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interrupt

An interrupt is a signal from a device attached to a computer or from a program within the computer that requires the operating system to stop and figure out what to do next. Almost all personal (or larger) computers today are interrupt-driven - that is, they start down the list of computer instructions in one program (perhaps an application such as a word processor) and keep running the instructions until either (A) they can't go any further or (B) an interrupt signal is sensed. After the interrupt signal is sensed, the computer either resumes running the current program or begins running another program.

Basically, a single computer can perform only one computer instruction at a time. But, because it can be interrupted, it can take turns in which programs or sets of instructions that it performs. This is known as multitasking. It allows the user to do a number of different things at the same time. The computer simply takes turns managing the programs that the user starts. Of course, the computer operates at speeds that make it seem as though all of the user's tasks are being performed at the same time. (The computer's operating system is good at using little pauses in operations and user think time to work on other programs.)

An operating system usually has some code that is called an interrupt handler. The interrupt handler prioritizes the interrupts and saves them in a queue if more than one is waiting to be handled. The operating system has another little program, sometimes called a scheduler, that figures out which program to give control to next.

In general, there are hardware interrupts and software interrupts. A hardware interrupt occurs, for example, when an I/O operation is completed such as reading some data into the computer from a tape drive. A software interrupt occurs when an application program terminates or requests certain services from the operating system. In a personal computer, a hardware interrupt request (IRQ) has a value that associates it with a particular device.

This was last updated in December 2016

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