26 March 2007

Understanding Processor Architecture: ISA

A programmer uses the Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) as an abstraction to understand the processor’s internal details. This abstraction suits us very well as we are interested in the logical details of the processor without getting bogged down by the myriad implementation details.

The ISA specifies how a processor functions: what instructions it executes and what interpretation is given to these instructions. If these specifications are precise, they give freedom to various chip manufacturers to implement physical designs that look functionally the same at the ISA level. Thus, if we run the same program on these different implementations, we still get the same results. For example, the Intel 32-bit ISA (IA-32) has several implementations including the Pentium processors, cheaper Celeron processors, high-performance Xeon processors, and so on.

The ISA-level abstraction provides a common platform to execute programs. If a program is written in C, a compiler translates it into the equivalent machine language program that can run on the ISA-level logical processor. Similarly, if you write your program in FORTRAN, use a FORTRAN compiler to generate code that can execute on the ISA-level logical processor.


  • Guide to RISC Processors for Programmers and Engineers by Sivarama P. Dandamudi, Springer (2005), ISBN 0-387-21017-2.

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