What is a Processor?

Nat Davis

Written By Nat Davis

Jess Feldman

Edited By Jess Feldman

Last updated on February 2, 2024

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Processors (a.k.a. CPUs) are the central processing units that enable information to be circulated in the circuit board of a computer or smart device. Software engineers need to know what a processor is because, along with RAM, it plays a major role in the speed of a device. The faster the processing power, the faster code can be communicated within software. Curious how a processor operates in relation to software engineering? Read on for more!

What is a Processor?

A processor processes inputs into outputs and controls computer speed. Processors are tiny, powerful chips that use their built-in transistors to operate as a logic gate of binary number sequences. Since they are so small yet so powerful, they enable devices like smart watches to run as quickly as a phone or some computers. 

What is a CPU?

A processor is actually a shortened term for Central Processing Unit, also known as a CPU. A CPU is a hardware component in the circuit board of a smart device or computer that receives information from an input, fulfills the command, and delivers the result to the designated output. A CPU performs basic computations.  

There are three parts to a CPU:

  1. Arithmetic logic unit (ALU): performs mathematical and logical functions
  2. Control unit (CU): the system that everything travels through within the CPU; translates information into binary and dictates the output for the data.  
  3. Memory management unit (MMU): allocates memory for each program as well as manages the system’s RAM, cache, and resources for objects and data structures.

Does a CPU rely on low-level programming?

Holberton School mentor, Olivier Chatry, explains that CPUs rely on machine code or assembly (asm). This is different from the low-level programming languages that we think of today, like C and C++. 

“The only true low level programming is machine code or assembly (asm). Assembly is as close as possible to what the CPU (the computer's processor) can execute, as it is literally a text translation of the binary code which the CPU understands. For example, compression libraries are typically built in C, and very specific parts would be built using assembly, but the amount of assembly is getting lesser because compilers are getting so much better at optimization.” Olivier Chatry, Holberton School mentor

What is RAM?

RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and it is used for quick access to things actively being worked on. Computer speed is dictated by the CPU and RAM. Every computing device has RAM, from desktop computers to smartphones and tablets. RAM processes faster than a long-term storage disk and is considered a computer’s short-term memory.

What is a motherboard?

The motherboard of a computer is the fundamental piece of circuitry that connects all the operating pieces (like the CPU and hard drive) and enables them to communicate with each other. A motherboard is the part of the computer that all inputs and outputs connect to and coordinate their tasks. If a motherboard fails, a computer cannot operate. 

A motherboard is made up of different parts, such as:

  • Hard drives (HDD or SSD)
  • Processors (CPU)
  • Memory sticks (RAM)
  • Optical drives (DVD, CD-ROM, etc)
  • Video cards and sound cards. 

Some tech bootcamps, like Code Fellows, actually teach students about motherboards! Code Fellows graduate Courtney says, “Code Fellows gave us an intro to computer operations where we literally took computers apart, broke down the tower, examined the motherboard, and removed and replaced the RAM. They wanted us to get familiar with exactly what was under the hood.”

The History of Processors

Processors have come a long way to the ones used today! Starting with the discovery of silicon in 1823 which became the basis for processors, the first electrical logic circuits were patented in 1903 by Nikola Tesla. By 1947, Bell Labs had invented the first transistor. In 1958, the first working integrated circuit was developed, and in just two years, IBM developed the first automatic mass-production facility. Moore’s Law about integrated circuits was observed in 1965, and by 1969 Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was founded.

The quest has been to make processors faster and less expensive. Video game consoles like Atari, Nintendo, Apple II, and Commodore started using the MOS Technology 6502 processor in 1975. Processors continued to evolve from the 1970s to present day, with Intel and AMD leading the way. Intel broke waves when they introduced the world’s first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, in 1971. Motorola introduced their first processor in 1974, the same year Intel released an improved microprocessor chip, the 8080, which became the computer industry standard. 

How Processors Are Used on the Job

Processors sort information, execute input commands, and impact a computer’s efficiency and speed. This is relevant to software engineers because it impacts how quickly they can work as well as offer the ability to troubleshoot and debug issues in software. The faster the processing power, the faster a software engineer can process their code. 

Software engineers need to be comfortable using machine code. Since the CPU only understands binary code, commands need to be translated into successions of simple binary code within software using a stored instruction set. Each binary code goes through the instruction cycle: fetch, decode, and execute. 

Do all software engineers need to understand the exact ins and outs of a processor? Not necessarily. But the best and most senior engineers are constantly digging deeper to optimize their code, and understanding processors is one part of that process. 

Further Reading:

About The Author

Nat Davis

Nat Davis

Nat Davis connects to writing to communicate stories, thoughts, ideas, and resources. When not jotting, Nat is a health coach, hiker, youth advocate, foodie, comedian, improviser, and karaoke singer.

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