Fast Addition: Carry Lookahead Adders


In our discussion about ripple-carry adders, we said that adding two n-bit numbers requires O(n) time. The reason is the carry. As you perform the addition on the least significant bits, you may have a carry that "ripples" its way to the most significant bit. If we didn't have a carry, then we should be able to add in O(1), because adders can work in parallel.

Can we do better? Can we make addition faster? Clearly, the answer is yes, otherwise, we wouldn't have this discussion.

Looking at Carries

The following is a truth table for a full adder.

Row x y cin cout s
0 0 0 0 0 0
1 0 0 1 0 1
2 0 1 0 0 1
3 0 1 1 1 0
4 1 0 0 0 1
5 1 0 1 1 0
6 1 1 0 1 0
7 1 1 1 1 1

We can write the carry-out of this adder using sum of products. However, there is an alternate way of writing the carry out.

Before we discuss how to write it, let's define a few terms first. Recall that we are adding two n-bit numbers: xn-1...x0 to yn-1...y0 which results in zn-1...z0. In a ripple carry adder, we assign a full adder (call it adder i) to add xi to yi. We'll use the ripple carry adders which only uses full adders.

Adder i also has a carry in. We'll call that ci. It generates a carry out, which we'll call ci + 1. When we add the least significant bits c0 = 0. However, we'll simply leave it as c0.

We can write the Boolean expression for the carry-out in an alternate way:

   ci+1 = xiyi + xici + yici
This Boolean expression has the same truth table as above. It even makes intuitive sense. There's a carry out when any two of the three bits (i.e., xi, yi, or ci) have a value of 1. Thus, xiyi is 1 only when both xi and yi are 1. And since this is inclusive OR, all three bits could be 1.

We use the distributive property to rewrite the carry out as:

   ci+1 = xiyi + ci(xi + yi)
Let's define two terms:
   gi = xiyi 
   pi = xi + yi
Then, we can rewrite ci + 1 using these two terms, as:
   ci+1 = gi + pici
gi is called the generate term. This always generates a carry out. gi = xiyi, which is 1 only when xi and yi are both 1. Clearly, if two bits are 1, there's a carry.

pi is called the propagate term. pi = xi + yi. This could create a carry, but it may not. We know that at least one of xi or yi must be 1 if pi = 1.

This is called propagate for the following reason. If exactly one of xi or yi is 1, then the carry-in determines whether there is a carry-out of 1 or not. Thus, if ci is 1, there is a carry-in of 1, which will cause a carry-out of 1. If ci is 0, then the carry-out is 0.

To propagate, in this case, means to assist. For example, suppose you are standing in a line. Some one says to hand something forward, say, a piece of paper. Even though you did not bring the piece of paper, you can help move it along (i.e., help propagate it) by passing it to the next person. Similarly, propagating a carry means to move the carry from the previous adder to the next adder.

Mostly, we only care about propagating a 1. We're not that concerned about propagating 0's. That's why we AND pi to ci. By itself, pi may not cause a carry. However, it can propagate a carry-in of 1, by causing a carry-out of 1, if pi is 1.

Why Generate and Propagate?

Why generate and propagate. If you look at the Boolean expressions for pi and gi, you will see that they both use only xi and yi. Neither depend on the carry. Since xi and yi are available immediately, this gives us hope that we can avoid waiting for carries.

This is how we do it. First, let's write the c1 which is the carry out for the adding bit 0 of x and y.

   c1 = g0 + p0c0
Now, we write it for c2.
   c2 = g1 + p1c1
At this point, we've used c1, which we'd rather avoid, because it means waiting for that carry to be computed. However, we just defined c1 (see the previous formula) as g0 + c0p0.

Let's plug that in:

   c2 = g1 + p1(g0 + p0c0)
      = g1 + p1g0 + p1p0c0
Notice that we no longer have c1. That means we no longer have to wait for the carry!

Let's go one more step further:

   c3 = g2 + p2c2
Again, we would prefer to avoid using c2 since this requires us to wait for the result to propagate across two adders. However, we already have a Boolean expression for c2 (we just computed it a moment ago) that doesn't use any carries except c0 which we have right away.
   c3 = g2 + p2c2
      = g2 + p2(g1 + p1g0 + p1p0c0)
      = g2 + p2g1 + p2p1g0 + p2p1p0c0
Already, you should be able to detect a pattern. By following the same pattern, you'd expect:
   c4 = g3 + p3g2 + p3p2g1 + p3p2p1g0 + p3p2p1p0c0

What Do We Do Now?

By now, you've noticed that we're able to compute the carries in terms of xi's, yi's, and c0. These bits are available right away. We don't have to wait for any other carry to compute it.

You might wonder, why? Why are we computing carries, if the idea is to avoid using carries?

The idea is to construct a circuit for ci that can be fed into the input of adder i. The carry-out of the adder is not used. In fact, each of the full-adders aren't directly connect to each other. We simply design the circuit for ci and feed it in.

The following is an approximate circuit.

The diagram is incomplete. It's missing the wires from xi and yi to the appropriate adders. As an exercise, redraw the diagram, and add those wires in. Also, draw x2-0 as 3 separate inputs, instead of the one circle drawn in the diagram above. Do the same for y2-0. If you want, you can even draw in the logic inside the boxes that say things like "c3 LOGIC".

What should you understand from this diagram? The key point to observe is the carry out of the full adder is not attached to the carry in of the next adder. Instead, there is logic (as defined by the Boolean expressions from the previous section) that has inputs from xi's, yi's and c0.


By using these formulas, we can cut down the adders from O(n) to what appears to be O(1) time. After all, pi and gi only depend on xi and yi, which are the bits of x and y which are immediately available to us. They also only depend on c0, which is also immediately available. We don't have to wait for carries to perform this computation.

Still, it's not quite O(1). Why not? Look at the formula, for say, c4.

   c4 = g3 + p3g2 + p3p2g1 + p3p2p1g0 + p3p2p1p0c0

Given ci, there are i terms to be ORed. The largest product term, (in the example above, it's p3p2p1p0c0) has i+1 literals.

If you build everything out of 2-input AND gates or 2-input OR gates, then the best you can do is about O(lg N) where N is the number of bits in the addition. Still, that's far more efficient than O(N).

This is one lesson in hardware. Often, you can build faster circuits if you're willing to use more gates (of course, that has its limitations too---more hardware can also mean slower hardware, because it uses up a lot of space, however, the savings in computations usually wins out).