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A central processing unit (CPU), also referred to as a central processor unit,[1] is the hardware within a computer system which carries out the instructions of a computer program by performing the basic arithmetical, logical, and input/output operations of the system. The term has been in use in the computer industry at least since the early 1960s.[2] The form, design, and implementation of CPUs have changed over the course of their history, but their fundamental operation remains much the same.

On large machines, CPUs require one or more printed circuit boards. On personal computers and small workstations, the CPU is housed in a single silicon chip called a microprocessor. Since the 1970s the microprocessor class of CPUs has almost completely overtaken all other CPU implementations. Modern CPUs are large scale integrated circuits in packages typically less than four centimeters square, with hundreds of connecting pins.

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Two typical components of a CPU are the arithmetic logic unit (ALU), which performs arithmetic and logical operations, and the control unit (CU), which extracts instructions from memory and decodes and executes them, calling on the ALU when necessary.

Not all computational systems rely on a central processing unit. An array processor or vector processor has multiple parallel computing elements, with no one unit considered the "center". In the distributed computing model, problems are solved by a distributed interconnected set of processors.