An instruction set, or instruction set architecture (ISA), describes the aspects of a computer architecture visible to a programmer, including the native datatypes, instructions, registers, addressing modes, memory architecture, interrupt and exception handling, and external I/O (if any).
An ISA is a specification of the set of all binary codes (opcodes) which are the native form of commands implemented by a particular CPU design. The set of opcodes for a particular ISA is also known as the machine language for the ISA.
"Instruction set architecture" is sometimes used to distinguish this set of characteristics from the micro-architecture, which is the set of processor design techniques used to implement the instruction set (including microcode, pipelining, cache systems, and so forth). Computers with different micro-architectures 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 present in the IBM System/38 and AS/400. TIMI is an ISA that is implemented as low-level software 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 comprises TIMI itself. This allowed IBM to move the AS/400 platform from an older CISC architecture to the newer POWER architecture without having to rewrite any parts of the OS or software associated with it.
When designing micro-architectures, engineers use Register Transfer Language (RTL) to define the operation of each instruction of an ISA.
An ISA can also be emulated in software by a interpreter. Due to the additional translation needed for the emulation, this is usually slower than directly running programs on the hardware implementing that ISA. It is nowadays common practice for vendors of new ISAs or micro-architectures to make software emulators avaiable to software developers before the hardware implementation is ready.
List of ISAs
This list is far from comprehensive as old architectures died out and new ones invented on a continual basis. There is also a plethora of commercially available microprocessors and microcontrollers implementing ISAs in all shapes and sizes. Customized ISAs are also quite common in some applications, e.g. ARC International, application-specific integrated circuit, FPGA, and reconfigurable computing. Also see history of computing hardware.
ISAs commonly implemented in hardware
ISAs commonly implemented in software with hardware incarnations
ISAs never implemented in hardware
Categories of ISA
Examples of commercially available ISA
- Mark Smotherman's Historical Computer Designs Page (http://www.cs.clemson.edu/~mark/hist.html)
- John Bayko's Great Microprocessors of the Past and Present (http://www3.sk.sympatico.ca/jbayko/cpu.html)