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An introduction to computers and computer systems
An introduction to computers and computer systems

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3 Moore’s law

An artistic concept of a processor.

Computers today are smaller, faster and cheaper than they have ever been. This statement could have been made at pretty much any time over the last 30 years and it would have been true; it’s doubtful that any other product has maintained such rapid development over such a long period of time. But just how fast has computer development been? In 1965, Gordon Moore, the founder of the giant Intel Corporation, wrote in Electronics magazine that he expected the density of electronic components in an integrated circuit on a silicon chip to double every year for at least the next ten years.

Whether we look at the CPU or at memory, the fundamental component of the computer is the transistor. The incorporation of many transistors onto a single silicon chip, in the form of an integrated circuit, started a process of miniaturisation that continues to this day. More and more transistors are placed in a given space; as the distance between the transistors shrinks, so the speed of communication between them increases and the cost per transistor falls. When he made his prediction, Moore felt that he could see how the technologies needed to achieve it would evolve for the next five to ten years. In fact, the prediction was slightly out, as the density of components has doubled every two years rather than the year that was the rate in 1965, and it is this rate of growth that is now associated with Moore. Nevertheless, it is quite astonishing that development has continued at this rate for more than 50 years after the initial prediction. In fact, behind this lies a massive amount of investment to ensure that the trend continues. At some point, Moore’s law, as it is called, moved from being a prediction to being the target for an industry. Intel’s Core M processor, released in 2015 fifty years after the prediction was made, holds 1.3 billion transistors that each measure about 14 nanometers (nm) in size. To give you an idea of the scale: a flu virus is 20 nm in diameter.