Stack Computers: the new wave © Copyright 1989, Philip Koopman, All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 1. Introduction and Review


1.2 WHAT IS A STACK?

LIFO stacks, also known as "push down" stacks, are the conceptually simplest way of saving information in a temporary storage location for such common computer operations as mathematical expression evaluation and recursive subroutine calling.


1.2.1 Cafeteria tray example

As an example of how a stack works, consider a spring-loaded tray dispenser of the type often found in cafeterias. Let us say that each tray has number engraved upon it. One tray at a time is loaded in from the top, each resting on the already loaded trays with the spring compressing to make room for more trays as necessary. For example, in Figure 1.1, the trays numbered 42, 23, 2, and 9 are loaded onto the stack of trays with 42 loaded first and 9 loaded last.

[Figure 1.1]
Figure 1.1 -- An example of stack operation.


The "Last In" tray is number 9. Thus, the "First Out" tray is also number 9. As customers remove trays from the top of the stack, the first tray removed is tray number 9, and the second is tray number 2. Let us say that at this point more trays were added. These trays would then have to come off the stack before the very first tray we loaded. After any sequence of pushes and pops of the stack of trays, tray 42 would still be on the bottom. The stack would be empty once again only after tray 42 had been popped from the top of the stack.


1.2.2 Example software implementations

LIFO stacks may be programmed into conventional computers in a number of ways. The most straightforward way is to allocate an array in memory, and keep a variable with the array index number of the topmost active element. Those programmers who value execution efficiency will refine this technique by allocating a block of memory locations and maintaining a pointer with the actual address of the top stack element. In either case, "pushing" a stack element refers to the act of allocating a new word on the stack and placing data into it. "Popping" the stack refers to the action of removing the top element from the stack and then returning the data value removed to the routine requesting the pop.

Stacks often are placed in the uppermost address regions of the machine. They usually grow from the highest memory location towards lower memory locations, allowing the maximum flexibility in the use of the memory between the end of program memory and the "top" of the stack. In our discussions, whether the stack grows "up" in memory or "down" in memory is largely irrelevant. The "top" element of the stack is the element that was last pushed and will be the first to be popped. The "bottom" element of the stack is the one that, when removed, will leave the stack empty.

A very important property of stacks is that, in their purest form, they only allow access to the top element in the data structure. We shall see later that this property has profound implications in the areas of program compactness, hardware simplicity and execution speed.

Stacks make excellent mechanisms for temporary storage of information within procedures. A primary reason for this is that they allow recursive invocations of procedures without risk of destroying data from previous invocations of the routine. They also support reentrant code. As an added advantage, stacks may be used to pass the parameters between these same procedures. Finally, they can conserve memory space by allowing different procedures to use the same memory space over and over again for temporary variable allocation, instead of reserving room within each procedure's memory for temporary variables.

There are other ways of creating stacks in software besides the array approach. Linked lists of elements may be used to allocate stack words, with elements of the stack not necessarily in any order with respect to actual memory addresses. Also, a software heap may be used to allocate stack space, although this is really begging the question since heap management is really a superset of stack management.


1.2.3 Example hardware implementations

Hardware implementation of stacks has the obvious advantage that it can be much faster than software management. In machines that refer to the stack with a large percentage of instructions, this increased efficiency is vital to maintaining high system performance.

While any software method of handling stacks can be implemented in hardware, the generally practiced hardware implementation is to reserve contiguous locations of memory with a stack pointer into that memory. Usually the pointer is a dedicated hardware register that can be incremented or decremented as required to push and pop elements. Sometimes a capability is provided to add an offset to the stack pointer to nondestructively access the first few elements of the stack without requiring successive pop operations. Often times the stack is resident in the same memory devices as the program. Sometimes, in the interest of increased efficiency, the stacks reside in their own memory devices.

Another approach that may be taken to building stacks in hardware is to use large shift registers. Each shift register is a long chain of registers with one end of the chain being visible as a single bit at the top of stack. 32 such shift registers of N bits each may be placed side-by-side to form a 32 bit wide by N element stack. While this approach has not been practical in the past, VLSI stack machines may find this a viable alternative to the conventional register pointing into memory implementation.


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