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Computer architecture covers the design of system software, such as the operating system (the program that controls the computer), as well as referring to the combination of hardware and basic software that links the machines on a computer network. Computer architecture refers to an entire structure and to the details needed to make it functional. Thus, computer architecture covers computer systems, microprocessors, circuits, and system programs. Typically the term does not refer to application programs, such as spreadsheets or word processing, which are required to perform a task but not to make the system run. In designing a computer system, architects consider five major elements that make up the system's hardware: the arithmetic/logic unit, control unit, memory, input, and output. The arithmetic/logic unit performs arithmetic and compares numerical values. The control unit directs the operation of the computer by taking the user instructions and transforming them into electrical signals that the computer's circuitry can understand. The combination of the arithmetic/logic unit and the control unit is called the central processing unit (CPU). The memory stores instructions and data. The input and output sections allow the computer to receive and send data, respectively. Different hardware architectures are required because of the specialized needs of systems and users. One user may need a system to display graphics extremely fast, while another system may have to be optimized for searching a database or conserving battery power in a laptop computer. In addition to the hardware design, the architects must consider what software programs will operate the system. Software, such as programming languages and operating systems, makes the details of the hardware architecture invisible to the user. For example, computers that use the C programming language or a UNIX operating system may appear the same from the user's viewpoint, although they use different hardware architectures. When a computer carries out an instruction, it proceeds through five steps. First, the control unit retrieves the instruction from memory—for example, an instruction to add two numbers. Second, the control unit decodes the instructions into electronic signals that control the computer. Third, the control unit fetches the data (the two numbers). Fourth, the arithmetic/logic unit performs the specific operation (the addition of the two numbers). Fifth, the control unit saves the result (the sum of the two numbers). Early computers used only simple instructions because the cost of electronics capable of carrying out complex instructions was high. As this cost decreased in the 1960s, more complicated instructions became possible. Complex instructions can save time because they make it unnecessary for the computer to retrieve additional instructions. For example, if seven operations are combined in one instruction, then six of the steps that fetch instructions are eliminated and the computer spends less time processing that operation. Computers that combine several instructions into a single operation are called complex instruction set computers. However, most programs do not often use complex instructions, but have mostly simple instructions. When these simple instructions are run on CISC architectures they slow down processing because each instruction—whether simple or complex—takes longer to decode in a CISC design. An alternative strategy is to return to designs that use only simple, single-operation instruction sets and make the most frequently used operations faster in order to increase overall performance. Computers that follow this design are called reduced instruction set computers. RISC designs are especially fast at the numerical computations required in science, graphics, and engineering applications. DISC designs are commonly used for nonnumeric computations because they provide special instruction sets for handling character data, such as text in a word processing program. Specialized CISC architectures, called digital signal processors, exist to accelerate processing

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