Does ISA Matter for Performance?

When I grew up with computers, the big RISC vs CISC debate was raging. At the time, in the late 1980s, it did indeed seem that RISC was inherently superior to CISC. SPARCs, MIPS, and Alpha all outpaced boring old x86, VAX and 68000 processors. This turned out to be a historical parenthesis, as the Pentium Pro from Intel showed how RISC-style performance could be mated to a CISC ISA. However, maybe ISAs still do matter.

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“Eagle” Cycle-Accurate Simulator Anno 1979

I recently read the classic book The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Even though it describes the project to build a machine that was launched more than 30 years ago, the story is still fresh and familiar. Corporate intrigue, managing difficult people, clever engineering, high pressure, all familiar ingredients in computing today just as it was back then. With my interesting in computer history and simulation, I was delighted to actually find a simulator in the story too! It was a cycle-accurate simulator of the design, programmed in 1979.

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