Computer Architecture
and the Hardware/Software Interface

To understand a program you must become both the machine and the program.
— Alan Perlis

Computer architecture—sometimes called “computer organization”—is an important first look at computing from below the software surface. In our experience it is one of the most neglected area among self-taught software engineers.

The course is scoped as an introduction to the topic, designed for software engineers who wish to be better software engineers, rather than prospective hardware engineers.

The focus is on building a strong mental model of the actual execution of programs by a microprocessor, so that you can better reason about the code you write. This manifests most clearly as the ability to write faster code, whether by better understanding the available instruction set, by reasoning more clearly about branch prediction or cache coherence, or by understanding the limits of parallel execution.


  1. What Is a “Computer”? and What Does It Mean to “Program” It?
  2. “Machine” Programming and “Systems” Programming
  3. An Overview of C, the Portable Assembly Language
  4. Logic (computation) and State (memory) Circuits
  5. The Clock and the Datapath
  6. Improving Performance with Pipelining
  7. Improving Performance with Caching
  8. Improving Performance with Parallelism

Projects and exercises

The practical component of this course involves a number of small exercises, mostly writing C or assembly code to understand the hardware/software interface, or designing simple circuits to really understand what your microprocessor does. A favorite exercise among students involves profiling and refactoring a snippet of code to dramatically improve performance based on understanding CPU cache levels.

Assumed knowledge

This course assumes confident general programming abilities. Some familiarity with C and/or assembly programming is advantageous but not required: both are covered in class.

Schedule and price

This course will next run on Mondays and Thursdays, 6pm-9pm, for four weeks starting Thursday, 1 June 2017. The total price is $1,800.

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1141 Howard St
San Francisco, California
© 2016 Bradfield School of Computer Science