Byte

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The byte (pronounced /ˈbaɪt/), is a unit of digital information in computing and telecommunications, that most commonly consists of eight bits. Historically, a byte was the number of bits used to encode a single character of text in a computer[1][2] and it is for this reason the basic addressable element in many computer architectures.

The size of the byte has historically been hardware dependent and no definitive standards exist that mandate the size. The de facto standard of eight bits is a convenient power of two permitting the values 0 through 255 for one byte. Many types of applications use variables representable in eight or fewer bits, and processor designers optimize for this common usage. The byte size and byte addressing are often used in place of longer integers for size or speed optimizations in microcontrollers and CPUs. Floating point processors and signal processing applications tend to operate on larger values and some digital signal processors have 16 to 40 bits as the smallest unit of addressable storage. On such processors a byte may be defined to contain this number of bits. The popularity of major commercial computing architectures have aided in the ubiquitous acceptance of the 8-bit size.

The term octet was defined to explicitly denote a sequence of 8 bits because of the ambiguity associated with the term byte.

Contents

History

The term byte was coined by Dr. Werner Buchholz in July 1956, during the early design phase for the IBM Stretch computer.[3][4] It is a respelling of bite to avoid accidental mutation to bit.[1]

The size of a byte was at first selected to be a multiple of existing teletypewriter codes, particularly the 6-bit codes used by the U.S. Army (Fieldata) and Navy. A number of early computers were designed for 6-bit codes, including SAGE, the CDC 1604, IBM 1401, and PDP-8. Early IETF documents cite varying examples of byte sizes: RFC 608 (1974), for example, mentions byte sizes for FTP hosts as the most computationally efficient size of a given hardware platform.[5]

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