Central processing unit

Central processing unit (CPU) or just processor executes instructions comprising a computer program. The CPU performs basic arithmetic, logic, controlling, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions in the program.

©Michael Schwarzenberger, Pixabay

Hardwired into a CPU’s circuitry is a set of basic operations it can perform, called an instruction set. Such operations may involve, for example, adding or subtracting two numbers, comparing two numbers, or jumping to a different part of a program.

Each instruction is represented by a unique combination of bits, known as the machine language opcode. While processing an instruction, the CPU decodes the opcode (via a binary decoder) into control signals, which orchestrate the behavior of the CPU.

A complete machine language instruction consists of an opcode and, in many cases, additional bits that specify arguments for the operation (for example, the numbers to be summed in the case of an addition operation). Going up the complexity scale, a machine language program is a collection of machine language instructions that the CPU executes.

The actual mathematical operation for each instruction is performed by a combinational logic circuit within the CPU’s processor known as the arithmetic–logic unit or ALU. In general, a CPU executes an instruction by fetching it from memory, using its ALU to perform an operation, and then storing the result to memory.

Beside the instructions for integer mathematics and logic operations, various other machine instructions exist, such as those for loading data from memory and storing it back, branching operations, and mathematical operations on floating-point numbers performed by the CPU’s floating-point unit.


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.

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.

Cloud computing can involve subdividing CPU operation into virtual central processing units.

A host is the virtual equivalent of a physical machine, on which a virtual system is operating. When there are several physical machines operating in tandem and managed as a whole, the grouped computing and memory resources form a cluster.

In some systems, it is possible to dynamically add and remove from a cluster. Resources available at a host and cluster level can be partitioned out into resources pools with fine granularity.


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