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A central processing unit (CPU), also called a central processor, main processor or just processor, is the electronic circuitry within a computer that executes instructions that make up a computer program. The CPU performs basic arithmetic, logic, controlling, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions in the program. The computer industry used the term "central processing unit" as early as 1955. Traditionally, the term "CPU" refers to a processor, more specifically to its processing unit and control unit (CU), distinguishing these core elements of a computer from external components such as main memory and I/O circuitry.

The form, design, and implementation of CPUs have changed over the course of their history, but their fundamental operation remains almost unchanged. Principal components of a CPU include the arithmetic logic unit (ALU) that performs arithmetic and logic operations, processor registers that supply operands to the ALU and store the results of ALU operations, and a control unit that orchestrates the fetching (from memory) and execution of instructions by directing the coordinated operations of the ALU, registers and other components.

Most modern CPUs are microprocessors, where the CPU is contained on a single metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) integrated circuit (IC) chip. An IC that contains a CPU may also contain memory, peripheral interfaces, and other components of a computer; such integrated devices are variously called microcontrollers or systems on a chip (SoC). Some computers employ a multi-core processor, which is a single chip or "socket" containing two or more CPUs called "cores".

Array processors or vector processors have multiple processors that operate in parallel, with no unit considered central. Virtual CPUs are an abstraction of dynamical aggregated computational resources.

Early computers such as the ENIAC had to be physically rewired to perform different tasks, which caused these machines to be called "fixed-program computers". Since the term "CPU" is generally defined as a device for software (computer program) execution, the earliest devices that could rightly be called CPUs came with the advent of the stored-program computer.

The idea of a stored-program computer had been already present in the design of J. Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly's ENIAC, but was initially omitted so that it could be finished sooner. On June 30, 1945, before ENIAC was made, mathematician John von Neumann distributed the paper entitled First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. It was the outline of a stored-program computer that would eventually be completed in August 1949. EDVAC was designed to perform a certain number of instructions (or operations) of various types. Significantly, the programs written for EDVAC were to be stored in high-speed computer memory rather than specified by the physical wiring of the computer. This overcame a severe limitation of ENIAC, which was the considerable time and effort required to reconfigure the computer to perform a new task.[10] With von Neumann's design, the program that EDVAC ran could be changed simply by changing the contents of the memory. EDVAC, however, was not the first stored-program computer; the Manchester Baby, a small-scale experimental stored-program computer, ran its first program on 21 June 1948 and the Manchester Mark 1 ran its first program during the night of 16–17 June 1949.

Advances in MOS IC technology led to the invention of the microprocessor in the early 1970s. Since the introduction of the first commercially available microprocessor, the Intel 4004 in 1971, and the first widely used microprocessor, the Intel 8080 in 1974, this class of CPUs has almost completely overtaken all other central processing unit implementation methods. Mainframe and minicomputer manufacturers of the time launched proprietary IC development programs to upgrade their older computer architectures, and eventually produced instruction set compatible microprocessors that were backward-compatible with their older hardware and software. Combined with the advent and eventual success of the ubiquitous personal computer, the term CPU is now applied almost exclusively to microprocessors. Several CPUs (denoted cores) can be combined in a single processing chip.

Previous generations of CPUs were implemented as discrete components and numerous small integrated circuits (ICs) on one or more circuit boards. Microprocessors, on the other hand, are CPUs manufactured on a very small number of ICs; usually just one. The overall smaller CPU size, as a result of being implemented on a single die, means faster switching time because of physical factors like decreased gate parasitic capacitance. This has allowed synchronous microprocessors to have clock rates ranging from tens of megahertz to several gigahertz. Additionally, the ability to construct exceedingly small transistors on an IC has increased the complexity and number of transistors in a single CPU many fold. This widely observed trend is described by Moore's law, which had proven to be a fairly accurate predictor of the growth of CPU (and other IC) complexity until 2016.

While the complexity, size, construction and general form of CPUs have changed enormously since 1950, the basic design and function has not changed much at all. Almost all common CPUs today can be very accurately described as von Neumann stored-program machines. As Moore's law no longer holds, concerns have arisen about the limits of integrated circuit transistor technology. Extreme miniaturization of electronic gates is causing the effects of phenomena like electromigration and subthreshold leakage to become much more significant. These newer concerns are among the many factors causing researchers to investigate new methods of computing such as the quantum computer, as well as to expand the usage of parallelism and other methods that extend the usefulness of the classical von Neumann model.

The performance or speed of a processor depends on, among many other factors, the clock rate (generally given in multiples of hertz) and the instructions per clock (IPC), which together are the factors for the instructions per second (IPS) that the CPU can perform. Many reported IPS values have represented "peak" execution rates on artificial instruction sequences with few branches, whereas realistic workloads consist of a mix of instructions and applications, some of which take longer to execute than others. The performance of the memory hierarchy also greatly affects processor performance, an issue barely considered in MIPS calculations. Because of these problems, various standardized tests, often called "benchmarks" for this purpose—such as SPECint—have been developed to attempt to measure the real effective performance in commonly used applications.

Processing performance of computers is increased by using multi-core processors, which essentially is plugging two or more individual processors (called cores in this sense) into one integrated circuit. Ideally, a dual core processor would be nearly twice as powerful as a single core processor. In practice, the performance gain is far smaller, only about 50%, due to imperfect software algorithms and implementation. Increasing the number of cores in a processor (i.e. dual-core, quad-core, etc.) increases the workload that can be handled. This means that the processor can now handle numerous asynchronous events, interrupts, etc. which can take a toll on the CPU when overwhelmed. These cores can be thought of as different floors in a processing plant, with each floor handling a different task. Sometimes, these cores will handle the same tasks as cores adjacent to them if a single core is not enough to handle the information.

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