Dan Drust

Software Developer
based in Grand Rapids, MI

Building a Better Adder

12 August 2020

I previously wrote about building a binary adder with overflow detection in preparation for the Computer Architecture course at Bradfield CS. I didn’t realize we’d do this as an in-class exercise. Doing this exercise with a live instructor brought a couple of concepts to the forefront:

I wasn’t wrong before, but…

My previous post documents my approach to building a full-adder circuit through a mixture of trail-and-error and analyzing truth tables. Surely, there are many roads that lead to Rome. My solution certainly worked and the write up of a ripple-carry full adder on Wikipedia verified my solution. However, a suggestion during the in-class exercise to try using a half-adder while solving the full-adder exerecise made a lot more sense than my approach. Note the brevity and elegance of using an established abstraction instead of re-inventing the wheel:

My solution:

INPUT 
    In(1)
    In(2)
    In(carry)

INTERMEDIATES
    Inter(a) = In(1) XOR In(2)          
    Inter(b) = Inter(a) AND In(carry)  
    Inter(c) = In(1) AND In(2)         

OUTPUT
    Out        = Inter(a) XOR In(carry)
    Out(carry) = Inter(b) OR Inter(c)

The half-adder solution:

define halfAdder(a, b) : {out, carryOut}

INPUT
    In(1)
    In(2)
    In(carry)

INTERMEDIATES
    Inter(sumOne),   Inter(carryOne) = halfAdder(In(1),         In(2))
    Inter(sumFinal), Inter(carryTwo) = halfAdder(Inter(sumOne), In(carry))

OUTPUT
    Out        = Inter(sumFinal)
    Out(carry) = Inter(carryOne) OR Inter(carryTwo)

Granted, in my psuedo HDL the half-adder solution doesn’t look that much simpler but it certainly builds upon a previous abstraction – a half adder built with the same elementary parts that my solution included. And trust me, reasoning about a full-adder via a half adder was much easier that the 5+ pages of truth tables and gates I wrote out initially.

Why it worked

My first question was, why? What traits did my solution share with this new approach and are they fundamentally different?

Both solutions use two AND gates, two XOR gates, and a single OR gate. What’s more, notice that in my solution inputs In(a) and In(b) are both put through an AND and XOR gate. Inter(a) and In(carry) are treated the same – put through an AND and XOR gate together. In hindsight the abstraction is clear!

What I’ve learned

1. Go ahead, stand on the shoulders of giants!

Reasoning about a full adder from basic logic gates was challenging and perhaps I took something away from that. However, a methodical approach that draws upon earlier abstractions makes a good lot of sense as well. Relying on a familiar abstraction seems to be a good bet in this case, especially when initially approaching the problem.

2. Self study is great, but a guide is invaluable

Originally I’d read The Elements of Computing Systems based on the recommendation in Bradfield’s Teach Yourself CS guide. That text does a great job of explaining the hardware/software interface, but in many of the exercises I was left to my own devices. Sure, I solved the problems. But what nuggets of wisdom or patterns did I fail to notice in my approach? Having someone who’s been down this path before is invaluable for correcting false assumptions, validating hypothesis, and challenging rough mental models.


Written by Dan Drust on 12 August 2020

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