I can see how to write abstract behavioural descriptions in VHDL, but how do you describe and simulate the actual hardware?

This is probably the biggest hurdle that many hardware engineers face when moving to VHDL. After all, sometimes we need to be able to describe actual implementation as well as abstract functionality. The way to describe "physical" hardware in VHDL is to write VHDL models of those components. This is supported in VHDL through the use of instantiation. VHDL does not allow you to physically simulate your hardware. You can only simulate a model of that component in a VHDL simulation.

Historically, gate-level simulation using VHDL has been notoriously slow. This led to the creation of the 1076.4 working group to provide a mechanism to allow faster gate-level simulation using VHDL. Their effort became known as the VITAL standard. VITAL is not a VHDL issue for you, but an EDA vendor/ASIC supplier issue. A simulator is VITAL compliant if it implements the VITAL package in its kernel (this is faster than simulating the VITAL primitives in the VITAL package). You don't need to change your VHDL netlist; your ASIC vendor needs to have a VITAL compliant library though, in order for you to take advantage of the simulation speed up. Thus the ASIC vendor's library elements need to be implemented entirely in VITAL primitives. Note that many companies use Verilog for gate-level simulations as it is still faster than VHDL, even with the improvements from VITAL. The reason is that Verilog was designed from the start as a gate-level simulation language.

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