You should always use a sensitivity list to trigger processes in production modules. Sensitivity lists are parameters to a process which lists all the signals that the process is sensitive to. If any of the signals change, the process will wake up, and the code within it is executed.

We’ve already learned to use the wait on and wait until statements for waking up a process when a signal changes. However, to be honest, this isn’t how I write most of my processes.

This blog post is part of the Basic VHDL Tutorials series.

When writing VHDL code, the style of writing depends on whether or not the code is intended to be run only in a simulator. If I’m writing simulation code, like we have been doing in this tutorial series, I always use wait statements to control the processes. If I’m writing code that I intend to create a physical implementation of, I never use wait statements.

The syntax for a process with a sensitivity list is:
process(<signal1>, <signal2>, ..) is
begin
    <main logic here>
end process;

An important quirk with the sensitivity list is that all signals that are read within the process must be on the sensitivity list. However, the simulator won’t inform you if you fail to add a signal to the sensitivity list, because it’s legal in the VHDL language. The problem is that if you fail to do this, the code will behave differently when synthesized and used in a physical implementation.

In VHDL-2008, the keyword all is allowed to use instead of listing every signal. Unfortunately most synthesizing software don’t support this newer revision of the VHDL language.

Exercise

In this video tutorial we will learn how to create a process using a sensitivity list in VHDL:

The final code we created in this tutorial:

entity T09_SensitivityListTb is
end entity;

architecture sim of T09_SensitivityListTb is

    signal CountUp   : integer := 0;
    signal CountDown : integer := 10;

begin

    process is
    begin

        CountUp   <= CountUp + 1;
        CountDown <= CountDown - 1;
        wait for 10 ns;

    end process;

    -- Process triggered using Wait On
    process is
    begin

        if CountUp = CountDown then
            report "Process A: Jackpot!";
        end if;

        wait on CountUp, CountDown;

    end process;

    -- Equivalent process using a sensitivity list
    process(CountUp, CountDown) is
    begin

        if CountUp = CountDown then
            report "Process B: Jackpot!";
        end if;

    end process;

end architecture;

The output to the simulator console when we pressed the run button in ModelSim:

VSIM 2> run
# ** Note: Process A: Jackpot
#    Time: 40 ns  Iteration: 1  Instance: /t09_sensitivitylisttb
# ** Note: Process B: Jackpot
#    Time: 40 ns  Iteration: 1  Instance: /t09_sensitivitylisttb

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    Analysis

    We can see from the printouts that the two processes behave alike. That is because a process with a sensitivity list is by definition equivalent to a process with wait on at the end of the process.

    Processes with sensitivity lists are normally used in code that is intended to be synthesized. Such code is commonly referred to as register-transfer level (RTL) code. This is a convention, but there are good reasons for it. Although some wait on and wait until statements can be synthesized, it’s hard to know what kind of hardware it will create.

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    Takeaway

    • A process with a sensitivity list is equivalent to a process with wait on at the end
    • All signals that are being read within a process must be on the sensitivity list
    • Use wait statements in simulation code, and sensitivity lists in RTL code

    Go to the next tutorial »

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