Information from an input device or from the computer’s memory is communicated via the bus to the central processing unit (CPU), which is the part of the computer that translates commands and runs programs. The CPU is a microprocessor chip—that is, a single piece of silicon containing millions of tiny, microscopically wired electrical components. Information is stored in a CPU memory location called a register. Registers can be thought of as the CPU’s tiny scratchpad, temporarily storing instructions or data. When a program is running, one special register called the program counter keeps track of which program instruction comes next by maintaining the memory location of the next program instruction to be executed. The CPU’s control unit coordinates and times the CPU’s functions, and it uses the program counter to locate and retrieve the next instruction from memory.
In a typical sequence, the CPU locates the next instruction in the appropriate memory device. The instruction then travels along the bus from the computer’s memory to the CPU, where it is stored in a special instruction register. Meanwhile, the program counter changes—usually increasing a small amount—so that it contains the location of the instruction that will be executed next. The current instruction is analyzed by a decoder, which determines what the instruction will do. Any data the instruction needs are retrieved via the bus and placed in the CPU’s registers. The CPU executes the instruction, and the results are stored in another register or copied to specific memory locations via a bus. This entire sequence of steps is called an instruction cycle. Frequently, several instructions may be in process simultaneously, each at a different stage in its instruction cycle. This is called pipeline processing.