Instruction set

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An instruction set, or instruction set architecture (ISA), is the part of the computer architecture related to programming, including the native data types, instructions, registers, addressing modes, memory architecture, interrupt and exception handling, and external I/O. An ISA includes a specification of the set of opcodes (machine language), and the native commands implemented by a particular processor.

Instruction set architecture is distinguished from the microarchitecture, which is the set of processor design techniques used to implement the instruction set. Computers with different microarchitectures can share a common instruction set. For example, the Intel Pentium and the AMD Athlon implement nearly identical versions of the x86 instruction set, but have radically different internal designs.

This concept can be extended to unique ISAs like TIMI (Technology-Independent Machine Interface) present in the IBM System/38 and IBM AS/400. TIMI is an ISA that is implemented by low-level software translating TIMI code into "native" machine code, and functionally resembles what is now referred to as a virtual machine. It was designed to increase the longevity of the platform and applications written for it, allowing the entire platform to be moved to very different hardware without having to modify any software except that which translates TIMI into native machine code, and the code that implements services used by the resulting native code. This allowed IBM to move the AS/400 platform from an older CISC architecture to the newer POWER architecture without having to rewrite or recompile any parts of the OS or software associated with it other than the aforementioned low-level code. Some virtual machines that support bytecode for Smalltalk, the Java virtual machine, and Microsoft's Common Language Runtime virtual machine as their ISA implement it by translating the bytecode for commonly-used code paths into native machine code, and executing less-frequently-used code paths by interpretation; Transmeta implemented the x86 instruction set atop VLIW processors in the same fashion.


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