Metastability is the ability of a non-equilibrium electronic state to persist for a long period of time. Usually the term is used to describe a state that doesn't settle into equilibrium within the time required for proper operation.

The flip-flop is a device that is susceptible to metastability. It has two well-defined stable states, traditionally designated 0 and 1, but under certain conditions it can hover between them for longer than a clock cycle. This condition is known as metastability. In most cases it is considered a failure mode of the logic design and timing philosophy or implementation.

The most common cause of metastability is violating the flip-flop's setup and hold times. During the time from the setup to the hold time, the input of the flip-flop should remain stable; a change in the input in that time will have a probability of setting the flip-flop to a metastable state.

In a typical scenario where data travels from the output of a source flip-flop to the input of target flip-flop, metastability is caused by either:

(1) the target clock having a different frequency than the source flip-flop, in which case the setup and hold time of the target flip-flop will be violated eventually, or

(2) the target and source clock having the same frequency, but a phase alignment that causes the data to arrive at the target flip-flop during its setup and hold time. This can be caused by fixed overhead or variations in logic delay times on the worst case path between the two flip flops, variations in clock arrival times (clock skew), or other causes.

[Source: Wikipedia]

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