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BSc Artificial Intelligence / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

Course unit details:
Processor Microarchitecture

Unit code COMP22111
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Department of Computer Science
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course unit aims to reinforce and extend digital hardware development skills which are introduced in the first year. It employs industry-standard tools and languages which are used worldwide for silicon development. The UK has perhaps the strongest expertise in Europe in these areas and skills are in high demand from employers such as ARM and Imagination Technologies who provide much of the digital design for devices such as smartphones and tablet computers.


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
Fundamentals of Computer Engineering COMP12111 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Students who are not from the School of Computer Science must have permission from both Computer Science and their home School to enrol.


The module aims to give a view of the role of a digital hardware designer, taking an idea and implementing it as a silicon chip. A processor is a representative example of logic used in today's chips, also giving further insight into how computers actually work.

Having completed the module you should have developed the confidence to be able to take a concept and realise it in hardware. You should also appreciate the test and verification processes involved so that your chips work efficiently and reliably ... first time, every time!

Learning outcomes

  • Explore the operation of sequential systems and design and implement systems consisting of datapath and control elements.
  • Apply design methodologies to aid in the design of complex digital systems.
  • Discuss key features of the Verilog language and be able to implement and test sequential digital systems at the register transfer level (RTL) of the design hierarchy.
  • Discuss the role of the instruction set architecture in influencing the design of the processor, identifying key functional components of a design and explaining how they work together to execute instructions.
  • Explain the stages of processor design starting from the Instruction Set Architecture through to implementation in Verilog.
  • Explain the design and operation of simple logic functions in CMOS logic and discuss the issues associated with CMOS.
  • Analyse how design factors such as scaling, monetary cost, performance and power consumption impact VLSI designs.
  • Describe examples of specialised compute units such as coprocessors, floating-point units and vector extensions and identify their relative advantages and disadvantages.
  • Compare different processor technologies, such as CPU, GPU and FPGA, with respect to different application domains, and discuss future industry trends beyond traditional CMOS scaling for post-Moore computing.
  • Reveal important parts of the CAD tool stack including logic synthesis and test as well as placement and routing algorithms.


1. Introduction (1 lecture)
Overview, introduction to the lab, approaches to design and the management of complexity

2. Instruction Set Architectures (2 lectures)
RISC v CISC, recap of MU0, Stump ISA, other architectures

3. Review of sequential systems (2 lectures)
The processor as a sequential system, datapath and control, register transfer level (RTL) design, Mealy and Moore finite state machines.

4. Advanced Verilog (3 lectures)
Verilog recap, tasks and functions, structural Verilog, verification & testing in Verilog, the Verilog simulator.

5. Designing and Implementing Processors (2 lectures)
Implementation of processors from the ISA, architectural design, RTL design, Verilog implementation. 

6. Improving Processor Performance (1 lecture)
Superscalar, multicore and pipelining, examples of processor speedup, hazards.

7. Specialised Processing Architectures (1 lecture)
Examining DSPs, floating-point (and other) coprocessors, SIMD and vector extensions as well as VLIW.

8. Microarchitectural Structures (1 lecture)
Basic building blocks, including register files, FIFOs, RAMs, CAMs, arithmetic circuits (adders and multipliers) and shifters.

9. FPGAs (1 lecture)
FPGA mode of operation and its spatial programming model as well as application examples.

10. Hardware Design Examples (1 lecture)
Investigating a few circuits (e.g., digital filters, sorters, PWMs) and understanding their design factors.

11. Electronics (1 lecture)
Ohm's and Kirchhoff's laws; inverters, NAND and NOR gates; MOS transistors and CMOS technology design factors.

12. Technology (1 lecture)
Standard Cell design methodology, PLA, Multiplexer, look-up table technology.

13. Computer Aided Design (CAD) Tools (1 lecture)
Logic synthesis, constraints, Place & Route, DRCs.

14. Verification and Test (1 lecture)
Analogue and digital simulation, regression testing, production test and yield built-in self-test (BIST).

15. Timing and Clocking (1 lecture)
System performance, setup and hold times, jitter, clock skew, clock distribution networks, propagation delay, signal integrity, static timing analysis (STA), clock domains, synchronisation and meta-stability.

16. Hardware Security (1 lecture) 
Understanding hardware related vulnerabilities (Spectre, Meltdown, RowHammer) and countermeasures. DPA and other forms of side-channel attacks 

17. Future (1 lecture)
Limits of Moores' law, understanding the importance of energy efficiency, new manufacturing techniques, memristor-based computing, exotic technologies (Quantum dots, Graphene, Spintronics, etc.).

Teaching and learning methods




20 hours in total

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Problem solving

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 50%
Written assignment (inc essay) 50%

Feedback methods

Direct feedback comes from laboratory work, both from working with the tools themselves and from the staff. Development results can (and should) be observed throughout using simulation and test. Final results are observable with a hardware realisation.

Less formal feedback is available at all times, especially during lectures and laboratory sessions.

Recommended reading

COMP22111 reading list can be found on the Department of Computer Science website for current students.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 11
Practical classes & workshops 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 65

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Paul Nutter Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Course unit materials

Links to course unit teaching materials can be found on the School of Computer Science website for current students.

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