In computers, a pipeline is the continuous and somewhat overlapped movement of instruction to the processor or in the arithmetic steps taken by the processor to perform an instruction. Pipelining is the use of a pipeline. Without a pipeline, a computer processor gets the first instruction from memory, performs the operation it calls for, and then goes to get the next instruction from memory, and so forth. While fetching (getting) the instruction, the arithmetic part of the processor is idle. It must wait until it gets the next instruction. With pipelining, the computer architecture allows the next instructions to be fetched while the processor is performing arithmetic operations, holding them in a buffer close to the processor until each instruction operation can be performed. The staging of instruction fetching is continuous. The result is an increase in the number of instructions that can be performed during a given time period.
Pipelining is sometimes compared to a manufacturing assembly line in which different parts of a product are being assembled at the same time although ultimately there may be some parts that have to be assembled before others are. Even if there is some sequential dependency, the overall process can take advantage of those operations that can proceed concurrently.
Computer processor pipelining is sometimes divided into an instruction pipeline and an arithmetic pipeline. The instruction pipeline represents the stages in which an instruction is moved through the processor, including its being fetched, perhaps buffered, and then executed. The arithmetic pipeline represents the parts of an arithmetic operation that can be broken down and overlapped as they are performed.
Pipelines and pipelining also apply to computer memory controllers and moving data through various memory staging places.