Instruction set architecture

An instruction set architecture (ISA) is an abstract model of a computer. It is also referred to as architecture or computer architecture. A realization of an ISA is called an implementation. An ISA permits multiple implementations that may vary in performance, physical size, and monetary cost (among other things); because the ISA serves as the interface between software and hardware. Software that has been written for an ISA can run on different implementations of the same ISA. This has enabled binary compatibility between different generations of computers to be easily achieved, and the development of computer families. Both of these developments have helped to lower the cost of computers and to increase their applicability. For these reasons, the ISA is one of the most important abstractions in computing today.

An ISA defines everything a machine language programmer needs to know in order to program a computer. What an ISA defines differs between ISAs; in general, ISAs define the supported data types, what state there is (such as the main memory and registers) and their semantics (such as the memory consistency and addressing modes), the instruction set (the set of machine instructions that comprises a computer's machine language), and the input/output model.

Overview

An instruction set architecture is distinguished from a microarchitecture, which is the set of processor design techniques used, in a particular processor, to implement the instruction set. Processors with different microarchitectures can share a common instruction set. For example, the Intel Pentium and the Advanced Micro Devices Athlon implement nearly identical versions of the x86 instruction set, but have radically different internal designs.

The concept of an architecture, distinct from the design of a specific machine, was developed by Fred Brooks at IBM during the design phase of System/360.

Prior to NPL [System/360], the company's computer designers had been free to honor cost objectives not only by selecting technologies but also by fashioning functional and architectural refinements. The SPREAD compatibility objective, in contrast, postulated a single architecture for a series of five processors spanning a wide range of cost and performance. None of the five engineering design teams could count on being able to bring about adjustments in architectural specifications as a way of easing difficulties in achieving cost and performance objectives.[1]:p.137

Some virtual machines that support bytecode as their ISA such as Smalltalk, the Java virtual machine, and Microsoft's Common Language Runtime, implement this by translating the bytecode for commonly used code paths into native machine code. In addition, these virtual machines execute less frequently used code paths by interpretation (see: Just-in-time compilation). Transmeta implemented the x86 instruction set atop VLIW processors in this fashion.

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