Machine code

Machine language monitor in a W65C816S single-board computer, displaying code disassembly, as well as processor register and memory dumps.

Machine code is a computer program written in machine language instructions that can be executed directly by a computer's central processing unit (CPU). Each instruction causes the CPU to perform a very specific task, such as a load, a store, a jump, or an ALU operation on one or more units of data in CPU registers or memory.

Machine code is a strictly numerical language which is intended to run as fast as possible, and may be regarded as the lowest-level representation of a compiled or assembled computer program or as a primitive and hardware-dependent programming language. While it is possible to write programs directly in machine code, it is tedious and error prone to manage individual bits and calculate numerical addresses and constants manually. For this reason, programs are very rarely written directly in machine code in modern contexts, but may be done for low level debugging, program patching (especially when assembler source is not available) and assembly language disassembly.

The overwhelming majority of practical programs today are written in higher-level languages or assembly language. The source code is then translated to executable machine code by utilities such as compilers, assemblers, and linkers, with the important exception of interpreted programs,[1] which are not translated into machine code. However, the interpreter itself, which may be seen as an executor or processor, performing the instructions of the source code, typically consists of directly executable machine code (generated from assembly or high-level language source code).

Machine code is by definition the lowest level of programming detail visible to the programmer, but internally many processors use microcode or optimise and transform machine code instructions into sequences of micro-ops. This is not generally considered to be a machine code.

Instruction set

Every processor or processor family has its own instruction set. Instructions are patterns of bits that by physical design correspond to different commands to the machine. Thus, the instruction set is specific to a class of processors using (mostly) the same architecture. Successor or derivative processor designs often include all the instructions of a predecessor and may add additional instructions. Occasionally, a successor design will discontinue or alter the meaning of some instruction code (typically because it is needed for new purposes), affecting code compatibility to some extent; even nearly completely compatible processors may show slightly different behavior for some instructions, but this is rarely a problem. Systems may also differ in other details, such as memory arrangement, operating systems, or peripheral devices. Because a program normally relies on such factors, different systems will typically not run the same machine code, even when the same type of processor is used.

A processor's instruction set may have all instructions of the same length, or it may have variable-length instructions. How the patterns are organized varies strongly with the particular architecture and often also with the type of instruction. Most instructions have one or more opcode fields which specifies the basic instruction type (such as arithmetic, logical, jump, etc.) and the actual operation (such as add or compare) and other fields that may give the type of the operand(s), the addressing mode(s), the addressing offset(s) or index, or the actual value itself (such constant operands contained in an instruction are called immediates).[2]

Not all machines or individual instructions have explicit operands. An accumulator machine has a combined left operand and result in an implicit accumulator for most arithmetic instructions. Other architectures (such as 8086 and the x86-family) have accumulator versions of common instructions, with the accumulator regarded as one of the general registers by longer instructions. A stack machine has most or all of its operands on an implicit stack. Special purpose instructions also often lack explicit operands (CPUID in the x86 architecture writes values into four implicit destination registers, for instance). This distinction between explicit and implicit operands is important in code generators, especially in the register allocation and live range tracking parts. A good code optimizer can track implicit as well as explicit operands which may allow more frequent constant propagation, constant folding of registers (a register assigned the result of a constant expression freed up by replacing it by that constant) and other code enhancements.