The Essentials of Computer Organization and Architecture – The Main Components of a Computer

1.1 Overview

“Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living. . . . We have seen computers move out of giant air-conditioned rooms into closets, then onto desktops, and now into our laps and pockets. But this is not the end. . . . Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped. . . . The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It will exist beyond people’s wildest predictions. . . . We are not waiting on any invention. It is here. It is now. It is almost genetic in its nature, in that each generation will become more digital than the preceding one.”

—Nicholas Negroponte, professor of media technology at MIT

Dr. Negroponte is among many who see the computer revolution as if it were a force of nature. This force has the potential to carry humanity to its digital destiny, allowing us to conquer problems that have eluded us for centuries, as well as all of the problems that emerge as we solve the original problems. Computers have freed us from the tedium of routine tasks, liberating our collective creative potential so that we can, of course, build bigger and better computers.

As we observe the profound scientific and social changes that computers have brought us, it is easy to start feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. This complexity, however, emanates from concepts that are fundamentally very simple. These simple ideas are the ones that have brought us where we are today, and are the foundation for the computers of the future. To what extent they will survive in the future is anybody’s guess. But today, they are the foundation for all of computer science as we know it.

Computer scientists are usually more concerned with writing complex program algorithms than with designing computer hardware. Of course, if we want our algorithms to be useful, a computer eventually has to run them. Some algorithms are so complicated that they would take too long to run on today’s systems. These kinds of algorithms are considered computationally infeasible. Certainly, at the current rate of innovation, some things that are infeasible today could be feasible tomorrow, but it seems that no matter how big or fast computers become, someone will think up a problem that will exceed the reasonable limits of the machine.

To understand why an algorithm is infeasible, or to understand why the implementation of a feasible algorithm is running too slowly, you must be able to see the program from the computer’s point of view. You must understand what makes a computer system tick before you can attempt to optimize the programs that it runs. Attempting to optimize a computer system without first understanding it is like attempting to tune your car by pouring an elixir into the gas tank: You’ll be lucky if it runs at all when you’re finished.

Program optimization and system tuning are perhaps the most important motivations for learning how computers work. There are, however, many other reasons. For example, if you want to write compilers, you must understand the hardware environment within which the compiler will function. The best compilers leverage particular hardware features (such as pipelining) for greater speed and efficiency.

If you ever need to model large, complex, real-world systems, you will need to know how floating-point arithmetic should work as well as how it really works in practice. If you wish to design peripheral equipment or the software that drives peripheral equipment, you must know every detail of how a particular computer deals with its input/output (I/O). If your work involves embedded systems, you need to know that these systems are usually resource-constrained. Your understanding of time, space, and price tradeoffs, as well as I/O architectures, will be essential to your career.

All computer professionals should be familiar with the concepts of benchmarking and be able to interpret and present the results of benchmarking systems. People who perform research involving hardware systems, networks, or algorithms find benchmarking techniques crucial to their day-to-day work. Technical managers in charge of buying hardware also use benchmarks to help them buy the best system for a given amount of money, keeping in mind the ways in which performance benchmarks can be manipulated to imply results favorable to particular systems.

The preceding examples illustrate the idea that a fundamental relationship exists between computer hardware and many aspects of programming and software components in computer systems. Therefore, regardless of our area of expertise, as computer scientists, it is imperative that we understand how hardware interacts with software. We must become familiar with how various circuits and components fit together to create working computer systems. We do this through the study of computer organization. Computer organization addresses issues such as control signals (how the computer is controlled), signaling methods, and memory types. It encompasses all physical aspects of computer systems. It helps us to answer the question: How does a computer work?

The study of computer architecture, on the other hand, focuses on the structure and behavior of the computer system and refers to the logical aspects of system implementation as seen by the programmer. Computer architecture includes many elements such as instruction sets and formats, operation codes, data types, the number and types of registers, addressing modes, main memory access methods, and various I/O mechanisms. The architecture of a system directly affects the logical execution of programs. Studying computer architecture helps us to answer the question: How do I design a computer?

The computer architecture for a given machine is the combination of its hardware components plus its instruction set architecture (ISA). The ISA is the agreed-upon interface between all the software that runs on the machine and the hardware that executes it. The ISA allows you to talk to the machine.

The distinction between computer organization and computer architecture is not clear-cut. People in the fields of computer science and computer engineering hold differing opinions as to exactly which concepts pertain to computer organization and which pertain to computer architecture. In fact, neither computer organization nor computer architecture can stand alone. They are interrelated and interdependent. We can truly understand each of them only after we comprehend both of them. Our comprehension of computer organization and architecture ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of computers and computation—the heart and soul of computer science.

1.2 The Main Components of a Computer

Although it is difficult to distinguish between the ideas belonging to computer organization and those ideas belonging to computer architecture, it is impossible to say where hardware issues end and software issues begin. Computer scientists design algorithms that usually are implemented as programs written in some computer language, such as Java or C. But what makes the algorithm run? Another algorithm, of course! And another algorithm runs that algorithm, and so on until you get down to the machine level, which can be thought of as an algorithm implemented as an electronic device. Thus, modern computers are actually implementations of algorithms that execute other algorithms. This chain of nested algorithms leads us to the following principle:

Principle of Equivalence of Hardware and Software: Anything that can be done with software can also be done with hardware, and anything that can be done with hardware can also be done with software.[1]

A special-purpose computer can be designed to perform any task, such as word processing, budget analysis, or playing a friendly game of Tetris. Accordingly, programs can be written to carry out the functions of special-purpose computers, such as the embedded systems situated in your car or microwave. There are times when a simple embedded system gives us much better performance than a complicated computer program, and there are times when a program is the preferred approach. The Principle of Equivalence of Hardware and Software tells us that we have a choice. Our knowledge of computer organization and architecture will help us to make the best choice.

We begin our discussion of computer hardware by looking at the components necessary to build a computing system. At the most basic level, a computer is a device consisting of three pieces:

  1. A processor to interpret and execute programs

  2. A memory to store both data and programs

  3. A mechanism for transferring data to and from the outside world

We discuss these three components in detail as they relate to computer hardware in the following chapters.

Once you understand computers in terms of their component parts, you should be able to understand what a system is doing at all times and how you could change its behavior if so desired. You might even feel like you have a few things in common with it. This idea is not as far-fetched as it appears. Consider how a student sitting in class exhibits the three components of a computer: the student’s brain is the processor, the notes being taken represent the memory, and the pencil or pen used to take notes is the I/O mechanism. But keep in mind that your abilities far surpass those of any computer in the world today, or any that can be built in the foreseeable future.

[1]What this principle does not address is the speed with which the equivalent tasks are carried out. Hardware implementations are almost always faster.

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