Users and applications
Formal description
Use in data structures
Architectural roots
Making pointers safer
Simulation using an array index
Project partners & contact details
Computer architecture
In computer engineering, computer architecture is a set of rules and methods that describe the functionality, organization, and implementation of computer systems. Some definitions of architecture define it as describing the capabilities and programming model of a computer but not a particular implementation. In other definitions computer architecture involves instruction set architecture design, microarchitecture design, logic design, and implementation.
The term “architecture” in computer literature can be traced to the work of Lyle R. Johnson and Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., members of the Machine Organization department in IBM’s main research center in 1959. Johnson had the opportunity to write a proprietary research communication about the Stretch, an IBM-developed supercomputer for Los Alamos National Laboratory (at the time known as Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory). To describe the level of detail for discussing the luxuriously embellished computer, he noted that his description of formats, instruction types, hardware parameters, and speed enhancements were at the level of “system architecture” – a term that seemed more useful than “machine organization.
The earliest computer architectures were designed on paper and then directly built into the final hardware form. Later, computer architecture prototypes were physically built in the form of a transistor-transistor logic (TTL) computer´such as the prototypes of the 6800 and the PA-RISC-tested, and tweaked, before committing to the final hardware form. As of the 1990s, new computer architectures are typically "built", tested, and tweaked´inside some other computer architecture in a computer architecture simulator; or inside a FPGA as a soft microprocessor; or both-before committing to the final hardware form.
The purpose is to design a computer that maximizes performance while keeping power consumption in check, costs low relative to the amount of expected performance, and is also very reliable. For this, many aspects are to be considered which includes instruction set design, functional organization, logic design, and implementation. The implementation involves integrated circuit design, packaging, power, and cooling. Optimization of the design requires familiarity with compilers, operating systems to logic design, and packaging.
An instruction set architecture (ISA) is the interface between the computer's software and hardware and also can be viewed as the programmer's view of the machine. Computers do not understand high-level programming languages such as Java, C++, or most programming languages used. A processor only understands instructions encoded in some numerical fashion, usually as binary numbers. Software tools, such as compilers, translate those high level languages into instructions that the processor can understand.
The ISA of a computer is usually described in a small instruction manual, which describes how the instructions are encoded. Also, it may define short (vaguely) mnemonic names for the instructions. The names can be recognized by a software development tool called an assembler. An assembler is a computer program that translates a human-readable form of the ISA into a computer-readable form. Disassemblers are also widely available, usually in debuggers and software programs to isolate and correct malfunctions in binary computer programs.
Computer organization helps optimize performance-based products. For example, software engineers need to know the processing power of processors. They may need to optimize software in order to gain the most performance for the lowest price. This can require quite detailed analysis of the computer's organization. For example, in a SD card, the designers might need to arrange the card so that the most data can be processed in the fastest possible way.
Computer organization also helps plan the selection of a processor for a particular project. Multimedia projects may need very rapid data access, while virtual machines may need fast interrupts. Sometimes certain tasks need additional components as well. For example, a computer capable of running a virtual machine needs virtual memory hardware so that the memory of different virtual computers can be kept separated. Computer organization and features also affect power consumption and processor cost.
The exact form of a computer system depends on the constraints and goals. Computer architectures usually trade off standards, power versus performance, cost, memory capacity, latency (latency is the amount of time that it takes for information from one node to travel to the source) and throughput. Sometimes other considerations, such as features, size, weight, reliability, and expandability are also factors.
Benchmarking takes all these factors into account by measuring the time a computer takes to run through a series of test programs. Although benchmarking shows strengths, it shouldn't be how you choose a computer. Often the measured machines split on different measures. For example, one system might handle scientific applications quickly, while another might render video games more smoothly. Furthermore, designers may target and add special features to their products, through hardware or software, that permit a specific benchmark to execute quickly but don't offer similar advantages to general tasks.