Execution (computing)

Execution in computer and software engineering is the process by which a computer or virtual machine executes the instructions of a computer program. Each instruction of a program is a description of a particular
action which to be carried out in order for a specific problem to be solved; as instructions of a program and therefore the actions they describe are being carried out by an executing machine, specific effects are produced in accordance to the semantics of the instructions being executed.
Programs for a computer may be executed in a batch process without human interaction or a user may type commands in an interactive session of an interpreter. In this case, the "commands" are simply program instructions, whose execution is chained together.
The term run is used almost synonymously. A related meaning of both "to run" and "to execute" refers to the specific action of a user starting a program, as in "Please run the application."

Context of execution

The context in which execution takes place is crucial. Very few programs execute on a bare machine. Programs usually contain implicit and explicit assumptions about resources available at the time of execution. Most programs execute with the support of an operating system and run-time libraries specific to the source language that provide crucial services not supplied directly by the computer itself. This supportive environment, for instance, usually decouples a program from direct manipulation of the computer peripherals, providing more general, abstract services instead.


Prior to execution, a program must first be written. This is generally done in source code, which is then compiled at compile time to an executable. This executable is then invoked, most often by an operating system, which loads the program into memory, possibly performs dynamic linking, and then begins execution by moving control to the entry point of the program; all these steps depend on the Application Binary Interface of the operating system. At this point execution begins and the program enters run time. The program then runs until it ends, either normal termination or a crash.


A system that executes a program is called an interpreter of the program. Loosely speaking, an interpreter actually does what the program says to do. This contrasts with a language translator that converts a program from one language to another. The most common language translators are compilers. Translators typically convert their source from a high-level, human readable language into a lower-level language that is simpler and faster for the processor to directly execute. The idea is that the ratio of executions to translations of a program will be large; that is, a program need only be compiled once and can be run any number of times. This can provide a large benefit for translation versus direct interpretation of the source language. One trade-off is that development time is increased, because of the compilation. In some cases, only the changed files must be recompiled. Then the executable needs to be relinked. For some changes, the executable must be rebuilt from scratch. As computers and compilers become faster, this fact becomes less of an obstacle. Also, the speed of the end product is typically more important to the user than the development time.
Translators usually produce an abstract result that isn't completely ready to execute. Frequently, the operating system will convert the translator's object code into the final executable form just before execution of the program begins.