VLSI Project

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DARPA's VLSI Project provided research funding to a wide variety of university-based teams in an effort to improve the state of the art in microprocessor design, then known as VLSI. Although little known, notably in comparison to their work on what became the internet, the VLSI Project is likely one of the most influential research projects in modern computer history. Its offspring include the RISC processor concept, many of the CAD tools still in use today, 32-bit graphics workstations, fabless design houses and its own fab, MOSIS. A similar DARPA project partnering with industry, VHSIC, is generally considered to have had little or no impact.

The Project was the brainchild of Caltech professor Carver Mead and Xerox PARC programmer Lynn Conway in the late 1970s. At the time microprocessor design was plateauing at the 100,000 transistor level because the tools available to the designers were simply unable to deal with more complex designs. 16-bit and 16/32-bit designs were coming to market, but beyond that seemed too difficult and expensive to contemplate. Mead and Conway felt that there was no theoretical problem impeding progress, simply a number of practical ones, and set about solving these in order to make much more complex designs possible.

One of the primary efforts under VLSI was the creation of the hardware and software needed to automate the design process, which at that point was still largely manual. For a design containing hundreds of thousands of transistors,...
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