Improving Computer Scalability & Reliability to Enable Continued Technology Advancement

How should we assess the risk of harmful metastability in a clock domain crossing (CDC) when the semiconductor process has significant parameter variability? One possibility is to determine the MTBF of a synchronizer at the worst-case corner of the CDC. But that approach has some conflicting complications:

  • Synchronizer failures can occur at any time before or after the MTBF.
  • Most chips in a wafer perform better than they do at the worst-case corner.
  • High-volume, safety-critical products should be held to a high standard.
  • The worst-case environment for a CDC may be rare in actual use.

An alternative that has received some recent attention is a Monte Carlo simulation, one that randomly varies PVT conditions over the range expected for the product. Instead of an estimate of MTBF, this approach leads to an estimate of the probability of a metastability induced synchronizer failure, assessed over the expected distribution of parameters and conditions. However, in the early stages of design, an impractical level of effort is required to investigate carefully even a few alternatives.

These thoughts led me to investigate the effects on the metastability settling time-constant that result from variability in the transistor threshold voltage. This approach bypasses the extensive burden of Monte Carlo simulation, but still provided an increase in understanding of the effects of parameter variability.