Programming: Managing Two Point Six Billion Switches

Part the First: The fabric of a microprocessor.


There exists this lovely huge menagerie called “programming”. This thing covers an unspeakably large multitude of concepts, like languages, compilers, interpreters, how a geek understands a program, how a computer understands a program, performance, parallelism and on and on and on. I am probably not aware of all of the things that are a part of “programming”. I sense I may be certifiably nuts to even attempt to cover All Of It, and so what? It’s a worthy goal.

Glinda the Good Witch says she has always found it best to start at the beginning. Excellent advice. Let’s start with the transistors in a microprocessor and relate transistors to the binary machine language of ones and zeroes that microprocessors can execute.

A transistor is simply an on/off switch. Much smaller than your dining room light on/off switch, to be sure, but it does the same thing. Switch on, light on; switch off, light off. Starts off deceptively easy, eh?

The Intel 8-core Core i7 Haswell-E (translates loosely as “8 microprocessors lumped together into one gynormous, powerful microprocessor”) has 2.6 billion transistors. No worries, I can’t count that high, either. Let’s build up to that number. Let’s say you have a house with 26 switches controlling lights. All of the lights are independent – each light is controlled by its very own switch, so each of the 26 lights may be on or off. Given the distinct on or off state of each light, your house with 26 switches gives you 671,088,664 unique combinations of your 26 lights. Each unique combination could be assigned a meaning. For example, all 13 upstairs lights could be on and all 13 downstairs lights could be off. You could say this means “everyone is going to bed right now.” You could extend your possible combinations of lights with 99 very friendly neighbors, each of their houses having 26 independently controlled lights. Now we’re up to 2,600 light switches (26 in each of 100 houses) or far too many combinations of light switches to count. If you added  one million more really friendly neighbors, each of their houses having 26 independently controlled lights, you’re up to 2.6 billion light switches. A rather unmanageable number of unique combinations, to be sure.

Because they’re human, microprocessor designers don’t deal with all 2.6 billion transistors in a lump. They break these up into groups of functional blocks of transistors and assign meanings to the on/off transistor state of each individual functional block. A block might be an arithmetic unit, a memory cache or three, a memory management unit, an instruction processing unit, and so on. It’s the last one, the instruction processing unit, that relates most directly to programming. Remember programming? This is a blog entry about programming.

A geek readable program is made of english-ish instructions. These instructions get translated into a binary machine instruction language of ones and zeroes. The instructions are made up of, let’s say, 64 ones and zeroes. The instruction processing unit transistors get each set of 64 ones and zeroes, which turns each of 64 instruction processing unit transistors on or off. Like your house, each combination of on/off transistors means something. For example “0100010101000101010001010100010101000101010001010100010101000101” might mean “get data from there, add it to data gotten from here and cough up the result, buster”. In reality, those 64 on or off instruction processing unit transistors turn another set of transistors on or off and so on and so forth until the addition actually happens in the arithmetic unit. Details, details.

Ok, that was a lot of stuff. Let’s end this part of programming with:  computer programs somehow get translated into machine binary language. The machine binary language (ones and zeroes turn microprocessor transistors on or off in a combination that (hopefully) makes the microprocessor do what I want it to do.

Author: David Pointer

Pragmatic programmer. Consilient alchemist. Pro geek. Serial hobbyist. Miniature tabletop gamer.

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