601.229: Computer Systems Fundamentals

You’re in the right place if you’re looking to understand computer systems from the bottom up. We’ll start with digital design, work our way up to a simple 4-bit CPU, and then explore RISC as well as CISC architectures such as MIPS and x86. You’ll learn how computers actually work, how they are programmed in assembly, and how systems software allows us to turn these chunks of silicon into useful devices.


Catalog Description: We study the design and performance of a variety of computer systems from simple 8-bit micro-controllers through 32-bit RISC architectures all the way to the ubiquitous x86 CISC architecture. We’ll start from logic gates and digital circuits before delving into arithmetic and logic units, registers, caches, memory, stacks and procedure calls, pipelined execution, super-scalar architectures, memory management units, etc. Along the way we’ll study several typical instruction set architectures and review concepts such as interrupts, hardware and software exceptions, serial and other peripheral communications protocols, etc. A number of programming projects, frequently done in assembly language and using various processor simulators, round out the course.

Prerequisite(s): 601.220: Intermediate Programming. (For some assignments, 601.226: Data Structures is also useful.)

Policies: Please read the general course policies and take them to heart. Additional policies specific to this course may be posted at a later date.



There is no required text. However, it is strongly recommended that you get yourself a text book anyway. The following two are both excellent, but neither covers exactly what we’ll do in the course, and both cover things that we’ll never mention.

Note that most editions will do, you don’t necessarily need the latest and therefore most expensive one. Neither text has a lot of detail on digital design, but we’ll try to supplement the lectures with plenty of links to help you out.



Homework assignments are designed for you to practice certain skills and techniques, they are not graded. If you want feedback on your solutions, please ask in office hours.


Projects are designed to evaluate how well you’ve mastered course material. They are graded. Please check the individual projects for due dates and the structure your solutions should have. See our Piazza site for detailed submission instructions.


This is not a schedule. It’s a “log” of what we did, roughly, in each lecture. Don’t expect it to turn into a schedule, it won’t.