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The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles [Paperback]

Noam Nisan , Shimon Schocken
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 31, 2005 0262640686 978-0262640688

In the early days of computer science, the interactions of hardware, software, compilers, and operating system were simple enough to allow students to see an overall picture of how computers worked. With the increasing complexity of computer technology and the resulting specialization of knowledge, such clarity is often lost. Unlike other texts that cover only one aspect of the field, The Elements of Computing Systems gives students an integrated and rigorous picture of applied computer science, as its comes to play in the construction of a simple yet powerful computer system.Indeed, the best way to understand how computers work is to build one from scratch, and this textbook leads students through twelve chapters and projects that gradually build a basic hardware platform and a modern software hierarchy from the ground up. In the process, the students gain hands-on knowledge of hardware architecture, operating systems, programming languages, compilers, data structures, algorithms, and software engineering. Using this constructive approach, the book exposes a significant body of computer science knowledge and demonstrates how theoretical and applied techniques taught in other courses fit into the overall picture.Designed to support one- or two-semester courses, the book is based on an abstraction-implementation paradigm; each chapter presents a key hardware or software abstraction, a proposed implementation that makes it concrete, and an actual project. The emerging computer system can be built by following the chapters, although this is only one option, since the projects are self-contained and can be done or skipped in any order. All the computer science knowledge necessary for completing the projects is embedded in the book, the only pre-requisite being a programming experience.The book's web site provides all tools and materials necessary to build all the hardware and software systems described in the text, including two hundred test programs for the twelve projects. The projects and systems can be modified to meet various teaching needs, and all the supplied software is open-source.

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The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles + Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software + How Computers Work: Processor And Main Memory (Second Edition)
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Editorial Reviews


"A refreshingly new way of looking at computer systems as a whole by considering all aspects of a complete system in an integrated manner." Jonathan Bowen Times Higher Education Supplement

About the Author

Noam Nisan is Professor at the Institute of Computer Science and Engineering, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Shimon Schocken is the IDB Professor of Information Technologies and Dean of the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (March 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262640686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262640688
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 7.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #69,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
124 of 126 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book--Ideal for self-study November 15, 2005
I highly recommend this book if you are interested in learning about computer science. The book is organized around the idea of building a computer from the fundamental logic gates up--starting with the hardware (combinational logic gates, arithmetic logic units, sequential logic gates, the CPU and memory) and then through the software hierarchy (starting with the machine language, and working up through the assembler, a virtual machine, a compiler for a high-level language, and an operating system). As a "by-product," one learns, by very relevant examples, many fundamental concepts of computer science.

You can just read the book, but the best idea is to follow the authors' advice and do the projects where you implement every necessary piece of the computer system yourself. The projects are all very well organized. All the software necessary to emulate any part of the computer is available for free download from the authors' web-site. It all works beautifully. If you want to skip any of the projects, you can, because the software is organized in such a way that it will use built-in modules instead of the ones you built if necessary.

The authors seem to have extensively tested the whole approach through the courses they have taught using this material. I also noticed that Harvard's Computer Science 101 course is being taught based on this book. I have been using the book for self-study with absolutely no problems--in fact I have never had such a great experience with a self-study course. All you need is a Windows or Linux (edit: Mac OS X works fine too) computer and access to the internet, and you can give yourself a wonderful education in computer science.

In terms of prerequisites, you only really need to have some experience with programming (e.g.
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Without any alternative May 27, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have used this book in my computer organization class (Istanbul Bilgi University, Computer Science dept.) and I must admit that it brought a very fresh perspective to second year computer science students. For the first time they were able to see the process of designing a computer from the ground up.

The book is very suitable for self-study or classroom use: it has an excellent website, all the required HDL simulator, assembler, CPU and VM emulator and compiler are freely available and easy to run on any platform (they are all coded in Java).

Of course there are simplifications such as the lack of interrupts and multhithreading but this book prepares the students very well for 3rd and 4th year courses. Every chapter has very well and clearly defined goals and projects that are %100 self-contained. That means even if you skip a chapter you can work out the next project without any loss in implementation.

If you or your students want to have a grasp what it means to build a computer starting from logic gates, hardware definition languages, up to the ALU, RAM, CPU, assembler, virtual machine and compilation of an object oriented high level language, then this book is the best choice. It is one of the most hands-on book I've ever seen in this subject matter and at that intermediate level.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If only I could give more than 5 stars August 28, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have nothing but the most positive things to say about The Elements of Computing Systems. If you ever wanted to know how a computer worked -- I mean REALLY know -- read Charles Petzold's book CODE. If you also wanted to BUILD a computer, read The Elements of Computing Systems. This book takes you from a single basic logic gate to a working computer, then proceeds to design software and even a simple operating system that runs on it. (Caveat: there are 2 things you do not create yourself: the system clock and the base module for flip-flops. There's a good reason why for each. Again, to understand these parts better, I highly recommend Petzold's CODE.) All chapters are independent and can be done in any order, but the order they have it in is best. I think the authors intend for TECS to be a textbook for a class but I'm reading it on my own and it's perfect for self study. Before you read, make sure you consult the book's website's errata because there are a few typos.

I also have nothing but the highest praises for the accompanying software. The authors make freely available a small open source software suite to help develop the computer you're making. Full tutorials are online. The test suites are fully scriptable. The scripts for actually testing your work are included and there's also an appendix in the book explaining the scripting language used. The software is all written in Java and will run on Windows, Linux, or Mac.

Everything is kept as simple as possible without sacrificing any understanding. A perfect learning tool.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've been a computer hobbyist since the first days of the Apple ][, and have dabbled in everything from programming to circuit board design. Despite all that time spent, there have always been huge holes in my understanding. In the back of my mind, I've always dreamed of building a simple computer from a handful of chips, designing an operating system for it, and using it to write programs. Unfortunately, the complexity of the task always seemed overwhelming. Assembly language, stack arithmetic, compiler design - all seemed much too intimidating to seriously approach. But no longer.

This book guides the reader on a journey from the basics of boolean logic and elementary gates through CPU design, assembly, virtual machines, high level languages, compilers and operating systems. How can such a task be accomplished in one 300-page volume? Simple - you do most of the work yourself. The relatively short chapters introduce each concept and suggest an approach to implementation. The reader is then given a project to complete and test. Intimidated by assembly language? You probably won't be after you've written a symbolic assembler. Confused by compilers? Imagine how you'll feel when you realize you've created one for a simple (but completely usable) high-level language.

Some degree of familiarity with a programming language will be needed to complete all of the later projects in this book. I used Java, and it worked like a charm. I'm just about finished with the book, and I'm trying to decide what to do next. I'm actually sad to be almost done! I plan to fulfill that original dream of building an actual computer from scratch - several modern microcontrollers can handle video output and keyboard input, so I think it will be doable.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great material
Hands-on understanding of the principle of computers.
Text book well structured and accessible to anyone keen on learning this topic.
Published 1 month ago by Regis Mejard
5.0 out of 5 stars AI
Reading this makes it clear that AI will never be confused with Artificial Consciousness! It even casts doubt of the validity of human consciousness. Read more
Published 1 month ago by F. Vogt
4.0 out of 5 stars Good First Cut on Computer Design but lacks details
The book, The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles, is a book on Computer Design by Noam Nisan and Shimon Schocken both of the Efi Arazi... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Joseph P. Dempsey, Sr.
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome book!
This is an awesome book that I'm thoroughly enjoying so far. Gives a great view of how hardware + software fit together without going into too much technical detail. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Matt
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Textbook for Self-Starters
I wanted to learn some programming languages and concepts to make my Technical Writer resume meatier. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Peter Gambrill
2.0 out of 5 stars This Book Could And Should Be So Much Better...and It Isn't!
I was going to give this book 3 stars but felt that would be disingenuous to those wanting to know about this book. This is purportedly a 'teaching' book. Read more
Published 5 months ago by C. Kemp
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book to grab if you want to understand practical digital logic
I only worked my way up to chapter 5 where you build a CPU from parts created in previous chapters as that is all I was interested in. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Brian Mastrobuono
5.0 out of 5 stars Still Awesome in 2014 even for Arduino, Raspberry, Propeller Buffs...
I'm hoping and praying these authors do a new edition, but in the meantime, they have been beyond ethical in keeping the web resources up to date, even at this writing. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Let's Compare Options
5.0 out of 5 stars From Hardware to Software - A Journey if Enlightenment.
This book is well written, and easy to understand. Noam Nisan presents the complexities of a computer in such a way that 'how they work becomes clear'. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Chris Hicks
4.0 out of 5 stars A good way to learn computers...
The text is good, but the explanations and the companion tools that come with the course could be better. Read more
Published 6 months ago by headdab
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