Goals and Syllabus
From the course catalog:CSE 351: The Hardware/Software Interface (4) - Examines key computational abstraction levels below modern high-level languages; number representation, assembly language, introduction to C, memory management, the operating-system process model, high-level machine architecture including the memory hierarchy, and how high-level languages are implemented. Prerequisite: CSE 143.
This course should develop students’ sense of “what really happens” when software runs — and that this question can be answered at several levels of abstraction, including the hardware architecture level, the assembly level, the C programming level, and the Java programming level. The core around which the course is built is C, assembly, and low-level data representation, but this is connected to higher levels (roughly how basic Java could be implemented), lower levels (the general structure of a processor), and the role of the operating system (but not how the operating system is implemented).
For (computer science) students wanting to specialize at higher levels of abstraction, this could in the extreme be the only course they take that considers the “C level” and below. However, most students will take a subset of Systems Programming (CSE333), Operating Systems (CSE451), Compilers (CSE401), Computer Networks (CSE461), etc.
For students interested in hardware, embedded systems, computer engineering, computer architecture, etc., this course is an introductory course along with the hardware courses Digital Design (CSE369) and Digital Circuits (EE371). More advanced courses of particular interest are Software for Embedded Systems, Computer Architecture I (CSE469), and Computer Architecture II CSE470, etc.
Course ThemesThe course has three principal themes:
- Representation: how different data types (from simple integers to arrays of data structures) are represented in memory, how instructions are encoded, and how memory addresses (pointers) are generated and used to create complex structures
- Translation: how high-level languages are translated into the basic instructions executed hardware with a particular focus on C and Java
- Control flow: how computers organize the order of their computations, keep track of where they are in large programs, and provide the illusion of multiple processes executing simultaneously
Course ObjectivesAt the end of this course, students should:
- Understand the multi-step process by which a high-level program becomes a stream of instructions executed by a processor
- Know what a pointer is and how to use it in manipulating complex data structures
- Be facile enough with assembly programming (x86-64) to write simple pieces of code and understand how it maps to high-level languages (and vice-versa)
- Understand the basic organization and parameters of memory hierarchy and its importance for system performance
- Be able to explain the role of an operating system
- Know how Java fundamentally differs from C
- Be more effective programmers (more efficient at finding bugs, improved intuition about system performance)
Course TopicsApproximate list of topics:
- Memory and data representation
- Number representation for integers and floats
- Machine code and the C programming language
- x86-64 assembly language
- Procedures and stacks
- Arrays and other data structures
- Memory and caches
- Operating system process model
- Virtual memory
- Memory allocation
- Implementation of high-level languages (e.g., Java)
Note that even more important than the topics at various levels of abstraction is the connection between them: students should get an informal sense of how Java could be translated to C, C to assembly, and assembly to binary.