Reverse engineering standard cell logic in the Intel 386 processor (
from to on 13 Mar 2024 07:33

The 386 processor (1985) was Intel’s most complex processor at the time, with 285,000 transistors. Intel had scheduled 50 person-years to design the processor, but it was falling behind schedule. The design team decided to automate chunks of the layout, developing “automatic place and route” software. This was a risky decision since if the software couldn’t create a dense enough layout, the chip couldn’t be manufactured. But in the end, the 386 finished ahead of schedule, an almost unheard-of accomplishment.

In this article, I take a close look at the “standard cells” used in the 386, the logic blocks that were arranged and wired by software. Reverse-engineering these circuits shows how standard cells implement logic gates, latches, and other components with CMOS transistors. Modern integrated circuits still use standard cells, much smaller now, of course, but built from the same principles.

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