Teaching computer architecture by designing and simulating processors from their bits and bytes

Doğan M., Öztoprak K., Tolun M. R.

PeerJ Computer Science, vol.10, 2024 (SCI-Expanded) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 10
  • Publication Date: 2024
  • Doi Number: 10.7717/peerj-cs.1818
  • Journal Name: PeerJ Computer Science
  • Journal Indexes: Science Citation Index Expanded (SCI-EXPANDED), Scopus, Compendex, Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Keywords: Computer architecture, Hardware validation, HDL implementation, Integrated circuit, Processor design, Processor simulator development, Visualization
  • Hacettepe University Affiliated: No


Teaching computer architecture (Comp-Arch) courses in undergraduate curricula is becoming more of a challenge as most students prefer software-oriented courses. In some computer science/engineering departments, Comp-Arch courses are offered without the lab component due to resource constraints and differing pedagogical priorities. This article demonstrates how students working in teams are motivated to study the Comp-Arch course and how instructors can increase student motivation and knowledge by taking advantage of hands-on practices. The teams are asked to design and implement a 16-bit MIPS-like processor with constraints as a specific instruction set, and limited data and instruction memory. Student projects include following three phases, namely, design, desktop simulator implementation, and verification using hardware description language (HDL). In the design phase, teams develop their Comp-Arch to implement specified instructions. A range of designs resulted, e.g., (a) a processor with extensive user-defined instructions resulting in longer cycle times (b) a processor with a minimal instruction set but with a faster clock cycle time. Next, teams developed a desktop simulator in any programming language to execute instructions on the architecture. Finally, students engage in Verilog Hardware Description Language (HDL) projects to simulate and verify the data-path designed during the initial phase. Student feedback and their current understanding of the project were collected through a questionnaire featuring varying Likert scale questions, some with a ten-point scale, and others with a fivepoint scale. Results of the survey show that the hands-on approach increases students’ motivation and knowledge in the Comp-Arch course, which is centered around computer system design principles. This approach can also be effectively extended to related courses, such as Microprocessor Design, which delves into the intricacies of creating and implementing microprocessors or central processing units (CPUs) at the hardware level. Furthermore, the present study demonstrates that interactions, specifically through peer reviews and public presentations, between students in each phase increases their knowledge and perspective on designing custom processors.