Coding Essentials Guidebook for Developers: How Programming Languages Work
Table of Contents
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How Programming Languages Work
Now that we have a basic understanding of what data is and how computers store it, let's dig into what we mean by programming and coding. We use code to tell computers to do things. Each line of code we write provides an instruction or set of instructions for the computer to execute. You might think the real way we tell computers to do things is via user input - using mice, keyboards, microphones, and touchscreens. On the surface these tools are the highest levels we use to interact with our computers. But as we discussed in the previous chapter, the computer's brain - the CPU - can only understand instructions in its base instruction set. Therefore, every action we issue to a computer must be converted into the CPU's binary instruction set.
This unveils the most rudimentary way to write code - stringing together a sequence of binary instructions from the CPU's instruction set and sending them directly to the CPU to be executed. However, most humans are not used to thinking in ones and zeros. This makes a binary instruction set too cryptic and cumbersome for most humans to use. Additionally, the base instructions are so granular that our programs would be very long, difficult to understand, and difficult to troubleshoot. But it is possible to code this way. This is called writing machine code. In fact, this is the lowest level we can code at, since we can't break down or convert the instructions set any further than the CPU's base instruction set. Fundamentally, this defines what coding is - using programmatic instructions to make the CPU complete useful tasks.
Compilers and Interpreters
As previously mentioned, each programming language is defined by rules that convert a set of human-readable keywords into machine code that the CPU can understand. But how is this conversion achieved? The answer is using compilers and interpreters.
A compiler is a program that takes a set of source code written in a specific programming language and converts it into a form that the computer (or another program) knows how to execute. This "form" could be machine code ready to be executed on the CPU or an intermediate form called bytecode. Bytecode is similar to machine code, but it is intended to be executed by a software program instead of on hardware like the CPU. Usually, the output from the compiler is saved in one or more files called compiled executables. Executables can be packaged for sale and distribution in standard formats that make it easy for users to download, install, and run the program. An important characteristic of the compiling process is that the source code is compiled before the program is executed by the end user. In other words, code compilation typically takes place separately from program execution.
The figure below illustrates how a traditional compiler works:
Figure 2.1: Compiler
A interpreter is a program that takes a set of source code written in a specific programming language, converts it into a form the computer can understand, and immediately executes it in real-time. The main difference between compiling and interpreting is that the interpreting process has no gap between code conversion and execution - both of these steps happen at program run time. Whereas with compiling, the code conversion takes place in advance (sometimes far in advance) of program execution.
The figure below illustrates how a traditional interpreter works:
Figure 2.2: Interpreter
The Trade-off: Speed vs Effort and the Level of the Language
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