An implementation of the Hack computer in VHDL based off of the Nand to Tetris course.
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Collin J. Doering d6051b8dd9 Mention bug tracker in 6 years ago
schematics Initial commit 7 years ago
src Preliminary implementation of Hack computer simulation 7 years ago
.gitignore Preliminary implementation of Hack computer simulation 7 years ago
LICENSE Added README and LICENSE file 7 years ago Mention bug tracker in 6 years ago



Implementation of Hack Computer Architecture in VHDL. This implementation seeks to be thoroughly verified through simulation using GHDL and eventually implemented on a FPGA.


  • Follows a similar structure to the implementation describe by the Nand to Tetris book
  • Uses open-source tools wherever possible


The creation of this software was made possible by the following open source tools and libraries, and most notably, Noam Nisan, and Shimon Schocken who created the Nand to Tetris course and accompanying book The Elements of Computing Systems, Building a Modern Computer from First Principe's.

  • Gnu Emacs, because there is no place like home; and no greater editor!
  • GHDL, for VHDL compilation/simulation.
  • GtkWave, for viewing waveform dumps (vcd, fst, etc..)


This project is licensed under the GPLv3. Please see the LICENSE file for full details.

Import VHDL Sources

$ cd src
$ ghdl -i --workdir=work *.vhdl

All units can then be built by building the top most unit, computer_tb, as follows.

$ ghdl -m --workdir=work computer_tb.vhdl


For every VHDL entity defined in src there is a accompanying test bench. The test bench has _tb appended to the end of the entities file name (Eg. cpu.vhdl and cpu_tb.vhdl). Each test bench consists of test data derived from the Nand to Tetris course. The simulated clock (defined in src/clock.vhdl is set to a frequency of 1 GHz, but this is configurable though use of a generic property of the clock entity.

To run a test bench for a chip run the following:

$ cd src
$ ghdl -r --workdir=work adder_tb --vcd=wave/vcd/adder.vcd

The vcd output wave/vcd/adder.vcd can then be opened with GtkWave. For convenience, pre-set gtkwave views have been set up and can be loaded by using File->Read Save File.

There are two exceptions to the earlier statement about all VHDL entities having accompanying test benches. Firstly there is a ROM entity for use in simulation only! It allows a text file to act as a ROM chip, addressed by its line numbers. There is also an additional test bench src/computer_tb.vhdl. This test bench simulates the computer as a whole, utilizing the ROM, cpu, and ram16k entities. It has a generic property program_file that can be set to a .hack file of your choosing, or if none is given it will use src/asm/Fib.hack. Example:

$ cd src
$ ghdl -r computer_tb -gprogram_file=asm/MemoryFill.hack --stop-time=10ns --vcd=wave/vcd/computer-memory-fill.vcd
$ vcd2fst wave/vcd/computer-memory-fill.vcd wave/vcd/computer-memory-fill.fst

This will run a simulation for 10 ns (for computer_tb a stop-time is required otherwise the simulation will run forever) and output a vcd dump to src/wave/vcd/computer-memory-fill.vcd. See ghdl --help and the GHDL man page for more details on its command line options.

Another example, running the default src/asm/Fib.hack program:

$ ghdl -r computer_tb --stop-time=750ns --vcd=wave/vcd/computer-fib.vcd
$ vcd2fst wave/vcd/computer-fib.vcd wave/vcd/computer-fib.fst

Note that converting the vcd file to an fst file using vcd2fst is sometimes necessary when the simulations become large. This mostly is the case with the computer_tb unit.


Currently the computer_tb unit doesn't allow keyboard input or show monitor output; that is, the memory maps are unimplemented as simulating the physical devices in VHDL is challenging, and the implementation of them on actual hardware is dependent on the FPGA board being used. The address ranges of the memory maps however, exist (or rather will exist in a upcoming commit) and are read/writeable as you would expect (see the issues section for more information).

The computer_tb unit also doesn't allow one to reset the system without explicitly modifying the vhdl code of computer_tb. This could be fixed by implementing computer as its own entity with one input (reset) for testing purposes. Then multiple test benches could be written to test various aspects of the machine. Better yet, similar to how testing is done in the Nand to Tetris course, we could have another generic property on the test bench to specify a 'compare file' which could be used to compare the output of various signals from the implementation when running a given program. This however, is currently not implemented.

Testing the output of a simulation (using computer_tb) of a given hack program also is not implemented and is somewhat involved.

The primitive screen could be implemented by doing txt dumps that represent the memory map at a given point in time. Then an accompanying program could be written to parse this data and generate a black and white image. Though this is not real time it would allow one to see some visual feedback directly from a hack program using this simulation. I am quite new the VHDL, so perhaps its easier to allow keyboard input during a simulation, but for the time being both the keyboard and screen will remain unimplemented for simulation, though the simulator can still be used to verify a hack program that affects screen works by looking at its writes to RAM. However, when a keyboard is expected, this simulator runs as if no key on the keyboard is ever pressed.

Additionally note that the RAM being used in simulation is RAM16k and does not include the memory for the screen and keyboard memory maps. If any RAM address >= 0x4000 (or 16383 in decimal), is read it will return 0x000 and if written will not retain its value. This I hope to fix in the coming week, so viewing what a program does to the memory map and keyboards becomes easier/feasible in GtkWave.

TLDR: computer_tb can be used to simulate any .hack program, though there is no screen or keyboard connected, and the reset button during simulation unless the VHDL code of computer_tb is modified to so.


When simulating the computer using the computer_tb unit, the -g command line switch is only available in very recent versions of GHDL (later then 2015-03-07; see ticket). Thus to run various .hack programs in the simulation, one must edit the source file referenced in src/computer_tb.vhdl.

When opening a vcd/fst dump of a program run in simulation using computer_tb, two template GtkWave save files are provided for convenience. These templates have the signals for the clock, cpu, alu, registers A and D, as well as RAM[0] through RAM[100+]. This makes viewing the output of a simulation easier, but in recent versions of GHDL, its generates different labels when processing 'for ... generate' statements. To address this issue two GtkWave save files are provided, src/wave/gtkw/computer.gtkw is for the older version of GtkWave and src/wave/gtkw/computer-ghdl-new.gtkw is for the newer version (later then 2015-03-07).

If you discover a bug or have an issue with this project, please file a bug using the Rekahsoft flyspray powered bug tracker.

Road Map

Acquire an FPGA so that I can implement this design on real hardware. Currently I've been leaning towards a Nexys 4 DDR or a Basys 3. Once I have an FPGA for testing I hope to implement the following features. Though it would be nice to implement the simulation of the screen and keyboard but this seems nearly unfeasible, and a better use of time would be to implement the design on real hardware.

  • VGA output and associated memory map (perhaps find a backwards compatible way to add color to the system, support various VGA modes, etc..)
  • Keyboard input and associated memory map (through USB or PS2)
  • Use DDR memory or on-board FPGA RAM
  • Use some onboard nonvolatile memory to store the ROM
  • Implement an OS to be put on the ROM which can load programs, manage resources, etc..

Wish List and Ideas for Extension

  • Modify the add16 unit to avoid propagation delays by passing a carry though out the addition of each bit
  • Consider backwards compatible enhancements to the CPU; examples:
    • Make virtual registers internal registers
    • Make CPU 32 bit with backwards compatible 16 bit mode
    • Use bank switching to increase memory of 16 bit system
    • Implement a Memory Management Unit (MMU)
    • Others...

To run a Hack Assembly program in the simulation it must be in its machine language representation; that is it needs to be passed through an assembler. One such assembler is the one provided with the Nand to Tetris course. I have also written another one, named Asmblr, which is faster and more fully featured. For more information see the Asmblr repository and its accompanying README.