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Title: Handel-C  
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Subject: Hardware description language, SystemVerilog DPI, OpenVera, ModelSim, Signetics
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Paradigm(s) Imperative (procedural, structured), concurrent
Designed by Oxford University Computing Laboratory
Developer ESL; Celoxica; Agility; Mentor Graphics
Appeared in 1996
Stable release v3.0
Typing discipline Static, manifest, nominal, inferred
Major implementations Celoxica DK
Influenced by C, CSP, occam
OS Cross-platform (multi-platform)
Filename extension(s) .hcc, .hch
Website //handel-c/fpga/

Handel-C is a high-level programming language which targets low-level hardware, most commonly used in the programming of FPGAs. It is a rich subset of C, with non-standard extensions to control hardware instantiation with an emphasis on parallelism. Handel-C is to hardware design what the first high-level programming languages were to programming CPUs. Unlike many other design languages that target a specific architecture Handel-C can be compiled to a number of design languages and then synthesised to the corresponding hardware. This frees developers to concentrate on the programming task at hand rather than the idiosyncrasies of a specific design language and architecture.

Additional features

The subset of C includes all common C language features necessary to describe complex algorithms. Like many embedded C compilers, floating point data types were omitted. Floating point arithmetic is supported through external libraries that are very efficient.

Parallel programs

In order to facilitate a way to describe parallel behaviour some of the CSP keywords are used, along with the general file structure of Occam.

For example:[1]

par {    
     a = d + e;
     b = d + e;


Channels provide communication between parallel threads, one of the paths outputs data onto the channel and the other parallel thread can read the data. Channels can be created with or without a FIFO capability. For a channel without a FIFO the first thread to execute the channel read (or write) command waits until the corresponding write (or read) is executed in the other communicating thread. In this way the sender and receiver rendezvous and can pass a datum from one to the other and so synchronize their operation in a cooperative manner.[1]

Scope and variable sharing

The scope of declarations are limited to the code blocks ({ ... }) in which they were declared, the scope is hierarchical in nature as declarations are in scope within sub blocks.[1]

For example:

int a;

void main(void)
   int b;
   /* "a" and "b" are within scope */
     int c;
     /* "a", "b" and "c" are within scope */ 
     int d;
     /* "a", "b" and "d" are within scope */  

Extensions to the C language

In addition to the effects the standard semantics of C have on the timing of the program, the following keywords[1] are reserved for describing the practicalities of the FPGA environment or for the language elements sourced from Occam:

Types and Objects Expressions Statements
chan < ... > (type clarifier) ! (send into channel)
chanin [ : ] (bit range selection) ? (read from channel)
chanout \\ (drop) delay
macro expr <- (take) ifselect
external @ (concatenation operator) set intwidth
external_divide select let ... ; in
inline width par
interface prialt
internal releasesema
internal_divide set clock
mpram set family
macro proc set part
ram set reset
rom seq
sema try { ... } reset
shared trysema
signal with


In Handel-C, assignment and the delay command take one cycle. All other operations are "free".[1] This allows programmers to manually schedule tasks and create effective pipelines. By arranging loops in parallel with the correct delays, pipelines can massively increase data throughput, at the expense of increased hardware resource use.


The historical roots of Handel-C are in a series of Oxford University Computing Laboratory hardware description languages developed by the hardware compilation group. Handel HDL evolved into Handel-C around early 1996. The technology developed at Oxford was spun off to mature as a cornerstone product for Embedded Solutions Limited (ESL) in 1996. ESL was renamed Celoxica in September 2000.

Handel-C was adopted by many University Hardware Research groups after its release by ESL, as a result was able to establish itself as a hardware design tool of choice within the academic community, especially in the United Kingdom.

In early 2008, Celoxica's ESL business was acquired by Agility, which developed and sold, among other products, ESL tools supporting Handel-C.

In early 2009, Agility ceased operations after failing to obtain further capital investments or credit[2]

In January 2009, Mentor Graphics acquired Agility's C synthesis assets.[3]

Other subset C HDL's that developed around the same time are Transmogrifier C in 1994 at University of Toronto (now the FpgaC open source project) and Streams-C at Los Alamos National Laboratory (now licensed to Impulse Accelerated Technologies under the name Impulse C)


  1. ^ a b c d e Handel-C Language Reference Manual
  2. ^ Gabe Moretti (Published 01/19/2009). "Agility DS victim of credit crunch".  
  3. ^ Dylan McGrath (Published 01/22/2009). "Mentor buys Agility's C synthesis assets".  

External links

  • Handel-C language resources at Mentor Graphics
  • Handel-C Forum An open forum for the discussion of the Handel-C language
  • Oxford Handel-C
  • Handel-C Language Reference Manual From Agility Design Solutions
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