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3.1: Structure of low-level programs

  • Page ID
    14846
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    Introduction

    This section introduces the learner to the low-level programming languages. The learners should distinguish the low-level languages and their different uses in computer programming

    Activity Details

    In computer science, a low-level programming language is a programming language that provides little or no abstraction from a computer’s instruction set architecture—commands or functions in the language map closely to processor instructions. This refers to either machine code or assembly language. The word “low” refers to the small or nonexistent amount of abstraction between the language and machine language; because of this, low-level languages are sometimes described as being “close to the hardware.” Because of the close relationship between the language and the hardware architecture programs written in low-level languages tend to be relatively non-portable.

    Low-level languages can convert to machine code without a compiler or interpreter— second- generation programming languages use a simpler processor called an assembler— and the resulting code runs directly on the processor. A program written in a low-level language can be made to run very quickly, with a small memory footprint. An equivalent program in a high- level language can be less efficient and use more memory. Low-level languages are simple, but considered difficult to use, due to numerous technical details that the programmer must remember. By comparison, a high-level programming language isolates execution semantics of computer architecture from the specification of the program, which simplifies development.

    Machine codes

    Machine code is the only language a computer can process directly without a previous transformation. Currently, programmers almost never write programs directly in machine code, because it requires attention to numerous details that a high-level language handles automatically, requires memorizing or looking up numerical codes for every instruction, and is extremely difficult to modify.

    True machine code is a stream of raw, usually binary, data. A programmer coding in “machine code” normally codes instructions and data in a more readable form such as decimal, octal, or hexadecimal which is translated to internal format by a program called a loader or toggled into the computer’s memory from a front panel.

    Assembly language

    Second-generation languages provide one abstraction level on top of the machine code. In the early days of coding on computers like the TX-0 and PDP-1, the first thing MIT hackers did was write assemblers. Assembly language has little semantics or formal specification, being only a mapping of human-readable symbols, including symbolic addresses, to opcodes, addresses, numeric constants, strings and so on.

    Typically, one machine instruction is represented as one line of assembly code. Assemblers produce object files that can link with other object files or be loaded on their own. Most assemblers provide macros to generate common sequences of instructions.

    Limitations of low-level architectures

    • Very hard to read or learn for the uninitiated.

    • Not very self-documenting like higher level languages.

    • Harder to modify and maintain.

    • Less support, than high level languages, in development and debug environments.

    Conclusion

    The learner should distinguish the various levels of low-level programming used in programming. They can also state the limitations arising from comparing the two low-level of programming languages

    Assessment

    Distinguish between machine and assembly languages

    Machine language is the actual bits used to control the processor in the computer, usually viewed as a sequence of hexadecimal numbers (typically bytes). The processor reads these bits in from program memory, and the bits represent “instructions” as to what to do next.

    Thus machine language provides a way of entering instructions into a computer (whether through switches, punched tape, or a binary file).

    While assembly language is a more human readable view of machine language. Instead of representing the machine language as numbers, the instructions and registers are given names (typically abbreviated words, or mnemonics, like ld means “load”). Unlike a high level language, assembler is very close to the machine language. The main abstractions (apart from the mnemonics) are the use of labels instead of fixed memory addresses, and comments.

    An assembly language program (ie a text file) is translated to machine language by an assembler. A disassembler performs the reverse function (although the comments and the names of labels will have been discarded in the assembler process).

    Machine language faster than assembly language even than assembly language depend upon machine language


    3.1: Structure of low-level programs is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Harrison Njoroge.

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