Place and Route: Ultimate Guide

Place and route is an important part of the ASIC design flow and act as both mapmaker and builder within the silicon landscape, determining where components reside and how they connect while meeting stringent technical requirements. Its role is pivotal; without effective practices here, the most innovative chip designs could fail to perform as intended.


In this Ultimate Guide, we plunge into the complexities of place and route, unraveling each layer from the basic concepts that underpin the process to the high-stakes challenges designers face. We’ll explore the intricacies of design hierarchy, scrutinise performance metrics, and arm you with knowledge on advanced EDA tools driving the future of chip design. Join us as we embark on a micro-scale journey through the critical phases and ingenious strategies of place and route.


What is Place and Route?

Place and route is a critical phase in the electronic design automation (EDA) process for integrated circuits (ICs) and printed circuit boards (PCB). This phase follows the initial creation of circuit schematics – where electronic components are interconnected based on desired functionality. Within place and route, the two main steps are, first, placing the various electronic components onto a chip or PCB, and then routing the physical connections between them.


Definition and Purpose

The placement process involves determining the optimal locations for each component on the silicon wafer or PCB, typically with the goals of minimizing delays, saving space, and reducing power consumption. There is a variety of techniques used to achieve ideal placement, taking into account the component’s size, power, and heat dissipation requirements, as well as the overall design complexity.


Routing is performed after placement and focuses on creating the electrical connections between each component using metal wires or traces. Routing must address numerous design constraints and criteria, like avoiding signal interference, meeting timing requirements, and ensuring power distribution throughout the design. Advanced tools, often referred to as route tools, leverage sophisticated algorithms to navigate complex routing challenges, especially prevalent in advanced process nodes where space is at a premium and the interconnection density is high.


Importance in the Design Process

Place and route is of fundamental importance in the design process as it directly affects the performance, power consumption, and size of the final product. Achieving a faster design closure – finalizing the design within timing and other specifications – can be a key competitive advantage. Missteps in place and route can lead to increased design closure time, necessitating multiple iterations and possibly resulting in higher design costs.


The phase is also crucial in meeting the timing requirements that ensure the chip functions correctly at the desired clock source speed. Additionally, because of the tight interplay between placement and routing, the process can have a significant impact on the ability to scale designs to advanced process nodes, which have stringent design rule requirements.


An optimized place and route process can result in a design that meets its design criteria for speed, power, and area (SPA), hence allowing for the high-level circuit design to meet the intended performance goals. Moreover, with the growing complexity of modern chips, including CPU design, analog design, and memory designs, the challenges in place and be practically managed through design strategies like hierarchical design, curvilinear designs, and optimization for a variety of different chip assembly design styles.


As such, the need for an efficient and powerful place and route process has never been greater. Engineers and design teams continually seek improvements and innovations in this area, working to overcome the myriad challenges of design implementation to deliver successful, high-quality electronic products.


Basic Concepts

The foundational notions of place and route revolve around several core concepts: the physical arrangement of components (placement), the establishment of connections between them (routing), and the management of design complexity through hierarchical approaches. Understanding these concepts can contribute to efficient PCB design and quicker design closure.


  • Placement: It is the thoughtful arrangement of components on a chip or PCB. Each component is placed so that it satisfies several criteria like performance, power efficiency, and space utilization. Optimized placement is pivotal to minimizing signal delays and conserving precious real estate on the silicon.
  • Routing: Once the components are in place, routing establishes the electrical connections between them with metal wires or traces. Efficient routing ensures that the final circuit meets all critical performance metrics without any interference or signal integrity issues.
  • Timing Requirements: Meeting the timing requirements is necessary for the system to operate at the desired speed, synchronized with the clock source. It’s of high importance to cater to the synchronization needs between different circuit components to avoid setup and hold time violations.
  • Power Distribution: It’s not just the logic and timing that matter, but also maintaining a robust power distribution system. Safe and efficient conveyance of power to all components is fundamental, necessitating careful planning in the placement and routing phases.
  • Process Nodes: As technology advances, the semiconductor industry moves to ever-smaller process nodes. Each node reduction often brings increased design challenges, particularly in the interconnection density that place and route tools must navigate.


By mastering these basic concepts, designers can significantly improve their ability to develop the ideal design that meets predetermined design criteria with fewer design iterations.


Design Hierarchy

Within the vast landscape of electronic design, the concept of design hierarchy is a powerful stratagem that organizes the complexity of circuit elements and interconnections in a manageable way. Hierarchical design breaks down a circuit into sub-circuits or blocks, allowing designers to focus on smaller, more manageable sections of the design before integrating these into the final product. This modular approach not only simplifies the design task but also enables parallel development on different parts of the design, greatly accelerating the overall process.


Key benefits of a hierarchical design approach include:


  • Ease of debugging: By dividing the design into functional blocks, it’s easier to isolate and address issues.
  • Design reuse: Hierarchical designs enable the possibility to reuse existing blocks in new designs, hence saving time and resources.
  • Improved organization: It allows teams to work on different parts of the design concurrently, optimizing workforce utilization and reducing design closure time.


Implementing design hierarchy is thus a critical element in managing the design complexity and scaling challenges encountered with advancing process nodes.


Design Reuse

The principle of design reuse is deeply woven into the fabric of IC and PCB design. By reusing existing design components or blocks that have been previously verified and optimized, designers can significantly decrease design time and costs.


Advantages of design reuse include:


  • Consistency: It promotes the use of well-established building blocks, ensuring consistent quality.
  • Efficiency: Reusing components helps in faster design closure since much of the work has already been done and verified in prior projects.
  • Resource allocation: Engineers can allocate more resources toward innovative aspects of design, rather than reinventing the wheel with each new design cycle.


To further benefit from design reuse, organizations often maintain libraries of design files—a curated repository of components, sub-systems, and design criteria that can be tapped into by various design teams.


Design Metrics

Design metrics are quantifiable measures that help in assessing the quality and efficiency of the design process and the final product. Common metrics include area, speed, power consumption, and the number of iterations needed to achieve design closure. Additionally, metrics like the yield rate, manufacturability score, and cost per unit also play an essential role in evaluating the economic viability of a design.


Metrics often guide the design process by providing clear targets and allowing for an objective comparison of different design approaches or tools. Accurate measurement and analysis of these metrics can lead to a more predictable design timeline, cost-effective production, and high-quality end products.


Design Complexity

The challenges brought by design complexity cannot be understated. As consumer and industry demands push for products with greater functionality and performance, packed into ever-smaller footprints, the complexity of designs escalates correspondingly. Design complexity manifests in increased interconnection density, tighter power and heat dissipation requirements, and the integration of heterogeneous systems like analog, digital, and mixed-signal circuits on a single chip.


In coping with this complexity, designers resort to a suite of sophisticated EDA tools, leveraging advanced algorithms for placement and routing that can manage thousands of components and connections. Through hierarchical design and design reuse methodologies, coupled with the employment of a variety of techniques, the intricate challenges of advanced process nodes and complex circuit integration can be effectively navigated.


Place and Route Flow


Overview of the Process

The place and route (P&R) process is a pivotal phase in the electronic design automation (EDA) flow, which shapes the final performance and functionality of integrated circuits (ICs) and printed circuit boards (PCB). This intricate process encompasses a series of steps that translate a high-level circuit design into a physical manifestation that is ready for manufacturing. Key stages include high-level design, logic synthesis, netlist generation, timing analysis, physical implementation, and the core activities of placement and routing. Each step follows a stringent guideline to meet the electrical and physical constraints, ensuring the circuit meets all operational specifications.


High-Level Circuit Design

In the journey from concept to tangible product, high-level circuit design serves as the blueprint. Engineers articulate the functional requirements, define the architecture, and select the appropriate components and interconnect paradigms. They address fundamental decisions shaping clock distribution, signal integrity, and power management. This high-level design phase lays the groundwork for successful P&R by aligning with intricate design considerations native to advanced process nodes and sophisticated assembly design styles.


Logic Synthesis

Following the high-level design, logic synthesis translates the abstract circuit descriptions into gate-level representations. This stage uses sophisticated algorithms to optimize the circuit for area, timing, and power while adhering to the defined design criteria. The resulting optimized logic serves as a bridge between theoretical circuit functionality and practical implementation, ensuring that the initial design objectives align with manufacturing realities.


Netlist Generation

Netlist generation is a transformative step that converts the synthesized logic into a list of electronic components (such as transistors, resistors, capacitors) and their precise interconnections, known as a netlist. The netlist serves as the fundamental basis for the subsequent physical design stages, acting as a pivotal source for ensuring that the timing, power, and area targets are feasible at the implementation level.


Timing Analysis

Before delving into physical placement, timing analysis rigorously evaluates the circuit against its timing requirements ensuring that signals propagate within acceptable durations, hence avoiding potential race conditions or setup and hold time violations. Timing analysis tools simulate the behavior of the circuit across various operational scenarios, informing necessary design adjustments that can preemptively address timing issues.


Physical Implementation

Physical implementation translates the netlist and timing data into a spatial configuration of circuit elements within the silicon real estate. It involves the judicious placement of individual components and the precise routing of interconnections, with an eye on minimizing delays and maximizing circuit efficiency. Complex algorithms factor in the unique challenges of the desired process node, managing the high-density integration while adhering to stringent thermal and power distribution requirements.


Layout and Placement

Layout and placement entail the strategic organization of components onto the IC or PCB, balancing optimal space utilization with functional and signal integrity requisites. Ensuring that power distribution is seamlessly integrated, design tools skillfully navigate the competing demands of minimizing area while optimizing performance and manufacturability. The process involves repeated iterations, with design reviews ensuring compliance with the myriad design criteria throughout this phase.




The final stage in the P&R process, routing, establishes the intricate web of electrical tracks that interconnect the placed components. Route tools leverage advanced algorithms to find the best paths for each connection, while mitigating crosstalk and adhering to the timing and electrical requirements. With a variety of techniques at their disposal, designers tackle the routing challenges inherent in curvilinear and memory designs, amongst others, guiding the project to a faster design closure.



Challenges in Place and Route

Designing integrated circuits (ICs) and printed circuit boards (PCBs) is no trivial task, and the place and route phase often holds key challenges that can make or break the success of a project. These challenges range from the ever-increasing design complexity due to advanced process nodes to the stringent power and timing requirements that must be met.


One pressing challenge is managing the vast array of routing resources without running afoul of limitations like area congestion or routing restrictions, which are intensified at advanced process nodes. Designers must utilize a variety of techniques to accomplish routing while maintaining signal integrity and avoiding cross-talk between closely packed traces. Additionally, the push for smaller geometries and the use of novel materials and three-dimensional (3D) structures multiply the complexity of achieving ideal design outcomes. With the assimilation of analog and digital components comes the task of maintaining the integrity of analog signals amidst the digital noise, a challenge that can dictate the entire placement strategy.


Clock source distribution, too, poses a significant hurdle, particularly as designs grow more complex and clocks must reach numerous components reliably and without skew. In the realm of CPU design and memory designs, for example, there are myriad challenges tied to the intricacy of these systems, such as heat dissipation and the sheer number of connections that must be precisely routed to ensure optimal performance.


Timing Requirements

Timing requirements dictate that all signals within an IC must be properly synchronized to maintain the integrity and functionality of the circuit. Every signal path must be evaluated for delay, ensuring that data arrives in the correct order and within the specified time frame, avoiding race conditions, setup, and hold time violations. As designs become more intricate, particularly at advanced process nodes, meeting timing requirements becomes a considerable part; this is where timing analysis tools become indispensable in the P&R process.


To comply with these requirements, buffers and other timing-control mechanisms may be added, which can increase the design complexity and impact power consumption and area. Furthermore, consideration must be given to the variations in manufacturing processes and environmental conditions as they can significantly influence timing characteristics, making robust design a crucial factor.


Design Closure Challenges

Design closure represents finalizing a design after synthesis to meet all set constraints, which is increasingly challenging due to the growth in design size and complexity. Achieving design closure within a reasonable timeframe often requires numerous iterations as designers tackle issues related to timing, area, power, and manufacturability constraints. There can be significant design closure challenges that are exacerbated by new and unique design requirements, such as those presented by curvilinear designs or the need to integrate a multitude of different IP blocks effectively.


Furthermore, the growing requirement for low-power devices, particularly in the mobile and IoT sectors, adds an extra layer to the challenge. Designers must often find innovative solutions to reduce power consumption while still meeting all other performance criteria, often revisiting and iterating on designs multiple times before reaching the desired outcome.


Design Iterations and Performance Goals

Striking a balance between meeting performance goals and actual design outcomes is a dynamic process, often necessitating multiple design iterations. Each iteration looks to refine the P&R results, addressing any discrepancies from the initial performance targets which may include operational speed, power consumption, and die size, among others. Performance goals may also adapt over the course of development as new data and constraints come to light, which can lead to further iterations.


For instance, a CPU design anticipated to run at a specific clock rate might require several layout tweaks to optimize path delays and meet the target. Similarly, analog design components may need repositioning multiple times to ensure the cleanest possible signal paths. The iteration process continues until an ideal design is reached; one that satisfies the criteria without excessively prolonging the design closure time or inflating design costs.


Power Distribution and Management

Effective power distribution and management are crucial in the place and route stage, as the performance and reliability of an electronic design depend significantly on stable and efficient power delivery. Power integrity analysis ensures that voltage levels are maintained throughout the IC or PCB, preventing issues such as IR drop, electromigration, and ground bounce.


An irregular power distribution can lead to hotspots and areas of high current density, which can potentially harm the device’s longevity and functionality. Designers must skillfully route power and ground networks to ensure even distribution and incorporate decoupling capacitors strategically to stabilize power supply voltages. Managing dynamic power consumption, particularly in CPU and high-performance designs, requires sophisticated techniques to minimize switching currents and reduce leakage, which can be especially challenging as the number of transistors on a chip continues to rise.


Advanced Process Nodes

The advancement of semiconductor technology has brought us to the era of advanced process nodes, where transistors are packed more densely than ever, enabling increased power and area efficiency alongside greater functionality. However, these benefits come with their own set of challenges during the place and route phase. Advanced process nodes introduce issues such as increased variability, greater sensitivity to process variations, and physical effects that can compromise the device’s performance.


Designers must navigate through a maze of constraints related to lithography, stress effects, and electro-migration, among others. The complexity of managing these challenges grows with the introduction of new materials, FinFET transistors, and novel 3D integration techniques, all of which demand highly accurate modeling and simulation tools to predict and mitigate potential issues pre-fabrication.


Clock Domain Crossing

Clock domain crossing (CDC) is an integral aspect to consider in place and route, particularly in complex ICs with multiple clock sources. Data transferring between different clock domains must be handled carefully to mitigate the risk of metastability, which can lead to data corruption or system failure.


Designers incorporate synchronization circuits to safely pass signals between domains, but determining the optimal placement and routing for these circuits can be challenging. Adequate buffering and careful control of setup and hold times are necessary to avoid timing violations. As ICs increase in complexity, the number of clock domains and the frequency of crossings also increase, multiplying the likelihood of issues. The intelligent design of clock networks and rigorous CDC verification are therefore critical components in the quest for an efficient, error-free design.


Tools and Technologies

In the intricate world of electronic design, tools and technologies play a critical role in achieving successful place and route (P&R) outcomes. Leveraging the correct tools can accelerate the design process, improve accuracy, and help designers meet tight timing requirements and other performance metrics. Modern electronics have benefited enormously from the progressive sophistication of these resources, enabling the design of cutting-edge devices that push the limits of silicon scalability and complexity.


Electronic Design Automation (EDA) Tools

Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools are software platforms that enable electronic system designers to manage the monumental tasks of designing, analyzing, and simulating semiconductor chips and systems before they are built. These tools are the backbone of the physical implementation phase, guiding everything from high-level circuit design down to the final verification steps.


Key features of EDA tools include:


  • Schematic Capture: for creating the electronic diagrams of circuits.
  • Simulation: for predicting the behavior of a circuit.
    • Layout Generation:** for defining the physical placement of components on an IC or PCB.
  • Verification: for checking the correctness of the design.
  • Place and Route: for the detailed layout of the interconnections between components.


Leading providers of EDA software include Cadence Design Systems, Synopsys, and Mentor Graphics, each offering robust suites tailored to the specific demands of P&R and other design challenges.


Virtuoso Layout Suite

The Virtuoso Layout Suite, from Cadence Design Systems, is a particular suite of design tools tailored for complex ICs, emphasizing analog, mixed-signal, and custom digital designs. Renowned for its powerful editing and layout capabilities, Virtuoso facilitates intricate circuit designs with a high degree of precision and efficiency.


Features of Virtuoso Layout Suite include:


  • Custom Layout Capabilities: Allows for precise placement and routing tailored to the unique requirements of analog and mixed-signal ICs.
  • Interactive P&R Engines: Empowers designers with the tools to manage complex routing challenges manually.
  • Advanced Node Support: Provides support for design rules at advanced process nodes, ensuring manufacturability.
  • Design Optimization Tools: Optimizes the design for performance, area, and power.


Aprisa Place-and-Route Technology

Aprisa, formerly a part of Silicon Integration Initiative (Si2), is a place-and-route technology known for its detailed routing capabilities, clock tree synthesis, and its prowess in handling advanced process nodes. Aprisa offers a formidable feature set that enables efficient management of design complexities, coupled with a focus on meeting stringent timing and power requirements.


Aprisa’s technology is distinguished by:


  • Advanced Routing Resources: Equipped to manage the demands of advanced process nodes.
  • Optimization Algorithms: Uses sophisticated algorithms for faster design closure.
  • Manufacturability Constraints: Considers manufacturing challenges early in the design flow.


Automated vs Manual Layout Methodology

The methodology chosen for the layout portion of P&R can largely influence the design outcome and efficiency. Automated layout tools utilize algorithms to determine the optimal placement and routing of components based on pre-defined constraints and design rules. This approach can significantly expedite the design process and is favored for high-density circuits requiring rapid design iterations.


In contrast, the manual layout method grants designers full control over the placement and routing process, often resulting in highly optimized designs that fully leverage a designer’s expertise, particularly in analog and custom IC design. However, this meticulous attention to detail can be time-consuming and may not always translate to faster design closure times.


In practice, a hybrid approach is often employed, combining the benefits of both automated and manual methodologies. EDA tools might be used to rapidly iterate on the design, with manual tweaking employed to finalize design details, particularly where custom or performance-critical elements are involved.

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