I have been wrestling the VHDL grammar for our Xtext-based IDE-prototype for a while now (note to self: blog about Xtext). Ever since I learned VHDL at the university and later on, while designing a video decoder, I have had the uncanny feeling that the language is somehow crooked. It is a reasonable language to express hardware designs at a higher abstraction level but its syntax does not imprint itself well upon my brain, forcing me to make silly typing errors all the time. As of late, I see more clearly why this is the case. Some simple examples of design flaws of the syntax will illustrate my point.
VHDL allows you to annotate the closure of a block (like the end of functions, procedures, loops …) with a label indicating which block is being closed. Fine, I guess that in the 1980’ such a label was a useful annotation to help keep an overview of the structure of your code. But why was it made inconsistent? For example, for architectures, entities, configurations, … you close the block with
end [X] [X's name]
That means that for an architecture it is fine to close it with a simple
end keyword or, if you choose to do so, with a complete
end architecture my_architecture_s_name.
In contrast, the proper way to close a component or a unit declaration is
end X [X's name]
That means it is not legal to write a simple “end” at the end of a component. Strange.
What exactly is the idea with the use of a semicolon in VHDL? Most languages use the semicolon as a terminator. For example, in C or Java … the semicolon is used to end a statement. In VHDL, statements are also terminated with a semicolon. But it is also used as a separator in for example entity definitions like so:
entity Full_Adder is port (X, Y, Cin: in Bit; Cout, Sum: out Bit); end Full_Adder;
Note that you are not allowed to write a semicolon just before the closing brace. Strange.
A last inconsistency example is importing definitions from outside a file. VHDL has two constructs. The first one is the
library X; construct. It tells VHDL to make library X visible in the current file. The second construct is
use X.Y.all;. This construct tells VHDL to make all entities in package Y inside library X accessible from the current file. Why are there two scoping import constructs? The first construct could have been made redundant by allowing
use X.all;. Strange.
All this is very unfortunate. It is the cause of that uneasy feeling I always experience when working with VHDL. Other languages that have a more consistent language design allow me to learn them and make them my own. I never achieved that level of ease with VHDL.
So, what do I hope to achieve with this rant? A redesign of VHDL? Not only, will it never happen, what is more, it would not be a good idea. Let VHDL be VHDL but if you ever decide to design a new HDL language, make it simple and consistent and I will salute you, Sir or Madam. No, the right attitude is to get a good editor, preferably from a company beginning with “Sigas”, and let it help you get beyond the petty limitations of your language so you can focus on what is really important: your product.