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Basic Computer Architecture

Understanding computers, or anything else for that matter, requires an understanding of the basics. I've searched the Internet for an article that explains computer architecture in simple basic terms. All I could find are explanations that were far too complicated. So in this article I explain basic computer architecture in simple basic terms. If you know anything about computers, don't read this article, because I don't want to insult your intelligence.

Computers today, even that PC on your desk are unbelievably complex. This complexity makes it difficult to explain them without saying anything that is absolutely true. For example, I could say that your keyboard is an input device and your computer screen is an output device. But what about a touch screen? A touch screen is both an input device and an output device.

I could explain that the controller has a processor and memory. But most of today's peripherals also have processors and memory of their own. In other words, your keyboard is a computer on its own.

So, in order to explain basic computer architecture in an understandable way, I'm going to have to describe a fictitious computer that doesn't really exist, at least not in the last 30 years. Then, when I go into deeper detail later, you'll realize that everything that I said in the beginning was untrue.

The first thing to understand is that a computer consists of hardware and software. Hardware is the physical, mechanical part of the computer. If you take a part of the computer and whack yourself in the head with it, and it hurts, it's hardware.

Software is the instructions that a computer follows. If you have an instruction in your mind, for example, an instruction for your child to wear their coat when they go outside, the instruction itself has no physical or mechanical existence.

Your head is not the instruction. The coat is not the instruction. Your child is not the instruction. You can write the instruction on a piece of paper. The piece of paper then becomes a storage media for the instruction, but it's not the actual instruction itself.

The next thing to understand is that computers use many kinds of storage media. Storage media can be divided into two general types; "volatile" and "nonvolatile" memory. Volatile memory forgets everything when you turn the power off. Nonvolatile memory remembers everything permanently.

Nonvolatile memory, like tape storage, is sequential. You have to read a tape in sequence to access the data that you're looking for. Volatile memory is usually referred to as RAM, for Random Access Memory. With RAM you can go directly to the data your looking for. Today we have all kinds of nonvolatile RAM, so using using the term RAM for volatile memory is a misnomer.

Computer block diagram

Looking at the diagram above, you see that at the center of the computer is the processor. Another name for the processor is the CPU, for Central Processing Unit. The CPU is considered to be the "brains" of the computer. It basically reads instructions and data from memory and processes the data according to the instructions, and then stores the results back in memory.

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