Instruction set architecture

In computer science, an instruction set architecture is an abstract model of a computer. It is also referred to as architecture or computer architecture. A realization of an ISA, such as a central processing unit, is called an implementation.
In general, an ISA defines the supported data types, the registers, the hardware support for managing main memory, fundamental features, and the input/output model of a family of implementations of the ISA.
An ISA specifies the behavior of machine code running on implementations of that ISA in a fashion that does not depend on the characteristics of that implementation, providing binary compatibility between implementations. This enables multiple implementations of an ISA that differ in performance, physical size, and monetary cost, but that are capable of running the same machine code, so that a lower-performance, lower-cost machine can be replaced with a higher-cost, higher-performance machine without having to replace software. It also enables the evolution of the microarchitectures of the implementations of that ISA, so that a newer, higher-performance implementation of an ISA can run software that runs on previous generations of implementations.
If an operating system maintains a standard and compatible application binary interface for a particular ISA, machine code for that ISA and operating system will run on future implementations of that ISA and newer versions of that operating system. However, if an ISA supports running multiple operating systems, it does not guarantee that machine code for one operating system will run on another operating system, unless the first operating system supports running machine code built for the other operating system.
An ISA can be extended by adding instructions or other capabilities, or adding support for larger addresses and data values; an implementation of the extended ISA will still be able to execute machine code for versions of the ISA without those extensions. Machine code using those extensions will only run on implementations that support those extensions.
The binary compatibility that they provide make ISAs one of the most fundamental abstractions in computing.


An instruction set architecture is distinguished from a microarchitecture, which is the set of processor design techniques used, in a particular processor, to implement the instruction set. Processors with different microarchitectures can share a common instruction set. For example, the Intel Pentium and the Advanced Micro Devices Athlon implement nearly identical versions of the x86 instruction set, but have radically different internal designs.
The concept of an architecture, distinct from the design of a specific machine, was developed by Fred Brooks at IBM during the design phase of System/360.
Some virtual machines that support bytecode as their ISA such as Smalltalk, the Java virtual machine, and Microsoft's Common Language Runtime, implement this by translating the bytecode for commonly used code paths into native machine code. In addition, these virtual machines execute less frequently used code paths by interpretation. Transmeta implemented the x86 instruction set atop VLIW processors in this fashion.

Classification of ISAs

An ISA may be classified in a number of different ways. A common classification is by architectural complexity. A complex instruction set computer has many specialized instructions, some of which may only be rarely used in practical programs. A reduced instruction set computer simplifies the processor by efficiently implementing only the instructions that are frequently used in programs, while the less common operations are implemented as subroutines, having their resulting additional processor execution time offset by infrequent use.
Other types include very long instruction word architectures, and the closely related long instruction word and explicitly parallel instruction computing architectures. These architectures seek to exploit instruction-level parallelism with less hardware than RISC and CISC by making the compiler responsible for instruction issue and scheduling.
Architectures with even less complexity have been studied, such as the minimal instruction set computer and one instruction set computer. These are theoretically important types, but have not been commercialized.


is built up from discrete statements or instructions. On the processing architecture, a given instruction may specify:
More complex operations are built up by combining these simple instructions, which are executed sequentially, or as otherwise directed by control flow instructions.

Instruction types

Examples of operations common to many instruction sets include:

Data handling and memory operations

Processors may include "complex" instructions in their instruction set. A single "complex" instruction does something that may take many instructions on other computers. Such instructions are typified by instructions that take multiple steps, control multiple functional units, or otherwise appear on a larger scale than the bulk of simple instructions implemented by the given processor. Some examples of "complex" instructions include:
Complex instructions are more common in CISC instruction sets than in RISC instruction sets, but RISC instruction sets may include them as well. RISC instruction sets generally do not include ALU operations with memory operands, or instructions to move large blocks of memory, but most RISC instruction sets include SIMD or vector instructions that perform the same arithmetic operation on multiple pieces of data at the same time. SIMD instructions have the ability of manipulating large vectors and matrices in minimal time. SIMD instructions allow easy parallelization of algorithms commonly involved in sound, image, and video processing. Various SIMD implementations have been brought to market under trade names such as MMX, 3DNow!, and AltiVec.

Instruction encoding

On traditional architectures, an instruction includes an opcode that specifies the operation to perform, such as add contents of memory to register—and zero or more operand specifiers, which may specify registers, memory locations, or literal data. The operand specifiers may have addressing modes determining their meaning or may be in fixed fields. In very long instruction word architectures, which include many microcode architectures, multiple simultaneous opcodes and operands are specified in a single instruction.
Some exotic instruction sets do not have an opcode field, such as transport triggered architectures, only operand.
The Forth virtual machine and other "0-operand" instruction sets lack any operand specifier fields, such as some stack machines including NOSC.
Conditional instructions often have a predicate field—a few bits that encode the specific condition to cause an operation to be performed rather than not performed. For example, a conditional branch instruction will transfer control if the condition is true, so that execution proceeds to a different part of the program, and not transfer control if the condition is false, so that execution continues sequentially. Some instruction sets also have conditional moves, so that the move will be executed, and the data stored in the target location, if the condition is true, and not executed, and the target location not modified, if the condition is false. Similarly, IBM z/Architecture has a conditional store instruction. A few instruction sets include a predicate field in every instruction; this is called branch predication.

Number of operands

Instruction sets may be categorized by the maximum number of operands explicitly specified in instructions.
C = A+B
Due to the large number of bits needed to encode the three registers of a 3-operand instruction, RISC architectures that have 16-bit instructions are invariably 2-operand designs, such as the Atmel AVR, TI MSP430, and some versions of ARM Thumb. RISC architectures that have 32-bit instructions are usually 3-operand designs, such as the ARM, AVR32, MIPS, Power ISA, and SPARC architectures.
Each instruction specifies some number of operands explicitly. Some instructions give one or both operands implicitly, such as by being stored on top of the stack or in an implicit register. If some of the operands are given implicitly, fewer operands need be specified in the instruction. When a "destination operand" explicitly specifies the destination, an additional operand must be supplied. Consequently, the number of operands encoded in an instruction may differ from the mathematically necessary number of arguments for a logical or arithmetic operation. Operands are either encoded in the "opcode" representation of the instruction, or else are given as values or addresses following the opcode.

Register pressure

Register pressure measures the availability of free registers at any point in time during the program execution. Register pressure is high when a large number of the available registers are in use; thus, the higher the register pressure, the more often the register contents must be spilled into memory. Increasing the number of registers in an architecture decreases register pressure but increases the cost.
While embedded instruction sets such as Thumb suffer from extremely high register pressure because they have small register sets, general-purpose RISC ISAs like MIPS and Alpha enjoy low register pressure. CISC ISAs like x86-64 offer low register pressure despite having smaller register sets. This is due to the many addressing modes and optimizations that CISC ISAs offer.

Instruction length

The size or length of an instruction varies widely, from as little as four bits in some microcontrollers to many hundreds of bits in some VLIW systems. Processors used in personal computers, mainframes, and supercomputers have instruction sizes between 8 and 64 bits. The longest possible instruction on x86 is 15 bytes. Within an instruction set, different instructions may have different lengths. In some architectures, notably most reduced instruction set computers,, typically corresponding with that architecture's word size. In other architectures, instructions have variable length, typically integral multiples of a byte or a halfword. Some, such as the ARM with Thumb-extension have mixed variable encoding, that is two fixed, usually 32-bit and 16-bit encodings, where instructions cannot be mixed freely but must be switched between on a branch.
A RISC instruction set normally has a fixed [|instruction length], whereas a typical CISC instruction set may have instructions of widely varying length. Fixed-length instructions are less complicated to handle than variable-length instructions for several reasons, and are therefore somewhat easier to optimize for speed.

Code density

In early computers, memory was expensive, so minimizing the size of a program to make sure it would fit in the limited memory was often central. Thus the combined size of all the instructions needed to perform a particular task, the code density, was an important characteristic of any instruction set. Computers with high code density often have complex instructions for procedure entry, parameterized returns, loops, etc.. However, more typical, or frequent, "CISC" instructions merely combine a basic ALU operation, such as "add", with the access of one or more operands in memory. Certain architectures may allow two or three operands directly in memory or may be able to perform functions such as automatic pointer increment, etc. Software-implemented instruction sets may have even more complex and powerful instructions.
Reduced instruction-set computers, RISC, were first widely implemented during a period of rapidly growing memory subsystems. They sacrifice code density to simplify implementation circuitry, and try to increase performance via higher clock frequencies and more registers. A single RISC instruction typically performs only a single operation, such as an "add" of registers or a "load" from a memory location into a register. A RISC instruction set normally has a fixed instruction length, whereas a typical CISC instruction set has instructions of widely varying length. However, as RISC computers normally require more and often longer instructions to implement a given task, they inherently make less optimal use of bus bandwidth and cache memories.
Certain embedded RISC ISAs like Thumb and AVR32 typically exhibit very high density owing to a technique called code compression. This technique packs two 16-bit instructions into one 32-bit word, which is then unpacked at the decode stage and executed as two instructions.
Minimal instruction set computers are a form of stack machine, where there are few separate instructions, so that multiple instructions can be fit into a single machine word. These types of cores often take little silicon to implement, so they can be easily realized in an FPGA or in a multi-core form. The code density of MISC is similar to the code density of RISC; the increased instruction density is offset by requiring more of the primitive instructions to do a task.
There has been research into executable compression as a mechanism for improving code density. The mathematics of Kolmogorov complexity describes the challenges and limits of this.


The instructions constituting a program are rarely specified using their internal, numeric form ; they may be specified by programmers using an assembly language or, more commonly, may be generated from programming languages by compilers.


The design of instruction sets is a complex issue. There were two stages in history for the microprocessor. The first was the CISC, which had many different instructions. In the 1970s, however, places like IBM did research and found that many instructions in the set could be eliminated. The result was the RISC, an architecture that uses a smaller set of instructions. A simpler instruction set may offer the potential for higher speeds, reduced processor size, and reduced power consumption. However, a more complex set may optimize common operations, improve memory and cache efficiency, or simplify programming.
Some instruction set designers reserve one or more opcodes for some kind of system call or software interrupt. For example, MOS Technology 6502 uses 00H, Zilog Z80 uses the eight codes C7,CF,D7,DF,E7,EF,F7,FFH while Motorola 68000 use codes in the range A000..AFFFH.
Fast virtual machines are much easier to implement if an instruction set meets the Popek and Goldberg virtualization requirements.
The NOP slide used in immunity-aware programming is much easier to implement if the "unprogrammed" state of the memory is interpreted as a NOP.
On systems with multiple processors, non-blocking synchronization algorithms are much easier to implement if the instruction set includes support for something such as "fetch-and-add", "load-link/store-conditional", or "atomic compare-and-swap".

Instruction set implementation

Any given instruction set can be implemented in a variety of ways. All ways of implementing a particular instruction set provide the same programming model, and all implementations of that instruction set are able to run the same executables. The various ways of implementing an instruction set give different tradeoffs between cost, performance, power consumption, size, etc.
When designing the microarchitecture of a processor, engineers use blocks of "hard-wired" electronic circuitry such as adders, multiplexers, counters, registers, ALUs, etc. Some kind of register transfer language is then often used to describe the decoding and sequencing of each instruction of an ISA using this physical microarchitecture.
There are two basic ways to build a control unit to implement this description :
  1. Some computer designs "hardwire" the complete instruction set decoding and sequencing.
  2. Other designs employ microcode routines or tables to do this—typically as on-chip ROMs or PLAs or both. The Western Digital MCP-1600 is an older example, using a dedicated, separate ROM for microcode.
Some designs use a combination of hardwired design and microcode for the control unit.
Some CPU designs use a writable control store—they compile the instruction set to a writable RAM or flash inside the CPU, or an FPGA.
An ISA can also be emulated in software by an interpreter. Naturally, due to the interpretation overhead, this is slower than directly running programs on the emulated hardware, unless the hardware running the emulator is an order of magnitude faster. Today, it is common practice for vendors of new ISAs or microarchitectures to make software emulators available to software developers before the hardware implementation is ready.
Often the details of the implementation have a strong influence on the particular instructions selected for the instruction set. For example, many implementations of the instruction pipeline only allow a single memory load or memory store per instruction, leading to a load-store architecture. For another example, some early ways of implementing the instruction pipeline led to a delay slot.
The demands of high-speed digital signal processing have pushed in the opposite direction—forcing instructions to be implemented in a particular way. For example, to perform digital filters fast enough, the MAC instruction in a typical digital signal processor must use a kind of Harvard architecture that can fetch an instruction and two data words simultaneously, and it requires a single-cycle multiply–accumulate multiplier.