Computer source code is often written by professional computer programmers. Source code is written in a programming language that usually follows one of two main paradigms: imperative or declarative programming. Source code may be converted into an executable file (sometimes called an executable program or a binary) by a compiler. Alternatively, computer programs may be executed by a central processing unit with the aid of an interpreter, or may be embedded directly into hardware.
Computer programs may be categorized along functional lines: system software and application software. And many computer programs may run simultaneously on a single computer, a process known as multitasking.
Computer programming is the iterative process of writing or editing source code. Editing source code involves testing, analyzing, and refining, and sometimes coordinating with other programmers on a jointly developed program. A person who practices this skill is referred to as a computer programmer or software developer. The sometimes lengthy process of computer programming is usually referred to as software development. The term software engineering is becoming popular as the process is seen as an engineering discipline.
Programs written using an imperative language specify an algorithm using declarations, expressions, and statements. A declaration associates a variable name with a datatype. For example:
var x: integer; . An expression yields a value. For example:
2 + 2 yields 4. Finally, a statement might assign an expression to a variable or use the value of a variable to alter the program's control flow. For example:
x := 2 + 2; if x = 4 then do_something(); One criticism of imperative languages is the side-effect of an assignment statement on a class of variables called non-local variables.
Programs written using a declarative language specify the properties that have to be met by the output and do not specify any implementation details. Two broad categories of declarative languages are functional languages and logical languages. The principle behind functional languages (like Haskell) is to not allow side-effects, which makes it easier to reason about programs like mathematical functions. The principle behind logical languages (like Prolog) is to define the problem to be solved — the goal — and leave the detailed solution to the Prolog system itself. The goal is defined by providing a list of subgoals. Then each subgoal is defined by further providing a list of its subgoals, etc. If a path of subgoals fails to find a solution, then that subgoal is backtracked and another path is systematically attempted.
The form in which a program is created may be textual or visual. In a visual language program, elements are graphically manipulated rather than textually specified.
Compiled computer programs are commonly referred to as executables, binary images, or simply as binaries — a reference to the binary file format used to store the executable code. Compilers are used to translate source code from a programming language into either object code or machine code. Object code needs further processing to become machine code, and machine code is the Central Processing Unit's native code, ready for execution.
Interpreted computer programs are either decoded and then immediately executed or are decoded into some efficient intermediate representation for future execution. BASIC, Perl, and Python are examples of immediately executed computer programs. Alternatively, Java computer programs are compiled ahead of time and stored as a machine independent code called bytecode. Bytecode is then executed upon request by an interpreter called a virtual machine.
The main disadvantage of interpreters is computer programs run slower than if compiled. Interpreting code is slower than running the compiled version because the interpreter must decode each statement each time it is loaded and then perform the desired action. On the other hand, software development may be quicker using an interpreter because testing is immediate when the compilation step is omitted. Another disadvantage of interpreters is the interpreter must be present on the computer at the time the computer program is executed. By contrast, compiled computer programs need not have the compiler present at the time of execution.
No properties of a programming language require it to be exclusively compiled or exclusively interpreted. The categorization usually reflects the most popular method of language execution. For example, BASIC is thought of as an interpreted language and C a compiled language, despite the existence of BASIC compilers and C interpreters. Some systems use Just-in-time compilation (JIT) whereby sections of the source are compiled 'on the fly' and stored for subsequent executions.
Some computer programs are embedded into hardware. A stored-program computer requires an initial computer program stored in its read-only memory to boot. The boot process is to identify and initialize all aspects of the system, from CPU registers to device controllers to memory contents. Following the initialization process, this initial computer program loads the operating system and sets the program counter to begin normal operations. Independent of the host computer, a hardware device might have embedded firmware to control its operation. Firmware is used when the computer program is rarely or never expected to change, or when the program must not be lost when the power is off.
Computer programs historically were manually input to the central processor via switches. An instruction was represented by a configuration of on/off settings. After setting the configuration, an execute button was pressed. This process was then repeated. Computer programs also historically were manually input via paper tape or punched cards. After the medium was loaded, the starting address was set via switches and the execute button pressed.