What is CPU (Central Processing Unit) Full Definition

What is CPU? What is Definition of CPU?

What is CPU?

What is CPU (Central Processing Unit)? – A central processing unit (CPU) is the electronic circuitry within a computer that carries out the instructions of a computer program by performing the basic arithmetic, logical, control and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions. The term has been used in the computer industry at least since the early 1960s. Traditionally, the term “CPU” refers to a processor, more specifically to its processing unit and control unit (CU), distinguishing these core elements of a computer from external components such as main memory and I/O circuitry.

What is CPU (Central Processing Unit) Full Definition

The form, design and implementation of CPUs have changed over the course of their history, but their fundamental operation remains almost unchanged. Principal components of a CPU include the arithmetic logic unit (ALU) that performs arithmetic and logic operations, processor registers that supply operands to the ALU and store the results of ALU operations, and a control unit that fetches instructions from memory and “executes” them by directing the coordinated operations of the ALU, registers and other components.

What is CPU?

Most modern CPUs are microprocessors, meaning they are contained on a single integrated circuit (IC) chip. An IC that contains a CPU may also contain memory, peripheral interfaces, and other components of a computer; such integrated devices are variously called microcontrollers or systems on a chip (SoC). Some computers employ a multi-core processor, which is a single chip containing two or more CPUs called “cores”; in that context, single chips are sometimes referred to as “sockets”. Array processors or vector processors have multiple processors that operate in parallel, with no unit considered central.

History of CPU (Central Processing Unit)

Computers such as the ENIAC had to be physically rewired to perform different tasks, which caused these machines to be called “fixed-program computers”. Since the term “CPU” is generally defined as a device for software (computer program) execution, the earliest devices that could rightly be called CPUs came with the advent of the stored-program computer.

The idea of a stored-program computer was already present in the design of J. Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly’s ENIAC, but was initially omitted so that it could be finished sooner. On June 30, 1945, before ENIAC was made, mathematician John von Neumann distributed the paper entitled First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. It was the outline of a stored-program computer that would eventually be completed in August 1949. EDVAC was designed to perform a certain number of instructions (or operations) of various types. Significantly, the programs written for EDVAC were to be stored in high-speed computer memory rather than specified by the physical wiring of the computer. This overcame a severe limitation of ENIAC, which was the considerable time and effort required to reconfigure the computer to perform a new task. With von Neumann’s design, the program that EDVAC ran could be changed simply by changing the contents of the memory. EDVAC, however, was not the first stored-program computer; the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine, a small prototype stored-program computer, ran its first program on 21 June 1948 and the Manchester Mark 1 ran its first program during the night of 16–17 June 1949.

Early CPUs were custom-designed as a part of a larger, sometimes one-of-a-kind, computer. However, this method of designing custom CPUs for a particular application has largely given way to the development of mass-produced processors that are made for many purposes. This standardization began in the era of discrete transistor mainframes and minicomputers and has rapidly accelerated with the popularization of the integrated circuit (IC). The IC has allowed increasingly complex CPUs to be designed and manufactured to tolerances on the order of nanometers. Both the miniaturization and standardization of CPUs have increased the presence of digital devices in modern life far beyond the limited application of dedicated computing machines. Modern microprocessors appear in everything from automobiles to cell phones and children’s toys.

While von Neumann is most often credited with the design of the stored-program computer because of his design of EDVAC, and the design became known as the Von Neumann architecture, others before him, such as Konrad Zuse, had suggested and implemented similar ideas. The so-called Harvard architecture of the Harvard Mark I, which was completed before EDVAC, also utilized a stored-program design using punched paper tape rather than electronic memory. The key difference between the von Neumann and Harvard architectures is that the latter separates the storage and treatment of CPU instructions and data, while the former uses the same memory space for both. Most modern CPUs are primarily von Neumann in design, but CPUs with the Harvard architecture are seen as well, especially in embedded applications; for instance, the Atmel AVR microcontrollers are Harvard architecture processors.

What is CPU?

Relays and vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) were commonly used as switching elements; a useful computer requires thousands or tens of thousands of switching devices. The overall speed of a system is dependent on the speed of the switches. Tube computers like EDVAC tended to average eight hours between failures, whereas relay computers like the (slower, but earlier) Harvard Mark I failed very rarely. In the end, tube-based CPUs became dominant because the significant speed advantages afforded generally outweighed the reliability problems. Most of these early synchronous CPUs ran at low clock rates compared to modern microelectronic designs (see below for a discussion of clock rate). Clock signal frequencies ranging from 100 kHz to 4 MHz were very common at this time, limited largely by the speed of the switching devices they were built with.

Transistor and SSI integrated circuit CPUs

The design complexity of CPUs increased as various technologies facilitated building smaller and more reliable electronic devices. The first such improvement came with the advent of the transistor. Transistorized CPUs during the 1950s and 1960s no longer had to be built out of bulky, unreliable, and fragile switching elements like vacuum tubes and electrical relays. With this improvement more complex and reliable CPUs were built onto one or several printed circuit boards containing discrete (individual) components.

During this period, a method of manufacturing many interconnected transistors in a compact space was developed. The integrated circuit (IC) allowed a large number of transistors to be manufactured on a single semiconductor-based die, or “chip”. At first only very basic non-specialized digital circuits such as NOR gates were miniaturized into ICs. CPUs based upon these “building block” ICs are generally referred to as “small-scale integration” (SSI) devices. SSI ICs, such as the ones used in the Apollo guidance computer, usually contained up to a few score transistors. To build an entire CPU out of SSI ICs required thousands of individual chips, but still consumed much less space and power than earlier discrete transistor designs.

In 1964, IBM introduced its System/360 computer architecture that was used in a series of computers capable of running the same programs with different speed and performance. This was significant at a time when most electronic computers were incompatible with one another, even those made by the same manufacturer. To facilitate this improvement, IBM utilized the concept of a microprogram (often called “microcode”), which still sees widespread usage in modern CPUs. The System/360 architecture was so popular that it dominated the mainframe computer market for decades and left a legacy that is still continued by similar modern computers like the IBM zSeries. In the same year (1964), Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced another influential computer aimed at the scientific and research markets, the PDP-8. DEC would later introduce the extremely popular PDP-11 line that originally was built with SSI ICs but was eventually implemented with LSI components once these became practical.

What is CPU?

Transistor-based computers had several distinct advantages over their predecessors. Aside from facilitating increased reliability and lower power consumption, transistors also allowed CPUs to operate at much higher speeds because of the short switching time of a transistor in comparison to a tube or relay. Thanks to both the increased reliability as well as the dramatically increased speed of the switching elements (which were almost exclusively transistors by this time), CPU clock rates in the tens of megahertz were obtained during this period. Additionally while discrete transistor and IC CPUs were in heavy usage, new high-performance designs like SIMD (Single Instruction Multiple Data) vector processors began to appear. These early experimental designs later gave rise to the era of specialized supercomputers like those made by Cray Inc.


Lee Boysel published influential articles — including a 1967 “manifesto” — describing how to build the equivalent of a 32-bit mainframe computer from a relatively small number of large-scale integrated circuits (LSI).

At the time, the only way to build LSI chips — i.e., chips with a hundred or more gates — was to build them using a MOS process (i.e., PMOS logic, NMOS logic, or CMOS logic). But some companies continued to build processors out of bipolar chips — for example, Datapoint built processors out of TTL chips until the early 1980s — because bipolar junction transistors were so much faster than MOS chips. People building high speed computers wanted them to be fast, so in the 1970s they built the CPUs from small-scale integration (SSI) and medium-scale integration (MSI) 7400 series TTL gates. At the time MOS ICs were so slow that they were considered useful only in a few niche applications that required low power.

As microelectronic technology advanced, an increasing number of transistors were placed on ICs, thus decreasing the quantity of individual ICs needed for a complete CPU. MSI and LSI (medium- and large-scale integration) ICs increased transistor counts to hundreds, and then thousands.

In stark contrast with its SSI and MSI predecessors, the first LSI implementation of the PDP-11 contained a CPU composed of only four LSI integrated circuits.

The fundamental operation of most CPUs

The fundamental operation of most CPUs, regardless of the physical form they take, is to execute a sequence of stored instructions called a program. The instructions are kept in some kind of computer memory. There are three steps, also known as instruction cycle, that nearly all CPUs follow in their operation: fetch, decode, and execute.

After the execution of an instruction, the entire process repeats, with the next instruction cycle normally fetching the next-in-sequence instruction because of the incremented value in the program counter. If a jump instruction was executed, the program counter will be modified to contain the address of the instruction that was jumped to and program execution continues normally. In more complex CPUs, multiple instructions can be fetched, decoded, and executed simultaneously. This section describes what is generally referred to as the “classic RISC pipeline”, which is quite common among the simple CPUs used in many electronic devices (often called microcontroller). It largely ignores the important role of CPU cache, and therefore the access stage of the pipeline.

What is CPU?

Some instructions manipulate the program counter rather than producing result data directly; such instructions are generally called “jumps” and facilitate program behavior like loops, conditional program execution (through the use of a conditional jump), and existence of functions. In some processors, some other instructions change the state of bits in a “flags” register. These flags can be used to influence how a program behaves, since they often indicate the outcome of various operations. For example, in such processors a “compare” instruction evaluates two values and sets or clears bits in the flags register to indicate which one is greater or whether they are equal; one of these flags could then be used by a later jump instruction to determine program flow.

Fetch CPU

The first step, fetch, involves retrieving an instruction (which is represented by a number or sequence of numbers) from program memory. The instruction’s location (address) in program memory is determined by a program counter (PC), which stores a number that identifies the address of the next instruction to be fetched. After an instruction is fetched, the PC is incremented by the length of the instruction so that it will contain the address of the next instruction in the sequence. Often, the instruction to be fetched must be retrieved from relatively slow memory, causing the CPU to stall while waiting for the instruction to be returned. This issue is largely addressed in modern processors by caches and pipeline architectures (see below).


The instruction that the CPU fetches from memory determines what the CPU will do. In the decode step, performed by the circuitry known as the instruction decoder, the instruction is converted into signals that control other parts of the CPU.

The way in which the instruction is interpreted is defined by the CPU’s instruction set architecture (ISA). Often, one group of bits (that is, a “field”) within the instruction, called the opcode, indicates which operation is to be performed, while the remaining fields usually provide supplemental information required for the operation, such as the operands. Those operands may be specified as a constant value (called an immediate value), or as the location of a value that may be a processor register or a memory address, as determined by some addressing mode.

What is CPU?

In some CPU designs the instruction decoder is implemented as a hardwired, unchangeable circuit. In others, a microprogram is used to translate instructions into sets of CPU configuration signals that are applied sequentially over multiple clock pulses. In some cases the memory that stores the microprogram is rewritable, making it possible to change the way in which the CPU decodes instructions.

Execute of CPU

After the fetch and decode steps, the execute step is performed. Depending on the CPU architecture, this may consist of a single action or a sequence of actions. During each action, various parts of the CPU are electrically connected so they can perform all or part of the desired operation and then the action is completed, typically in response to a clock pulse. Very often the results are written to an internal CPU register for quick access by subsequent instructions. In other cases results may be written to slower, but less expensive and higher capacity main memory.

For example, if an addition instruction is to be executed, the arithmetic logic unit (ALU) inputs are connected to a pair of operand sources (numbers to be summed), the ALU is configured to perform an addition operation so that the sum of its operand inputs will appear at its output, and the ALU output is connected to storage (e.g., a register or memory) that will receive the sum. When the clock pulse occurs, the sum will be transferred to storage and, if the resulting sum is too large (i.e., it is larger than the ALU’s output word size), an arithmetic overflow flag will be set.

Performance of CPU

The performance or speed of a processor depends on, among many other factors, the clock rate (generally given in multiples of hertz) and the instructions per clock (IPC), which together are the factors for the instructions per second (IPS) that the CPU can perform. Many reported IPS values have represented “peak” execution rates on artificial instruction sequences with few branches, whereas realistic workloads consist of a mix of instructions and applications, some of which take longer to execute than others. The performance of the memory hierarchy also greatly affects processor performance, an issue barely considered in MIPS calculations. Because of these problems, various standardized tests, often called “benchmarks” for this purpose—such as SPECint – have been developed to attempt to measure the real effective performance in commonly used applications.

Processing performance of computers is increased by using multi-core processors, which essentially is plugging two or more individual processors (called cores in this sense) into one integrated circuit. Ideally, a dual core processor would be nearly twice as powerful as a single core processor. In practice, the performance gain is far smaller, only about 50%, due to imperfect software algorithms and implementation. Increasing the number of cores in a processor (i.e. dual-core, quad-core, etc.) increases the workload that can be handled. This means that the processor can now handle numerous asynchronous events, interrupts, etc. which can take a toll on the CPU when overwhelmed. These cores can be thought of as different floors in a processing plant, with each floor handling a different task. Sometimes, these cores will handle the same tasks as cores adjacent to them if a single core is not enough to handle the information.

What is CPU?

Due to specific capabilities of modern CPUs, such as hyper-threading and uncore, which involve sharing of actual CPU resources while aiming at increased utilization, monitoring performance levels and hardware utilization gradually became a more complex task. As a response, some CPUs implement additional hardware logic that monitors actual utilization of various parts of a CPU and provides various counters accessible to software; an example is Intel’s Performance Counter Monitor technology.

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source : wikipedia