[2009-03-30] “Computer Architecture”

“Computer Architecture” by John Hennessy and David Patterson is an advanced text on the subject that is a sequel to their other book “Computer Organization and Design”. The authors assume in this book that the reader is already familiar with the topics introduced in the other book and build upon these topics. Even then there is a fair amount of overlap among these books that is a bit irritating if you have only recently read the other book.

The book covers the exploitation of instruction-level parallelism and thread-level parallelism in modern microprocessors in great detail. It goes on to cover memory cache design and organisation, virtualisation and secondary storage systems in detail. It shows how instruction set design can affect the implementation of pipelining and virtualisation. The authors illustrate the principles introduced in the book very well by using recent microprocessors as examples. This makes the book quite current and relevant, though it also makes the book look a bit dated after a few years.

As with the other book, a fair portion of the book is in its appendices most of which are on an accompanying CD. This makes the book less bulky and more cost-effective to produce but it also makes it cumbersome to refer to the off-book appendices. I can appreciate this compromise as the alternative would have been to make the book more bulky and omit a lot of the material from the appendices.

A lot of the material in this book, especially the case-studies and some of the appendices, has been contributed by other authors. Impressive as the primary authors' credentials are (one is the father of MIPS and the other of SPARC), they cannot be expected to be experts on every topic in this domain and this extensive collaboration brings others' expertise to bear on specialised topics like floating-point arithmetic, embedded systems, etc.

Throughout the two books the authors have stuck with their “quantitative approach” to this field. Instead of making hand-waving statements like many others, they provide concrete formulae to measure various aspects of a computer's performance and extensively use various benchmarks to test existing systems. These benchmarks include the SPEC and TPC benchmark suites to cover a range of performance aspects.

This book would make for a great text-book for an advanced course on computer architecture. It would be particularly useful to computer architects, operating system designers and compiler writers. For the rest of us, this book provides a great insight into just what goes in the making of modern high-performance computer systems that most of us just take for granted.

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