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In computing, an interrupt is an asynchronous signal indicating the need for attention or a synchronous event in software indicating the need for a change in execution.

A hardware interrupt causes the processor to save its state of execution and begin execution of an interrupt handler.

Software interrupts are usually implemented as instructions in the instruction set, which cause a context switch to an interrupt handler similar to a hardware interrupt.

Interrupts are a commonly used technique for computer multitasking, especially in real-time computing. Such a system is said to be interrupt-driven.[1]

An act of interrupting is referred to as an interrupt request (IRQ).



Hardware interrupts were introduced as a way to avoid wasting the processor's valuable time in polling loops, waiting for external events. They may be implemented in hardware as a distinct system with control lines, or they may be integrated into the memory subsystem.

If implemented in hardware, an interrupt controller circuit such as the IBM PC's Programmable Interrupt Controller (PIC) may be connected between the interrupting device and the processor's interrupt pin to multiplex several sources of interrupt onto the one or two CPU lines typically available. If implemented as part of the memory controller, interrupts are mapped into the system's memory address space.

Interrupts can be categorized into: maskable interrupt, non-maskable interrupt (NMI), inter-processor interrupt (IPI), software interrupt, and spurious interrupt.

  • Maskable interrupt (IRQ) is a hardware interrupt that may be ignored by setting a bit in an interrupt mask register's (IMR) bit-mask.
  • Non-maskable interrupt (NMI) is a hardware interrupt that lacks an associated bit-mask, so that it can never be ignored. NMIs are often used for timers, especially watchdog timers.
  • Inter-processor interrupt (IPI) is a special case of interrupt that is generated by one processor to interrupt another processor in a multiprocessor system.
  • Software interrupt is an interrupt generated within a processor by executing an instruction. Software interrupts are often used to implement system calls because they implement a subroutine call with a CPU ring level change.
  • Spurious interrupt is a hardware interrupt that is unwanted. They are typically generated by system conditions such as electrical interference on an interrupt line or through incorrectly designed hardware.

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