The Computer Dance

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Text: Chapter 1

Machines are often thought of as physical things. But more and more, we “simulate” physical machines with “virtual” ones. Thanks to fast computers, and fantastic graphics systems, we can create “virtual machines of all kinds.

I am a Pilot, and I love flying “real” airplanes. However doing so is expensive, and for some kinds of flying, not really necessary. Instead, I can use a simulator to create a “virtual world” and a “virtual airplane” to fly in that world. In fact the FAA lets me log some amount of time when I practice flying on instruments, as though I was flying in the clouds and cannot see the ground anyway. I am focused on that virtual instrument panel, navigating to some airport. Much cheaper!

Obviously, we are not going to build a simulator for an airplane in this class, but we are going to build one for a simple computer system to figure out how things work.

Building a Computer

Von Neumann’s paper laid out the basic components of a computer over 70 years ago:

  • Control Unit
  • Memory Unit
  • ALU (math/logic) Unit
  • Input/Output Unit

Great! But how do they work?

The Texas Four Step

The answer is actually fairly simple. We will make the machine do a simple dance. Well, not actually, but what it will do is similar to dancing.

We live in Texas, so I am going to assume you know something about two-stepping (even if you cannot dance a step!). Basically, something starts up making noise to set up a “beat” that you can hear.

Around here, it is probably music by this guy:


Then you start a series of steps in a specific pattern until you complete one “two-step” motion.


Next, you do it all again, and again, and so on. Simple! (Right! Try it on a crowded dance floor and see how that goes!)

Setting up a Beat

It is fairly easy to create a beat for the computer to follow. We use something called an “oscillator”, which is a circuit that simply changes from a “0” to a “1” and back again, over and over. The signal looks something like this:


Often, we control the speed of this oscillator using a crystal that precisely sets the speed of the signal. We call the entire circuit that gets this signal going the “system clock”. That is the thing running at 2.6 GHz in your modern PC. Each cycle is one Hertz, and the clock in many machines “ticks” at several billion cycles per second, which we call Giga-Hertz, or GHz for short.

The actual speed of this clock depends on the machine. In our work, we will use systems with clocks as slow as 16 Mega-Hertz (MHz), and as fast as that 2.6 GHz. My fastest computer runs at over 4 GHz. We are reaching the point in the development of computers where going faster may not be possible due to the limits of the physics of moving electrons around.


Every time we think that is about to happen, we invent a new way to do things, and the speed limit goes up! Look up Moore’s Law for more information about all of this.

Once we have this beat running, we can perform actions in sync with this signal.

The Computer’s Steps

Obviously, we do not want our computers to dance. They might fall off the table! Instead, we have them perform a series of four simple steps:

  • Fetch
  • Decode
  • Execute
  • Store


Von Neumann set up a design where both instructions, things that tell the machine what action to perform, and data live in the memory unit of the machine. We fetch one of those instructions as the first step.


Instructions are encoded as binary numbers in the memory unit. After we fetch an instruction, we need to make sure it is a valid instruction. Not every possible binary pattern is a valid instruction. Some computers have only a few dozen instructions, and other many have several hundred instructions. We verify that the pattern we fetched is actually one of those the machine understands.

We also go back to memory and get anything else needed to complete that instruction, like data the instruction might need to perform the action, perhaps.


Once we have everything needed to actually perform the action specified by the instruction, we do that action. That might involve routing the data we have in hand to the ALU, or the Input/Output units. Sometimes, we get a result back, from the ALU for example.


In some texts, this last step is called “retirement”. We need to finish off the action by putting any results we generated while executing back in memory. We might also store some additional information telling us what happened during executions, as status information.


We do this simple pattern over and over, until the power goes away!

That is all a computer ever does. Why do we fear them as such powerful beasts? They are not fearful at all.

Computers are stupid. They are just stupid so fast, they look smart!

So, What is a Virtual Machine?

Once we know how a machine works, we can write a program that acts just like a real machine. If we do this well enough, we will be able to load the same “executable” file we might hand to a real computer and run it inside our software machine. That is the essence of the virtual machine.

In the early days of VM systems, programmers got things running, but the machines were very slow. As processors got faster, the VM systems got faster as well, and folks started using them to test things.

Since a VM is written in a high-level language, we can take the program and install it on a different machine entirely, and run our tests there. This idea lets you play with a system without actually owning such a system.

In fact, we are building such a machine in our lab work. There is no physical machine that acts like ours, we are inventing it as we go!

Speeding Up VMs

There is one more neat trick up the sleeves of VM programmers. If we are emulating the exact same machine out program is running on, then modern processors can actually run some of the instructions on the physical hardware, rather than in software. This will speed up those instructions, making the VM that much faster. The trick in doing this is that the real processor cannot be impacted by doing this trick, and making that happen is complex. Those machines capable of managing this have Intel VT-x extensions on the chip, (or the AMD equivalent) and the test program we used at the start of the class identifies such chips.