illustration of binary code

Discussion – Should we still use low level programming languages?

Abbreviated as LLL, Low Level Language is a type of programming language that contains basic instruction recognized by a computer.

It is often cryptic and not human-readable, compare to high-level languages used by software developers.

The word “low” refers to the small or nonexistent amount of abstraction between the language and machine language, making LLL the type of language described as being “close to the hardware” sometimes.

Since instructions written in low level languages are machine dependent, a low-level programming language interacts directly with the registers and memory.

The programs developed using low level languages are machine dependent and are not portable.

Tl; dr;

Used to write programs relating to the specific architecture and hardware of a particular type of computer, low level languages (LLL) are closer to the native language of a computer (binary, or ternary), making them harder for programmers to understand.

They are directly designed in operating and handling the entire hardware and instructions set architecture of a computer and are more appropriate in developing new operating systems, device drivers, applications, or writing firmware codes for micro-controllers.

What are low level programming languages?

level of programming languages

Source: mathworks.com

Low-level programming languages’prime function is to operate, manage, and manipulate computing hardware and components. It is much less human readable, yet easier and faster for computers to understand.

The programs and applications written in low-level programming are executable on the computing hardware without any interpretation or translation directly.

Though it is harder for programmers to write, debug, and maintain low-level programs, it is much efficient since it runs faster as it is close to the machine language and takes up less footprint memory in your computer.

It has two (2) common types:

Machine language.

The closest language to the hardware, machine language consists set of instructions directly executed by the computer.

These set of instructions are a sequence of binary bits, each of which having to perform a very specific and small task.

For example:

SUB AX, BX   ;00001011 00000001 00100010

is an instruction set to subtract values of two registers AX and BX.

Generally, instructions written in machine language are machine dependent and varies from computer to computer.

From the early days of programming developing programs using this language is a tedious job, having to remember sequence of binaries for different computer architectures. Today, it is not much in practice. 

Assembly language.

An improvement over machine language, assembly language is similar to machine language as it also interacts directly with the hardware. The only difference is that instead of using raw binary sequence to represent an instruction set, this language uses mnemonics.

Mnemonics are short abbreviated English words specifying a computer instruction. Each instruction in binary has a specific mnemonic. They are architecture-dependent and there is a list of separate mnemonics for various computer architectures.

Examples of mnemonics include – ADD, MOV, SUB etc. – easy to remember than binary sequences.

The language uses a special program called assembler. An assembler translates mnemonics to a specific machine code.

Its advantages are the following:

  • Making use of special hardware or special machine-dependent instructions (e.g. on the specific chip);
  • Requires less memory with translated program;
  • Writes code that can be executed faster;
  • Has full control over the code; and
  • Works directly on memory locations.
Machine Language1010001100011001
Assembly LanguageADDR3,R1,R9

Source: Abstraction Level Taxonomy of Programming Language Frameworks by Dr. BrijenderKahanwal

Advantages of Low Level Programing Languages

  • Programs are fast and memory efficient when developed using low level languages.
  • Programmers can better utilize processor and memory.
  • There is no need of any compiler or interpreters in translating the source to machine code. Therefore, cutting off the compilation and interpretation time.
  • Provides direct manipulation of computer registers and storage.
  • Can directly communicate with hardware devices.

Disadvantages of Low Level Programing Languages

  • Programs are machine dependent and are not portable when developed using low level languages.
  • Difficult to develop, debug and maintain.
  • Programs developed by low level programs are more prone to error.
  • Low level programming usually results in poor programming productivity.
  • Programmers must have additional knowledge of the computer architecture of a particular machine for programming in low level language.

Should we still use this type of programming language?

low level language vs high level language

Source: Medium

Summing it up, it depends upon what do you want to program.

Low-level languages are closer to the native language of a computer (binary) has important benefits because they require little interpretation by the computer. Thus, they generally run very fast, giving programmers a total control over data storage, memory, and retrieval.

However its counterpart, the high level languages, are written in a form close to human language. They are intuitively easier to grasp allowing programmers to write code much more efficiently. Also, they considered to be safer as they have more safeguards in place, keeping coders from issuing poorly written commands that could cause damage. The downside is, they don’t give much control over low-level processes.

If you’re planning to write on operating systems, kernels, or anything that needs to run at the absolute highest speed possible, low level language might be the best choice.

But, numerous modern apps are written in higher-level or even domain-specific languages.

So you might consider learning both language instead.

By Tuan Nguyen

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