A CPU is similar to a calculator, only much more powerful. The main function of the CPU is to perform arithmetic and logical operations on data taken from memory or on information entered through some device, such as a keyboard, scanner, or joystick. The CPU is controlled by a list of software instructions, called a computer program. Software instructions entering the CPU originate in some form of memory storage device such as a hard disk, floppy disk, CD-ROM, or magnetic tape. These instructions then pass into the computerís main random access memory (RAM), where each instruction is given a unique address, or memory location. The CPU can access specific pieces of data in RAM by specifying the address of the data that it wants.
As a program is executed, data flow from RAM through an interface unit of wires called the bus, which connects the CPU to RAM. The data are then decoded by a processing unit called the instruction decoder that interprets and implements software instructions. From the instruction decoder the data pass to the arithmetic/logic unit (ALU), which performs calculations and comparisons. Data may be stored by the ALU in temporary memory locations called registers where it may be retrieved quickly. The ALU performs specific operations such as addition, multiplication, and conditional tests on the data in its registers, sending the resulting data back to RAM or storing it in another register for further use. During this process, a unit called the program counter keeps track of each successive instruction to make sure that the program instructions are followed by the CPU in the correct order.