How Computers Work: The CPU and Memory

Figure 0 shows the parts of a computer:
  • The Central Processing Unit:
    • (CPU),
    • Buses,
    • Ports and controllers,
    • ROM;
  • Main Memory (RAM);
  • Input Devices;
  • Output Devices;
  • Secondary Storage;
    • floppy disks,
    • hard disk,
    • CD-ROM
Figure 0: Inside The Computer

This part of the reading will examine the CPU, Buses, Controllers, and Main Memory. Other sections will examine input devices, output devices, and secondary memory.

The Central Processing Unit (CPU)

Figure 1: The Central Processing Unit
The computer does its primary work in a part of the machine we cannot see, a control center that converts data input to information output. This control center, called the central processing unit (CPU), is a highly complex, extensive set of electronic circuitry that executes stored program instructions. All computers, large and small, must have a central processing unit. As Figure 1 shows, the central processing unit consists of two parts: The control unit and the arithmetic/logic unit. Each part has a specific function.

Before we discuss the control unit and the arithmetic/logic unit in detail, we need to consider data storage and its relationship to the central processing unit. Computers use two types of storage: Primary storage and secondary storage. The CPU interacts closely with primary storage, or main memory, referring to it for both instructions and data. For this reason this part of the reading will discuss memory in the context of the central processing unit. Technically, however, memory is not part of the CPU.

Recall that a computer's memory holds data only temporarily, at the time the computer is executing a program. Secondary storage holds permanent or semi-permanent data on some external magnetic or optical medium. The diskettes and CD-ROM disks that you have seen with personal computers are secondary storage devices, as are hard disks. Since the physical attributes of secondary storage devices determine the way data is organized on them, we will discuss secondary storage and data organization together in another part of our on-line readings.

Now let us consider the components of the central processing unit.

  • The Control Unit
    The control unit of the CPU contains circuitry that uses electrical signals to direct the entire computer system to carry out, or execute, stored program instructions. Like an orchestra leader, the control unit does not execute program instructions; rather, it directs other parts of the system to do so. The control unit must communicate with both the arithmetic/logic unit and memory.

  • The Arithmetic/Logic Unit
    The arithmetic/logic unit (ALU) contains the electronic circuitry that executes all arithmetic and logical operations.

    The arithmetic/logic unit can perform four kinds of arithmetic operations, or mathematical calculations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. As its name implies, the arithmetic/logic unit also performs logical operations. A logical operation is usually a comparison. The unit can compare numbers, letters, or special characters. The computer can then take action based on the result of the comparison. This is a very important capability. It is by comparing that a computer is able to tell, for instance, whether there are unfilled seats on airplanes, whether charge- card customers have exceeded their credit limits, and whether one candidate for Congress has more votes than another.

    Logical operations can test for three conditions:

    A computer can simultaneously test for more than one condition. In fact, a logic unit can usually discern six logical relationships: equal to, less than, greater than, less than or equal to, greater than or equal to, and not equal.

    The symbols that let you define the type of comparison you want the computer to perform are called relational operators. The most common relational operators are the equal sign(=), the less-than symbol(<), and the greater-than symbol(>).