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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: December 2014

2 - The hardware


I always loved that word, Boolean.

Claude Shannon

Going through the layers

In the last chapter, we saw that it was possible to logically separate the design of the actual computer hardware – the electromagnetic relays, vacuum tubes, or transistors – from the software – the instructions that are executed by the hardware. Because of this key abstraction, we can either go down into the hardware layers and see how the basic arithmetic and logical operations are carried out by the hardware, or go up into the software levels and focus on how we tell the computer to perform complex tasks. Computer architect Danny Hillis says:

This hierarchical structure of abstraction is our most important tool in understanding complex systems because it lets us focus on a single aspect of a problem at a time.

We will also see the importance of “functional abstraction”:

Naming the two signals in computer logic 0 and 1 is an example of functional abstraction. It lets us manipulate information without worrying about the details of its underlying representation. Once we figure out how to accomplish a given function, we can put the mechanism inside a “black box,” or a “building block” and stop thinking about it. The function embodied by the building block can be used over and over, without reference to the details of what’s inside.

In this chapter, like Strata Smith going down the mines, we’ll travel downward through the hardware layers (Fig. 2.1) and see these principles in action.

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