shift of 90 degrees. This phase shifted DQS signal can now be used by the FPGA input registers to capture and de-mux the positive and negative edge data. Note that following the register that captures the positive-edge data is a negative edge triggered flop. This half-clock transfer register transfers the positive edge data from the first register to the negative edge of DQS so that both the positive and negative portions of the data are now presented to the next register stage on the same negative edge of DQS. Finally, the last register stage can now clock-in both halves of data on the same FPGA system clock edge. This edge, however, must be chosen carefully in order to maximize the setup and hold time in transferring data from the DQS domain to the FPGA system clock domain. This is the purpose of the clock edge select mux shown above. The clock polarity selection method is detailed below.

The Devil is in the Details

It is important to note the very tight timing associated with the 5 registers in the input section of a high-speed DDR recovery block. With data windows of 2.5 ns (and even smaller), setup and hold times, designers regularly run into routing and logic delays that overwhelm the system timing requirements. Many FPGA architectures require the designer to hand place and route these registers if the design is to operate at speed. Even then, designers have difficulty achieving DDR400 speeds over operating temperature and voltage.

Lattice Semiconductor now provides LatticeECP/EC FPGAs that incorporate all five input registers and associated routing in a hard I/O block (IOB). This guarantees performance and success by design. The designer simply connects the I/O blocks and DQS sub-modules and is guaranteed a working interface.

On-Chip DLL Calibration

Due to the very tight timing, both skew and the actual delay of the DQS delay block must be carefully controlled. A low-cost solution may use an open-loopfixed delay block for DQS delay. The performance of this scheme, however, will vary with temperature and voltage. This will limit the maximum attainable speed of the DDR interface. In a more complete solution, the temperature, voltage and process variations affecting the DQS delay block are compensated for in a closed-loop fashion. Typically this can be done by dedicated DLL elements on the FPGA that feed calibration data to each delay element. Figure 13 illustrates the DLL compensation method used in the LatticeECP/EC devices. In these devices the aligned DQS is distributed to the input registers, with each DQS supporting up to 8 DQ’s.

Figure 13 LatticeECP/EC DQS Alignment using on chip DLL

Automatic Clock Polarity Control

In a typical DDR memory interface design, the phase relation between the incoming delayed DQS strobe and the internal system Clock (during the READ cycle) is unknown. Many FPGA devices leave the resolution of this problem to the user. The LatticeECP/EC families contain dedicated circuits to determine the necessary system clock polarity, perform this selection and perform the transfer of data between these domains. To prevent setup and hold violations at the domain transfer between DQS (delayed) and the system clock, a clock polarity selector is used. This requires evaluation at the start of each READ cycle to determine the proper FPGA system clock polarity (Figure 14). Prior to the READ operation in DDR memories, DQS is in tristate (determined by termination). Coming out of tristate, the DDR memory device drives DQS low in the Preamble State. A dedicated circuit detects this transition and generates a signal indicating the required polarity for the FPGA system clock (DDRCLKPOL). This signal is used to control the polarity of the clock to the synchronizing registers.

Figure 14 LatticeECP/EC Automatic Clock Polarity Select

Memory Write Implementation

To implement the write portion of a DDR memory interface, two streams of single data rate data must first be multiplexed together to form a stream with data transitioning on both edges of the clock. Furthermore, the FPGA controller must launch the DQS signal center-aligned with outgoing data, DQ. The Data Mask signal (DM) is also used during a write cycle.

It is the responsibility of the FPGA output control to edge-align the DDR output signals (ADDRCMD, DQS, but not DQ and DM) to the rising edge of the outgoing differential clock (CLKP/CLKN).

Challenges encountered by the FPGA during Memory WRITE:

  1. DQS needs to be center aligned with the outgoing DDR Data and DQ.

  2. The FPGA needs to generate Differential CLK signals (CLKP and CLKN). CLKP needs to be edge-aligned with the Address and Command signals.

  3. The FPGA controller must meet the DDR interface specification for tDSS and tDSH parameters, defined as DQS falling to CLKP rising setup and hold times.

  4. The DDR output data must be muxed from two SDR streams into a single outgoing DDR data stream.

The Solution

A full-featured FPGA solution includes a pair of DDR output registers, output mux and tri-state registers, along with PLLs that allow easy implementation of the various output clock phases necessary in the write portion of the DDR memory interfaces.

DDR Output Logic

The DDR output register block allows 2 SDR data streams to be muxed to a single DDR data stream. The DDR tristate registers simplify implementation for bi-directional signals. Figure 15 illustrates these capabilities for the LatticeECP/EC devices.

Figure 15- LatticeECP/EC DDR Output Logic

The Write control circuit must create several phases of the system clock to appropriately launch the respective control signals from the FPGA:

  1. A PLL is used to generate a 90-degree phase shifted clock. This 90-degree phase shifted clock will be used to generate DQS, address, command and the differential clocks going to the memory. Note that ADDRESS and CMD only change at the clock rate (SDR). Address and data are then edge-aligned with DQS and the CLKP/N signals. This allows the tDSS and tDSH specs to be met.

  2. The DDR clock can be generated by assigning “0” and “1” to the inputs of the DDR output register pair. This is then fed into a SSTL25 differential output buffer to generate CLKP and CLKN differential clocks. Generating the CLKN in this manner would prevent any skew between the 2 signals.

  3. Since internally the DQS and ADDR/CMD signals are generated using the primary FPGA clock, the user will need to implement a ¼ clock transfer from the core logic to the DDR registers. Timing can be hard to meet, so It is recommended that the user first register these signals with the inverted Clock, so that the transfer from the core logic to the I/O registers will only require a ¾ clock transfer.

  4. The data DQ and DMneed to be delayed by 90° as they leave the FPGA. This is to center the data and data mask relative to the DQSwhen it reaches the DDR memory. This can be accomplished by inverting the CLK to the DQ and DM data. The DM signal is generated using the same clock as the DQ data pin. The memory masks the DQ signals if the DM pins are driven high.

Figure 16 illustrates DDR Write interface signal generation for the LatticeECP/EC devices.

Figure 16. LatticeECP/EC Memory WRITE Interface Signal Generation


As discussed throughout this article, there are a wide variety of memory options available to system designers. Careful consideration is essential when evaluating a specific type of memory for a particular application. We also conclude that DDR is increasingly becoming the memory of choice for a majority of systems. The advantages of DDR are significant compared to other memory options; however, DDR is a high-speed, complex interface that requires special care for proper implementation. Fortunately, FPGA manufacturers have begun to implement turnkey solutions that provide design flexibility yet guarantee performance and a robust solution.

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