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Storing Data

Computers store almost all data types using a combination of three techniques: enumerations, adjacency, and pointers.


Given a finite set of values, I can enumerate them: that is, pick a different bit pattern for each. Usually there’s some effort to make the bit patterns meaningful, but not always.

Example: The 8-bit value 0x54 could mean any of the following:

Unsigned integer eighty-four
Signed integer positive eighty-four
Floating point number with 4-bit exponent twelve
ASCII capital letter T: T
Bitvector sets The set \(\{2,3,5\}\)
Our example ISA Flip the all bits of the value in r1

… and as many other things as you want. You simply have to pick what it means to your code in a given context.


Virtually all computers built since the 1970s have used byte-addressable memory, meaning that there is a separate address for each byte of memory.

So how do we store a value too big to fit in one byte? We store it in several adjacent bytes of memory, one after another. Because it has several bytes, it technically has several addresses; we call the smallest-such byte address the address of the entire multi-byte value.

Example: To store a 4-byte value at address 0x1234 we put the information in the bytes at address address 0x1234, 0x1235, 0x1236, and 0x1237.

If the value is made up of ordered parts, we put the first part in the smallest address, moving up from there

Example: To store a list of four 1-byte values [2,1,3,0] at address 0x1234 we store

address value
0x1234 2
0x1235 1
0x1236 3
0x1237 0

If the value is not made up of ordered parts, or if the order of the parts is subject to interpretation, we break it up into bytes in some pre-determined but arbitrary way. The most famous example of this is the endianness of multi-byte integers.

Example: To store the 32-bit integer 0x12345678 at address 0x1234, there are two competing options in common use today:

address little-endian big-endian
0x1234 0x78 0x12
0x1235 0x56 0x34
0x1236 0x34 0x56
0x1237 0x12 0x78

We apply these two rules (place parts adjacently in order, break big things up in a pre-arranged but arbitrary way) recursively.

Example: Suppose I am writing a program that draws arrows with labels on them. I define a structure with the following parts:

  1. starting point of arrow
  2. ending point of arrow
  3. label on the arrow

Suppose I also decide that points are each a list of two 16-bit integers and labels are each a list of eight 8-bit ASCII characters.

Let’s store (0x123, 0x345), (0x1, 0x2), "example\0" at address 0x1234 using a little-endian encoding

address value meaning
0x1234 0x23 low-order byte of x coordinate of starting point
0x1235 0x01 high-order byte of x coordinate of starting point
0x1236 0x45 low-order byte of y coordinate of starting point
0x1237 0x03 high-order byte of y coordinate of starting point
0x1238 0x01 low-order byte of x coordinate of ending point
0x1239 0x00 high-order byte of x coordinate of ending point
0x123A 0x02 low-order byte of y coordinate of ending point
0x123B 0x00 high-order byte of y coordinate of ending point
0x123C 0x65 e, first character of label
0x123D 0x78 x, second character of label
0x123E 0x61 a, third character of label
0x123F 0x6d m, fourth character of label
0x1240 0x70 p, fifth character of label
0x1241 0x6c l, sixth character of label
0x1242 0x65 e, seventh character of label
0x1243 0x00 \0, eighth character of label

In a hex editor, this would look like 23 01 45 03 01 00 02 00 65 78 61 6d 70 6c 65 00 The entire structure takes up 16 bytes.

Exercise: Suppose I have an array x of 32-bit integers, with the address of the array being 0x10000.

  • The address of x[0] is
  • The address of x[1] is
  • The address of x[2] is
  • The address of x[i] (as an expression including i) is

Solutions can be found in the footnotes1.


Many current memory systems can read 4 bytes into a register in one cycle if the address of the first byte is a multiple of 4, but need multiple cycles if it’s not a multiple of 4. Some also have other alignment rules, doing 8-byte reads more easily if the address is a multiple of 8 and so on.

Because of this, most code will align the members of a structure or array, adding some unused bytes as padding between elements to make sure that each 4-byte integer has an address that is a multiple of 4. This padding does not change the underlying concept of adjacency as a data storage technique; it just tweaks what we mean by “adjacent”.


For various reasons, it is sometimes more convenient to build a data out of references to other data instead of copies of that data. The memory representation of a reference is the address of the data being referred to. Addresses of data are often referred to as pointers to that data.


Every field develops its own technical jargon: special words and terminology those in the field use to refer to topics that they often discuss. The more discussion a topic gets, the more nuanced the jargon becomes. Computing pulls most of its jargon from English, which can make you think you understand it because you know English even when you don’t know the specific technical meanings being used.

A number serving as an index into the big array of bytes called “memory” where (the first byte of) something can be found.
An address that indicates the location of particular value. Or, a variable or other value-container that is expected to contain an address.

Both “address” and “pointer” are used the way we’d use data types like “int” or “float”, and thus used to refer both to the type we expect (“x is a pointer variable”) and the value we have (“x is a pointer to the string "hi"”). The two words are often used interchangeably, but they do have subtle differences. An address is an address even if it’s not a useful address: it can be the address of nothing, or the address of the second byte of a four-byte value, etc. A pointer is an address that is properly set up to be used in code: it is either the address of the first byte of a value we can use, or it is the special value “null” meaning “I’m could point to something, but I’m no”.

A special pointer (usually represented as the address 0x0) that intentionally doesn’t point to anything at all.

We also see some other oddities between these in use; for example

  • “the address of x” is something we can compute; the result is “a pointer to x”
  • a region of memory only has one address, but many pointers can point to it
  • the value of a pointer is an address
  • you can say “take the address of” but almost never say “take a pointer to”

While it is common to have the high-level connotation of jargon defined in courses and text, the grammatically-correct usage of it is often left implicit to be picked up by repeated examples. Because of that, there are dialects of jargon usage and other computer scientists might use “address” and “pointer” a little differently than I’ve outlined it above.

Telling them apart

It is hard to overstate the following fact:

It's all just bytes.

There is nothing that distinguishes a float, int, character, instruction, array, etc. They’re just bytes. We only tell them apart by how we use them.

If you jump to an address, the computer will try to read the byte there as code. If you load an address into a 4-byte register, the computer will assume it’s the first address of a 4-byte value. If you put a register’s value into a floating-point adder, the computer will assume it’s a floating-point value. And so on.

So, how do we keep it all straight when writing code? There are two common solutions: static and dynamic typing.

Static typing

In my code, I decide what type of value will go where. When I make a variable x, I decide “this variable, and any register or memory location it is stored in, will always hold a 32-bit signed integer” and I make that explicit in my code by declaring the variable as int x. I also type-check my code, asking my compiler to verify that I never tried to put a string into an integer variable or use an integer variable in an instruction that expected an array instead.

C, C++, C#, D, Fortran, Go, Haskell, Java, Kotlin, Objective-C, Rust, Scala, and Swift are all examples of relatively popular staticly-typed languages.

Dynamic typing

In my code, I never store a value by itself. Every value, from the humblest integer to the most complicated object, is stored as exactly two pieces (adjacently):

  1. An enumeration value telling me what type it is
  2. A pointer to the actual value of that type

And my code doesn’t blindly assume it knows what type it found: instead, it always checks the enumeration first and picks what to do based on what it found. That “what to do” might be “crash with an error”, but it will never be “pretend you have one data type even though you actually have a different data type.”

JavaScript, Lua, MATLAB, Perl, PHP, Python, R, Ruby, and Visual Basic are all examples of relatively popular dynamically-typed languages.

  1. 0x10000, 0x10004 (one 4-byte integer past the start of the array), 0x10008 (two 4-byte integers past the start of the array, 0x10000 + 4*i 

Copyright © 2023 John Hott, portions Luther Tychonievich.
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