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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Comparison of assembly and high level languages

Assembly languages are close to a one to one correspondence between symbolic instructions and executable machine codes. Assembly languages also include directives to the assembler, directives to the linker, directives for organizing data space, and macros. Macros can be used to combine several assembly language instructions into a high level language-like construct (as well as other purposes). There are cases where a symbolic instruction is translated into more than one machine instruction. But in general, symbolic assembly language instructions correspond to individual executable machine instructions.

High level languages are abstract. Typically a single high level instruction is translated into several (sometimes dozens or in rare cases even hundreds) executable machine language instructions. Some early high level languages had a close correspondence between high level instructions and machine language instructions. For example, most of the early COBOL instructions translated into a very obvious and small set of machine instructions. The trend over time has been for high level languages to increease in abstraction. Modern object oriented programming languages are highly abstract (although, interestingly, some key object oriented programming constructs do translate into a very compact set of machine instructions).

Assembly language is much harder to program than high level languages. The programmer must pay attention to far more detail and must have an intimate knowledge of the processor in use. But high quality hand crafted assembly language programs can run much faster and use much less memory and other resources than a similar program written in a high level language. Speed increases of two to 20 times faster are fairly common, and increases of hundreds of times faster are occassionally possible. Assembly language programming also gives direct access to key machine features essential for implementing certain kinds of low level routines, such as an operating system kernel or microkernel, device drivers, and machine control.

High level programming languages are much easier for less skilled programmers to work in and for semi-technical managers to supervise. And high level languages allow faster development times than work in assembly language, even with highly skilled programmers. Development time increases of 10 to 100 times faster are fairly common. Programs written in high level languages (especially object oriented programming languages) are much easier and less expensive to maintain than similar programs written in assembly language (and for a successful software project, the vast majority of the work and expense is in maintenance, not initial development).

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