June 10, 2024 By Phill Powell 7 min read

The central processing unit (CPU) is the computer’s brain, assigning and processing tasks and managing essential operational functions.

Computers have been so seamlessly integrated with modern life that sometimes we’re not even aware of how many CPUs are in use around the world. It’s a staggering amount—so many CPUs that a conclusive figure can only be approximated.

How many CPUs are now in use?

It’s been estimated that there may be as many as 200 billion CPU cores (or more) now running. As an example of what such a monumental number means from a different perspective, chip manufacturer Arm claimed to have shipped 7.3 billion chips within a single quarter of 2020, or roughly 900 CPUs for each second of that entire quarter. (There are approximately 7.8 million seconds in 3 months.)

That leads to a stunning comparison. Projections by the US Census Bureau list the 2024 global population at around 8 billion people. If those 200 billion CPUs currently in existence were all distributed equitably by persons—and none were devoted to business, government or scientific applications—there would be exactly 25 CPUs serving as the brain of the computer for each human brain on the planet.

This prompts a key question: With so many CPUs in operation, how are they all being used?

Seven top CPU use cases

With CPUs, we’re talking about a very small processor chip, and yet there’s very little that this very little thing cannot do. A brief survey shows which industries depend the most heavily on CPUs:

Consumer electronics

Many of the world’s most profitable companies—such as Apple—make devices for the consumer electronics industry. The rampant demand for personal computing platforms (like smartphones, laptops and gaming consoles) has driven a massive and ongoing expansion of CPU use. Beyond that, household devices blessed with Internet of Things (IoT) technology means that CPUs are now being incorporated into refrigerators, thermostats, security systems and more.

Data analytics

The goal of data analytics is to take raw data and refine it into an understandable narrative that addresses business goals. The first part of that process is assembling and cleaning the data. CPUs are instrumental to these activities, serving as the primary computer processing units. In addition, the high clock speeds achieved by CPUs make them perfectly suited to handle the type of rapid-fire scanning and retrieval of information that data analytics requires.

Defense and space

The CPU is the true backbone of modern defense systems. Any country that desires to be a global power must have modern computers as part of its security arsenal. Likewise, humankind’s achievements in space exploration could never have occurred without the CPU to handle the awesome computational challenges of calculating the distance and routes of space flights. Space poses a unique challenge for computers, which must be radiation-hardened to withstand powerful solar rays.

Financial services

Like data analytics, fintech companies depend on CPUs to enable the fast and efficient processing of huge amounts of financial-based information. By running advanced analyses on such data and then applying a range of different scenarios to that data, risk management systems that CPUs enable can help financial institutions reduce losses. CPUs also assist that effort in another key way—by helping flag oddities and detecting cases of fraud.


Nearly every type of industry benefits because of the fast speeds CPUs achieve, but none as importantly as healthcare, where lives literally hang in the balance and timing is a critical concern. Beyond the ability to quickly shuttle vital patient information between providers, CPUs can be used to help automate the ordering and tracking of prescriptions and other supplies. Computers can also both create pre-surgical 3D models of organs and help pathologists study illnesses.


The use of semiconductors has radically changed manufacturing, synching the input of materials and improving quality control. Manufacturing is also being revolutionized by computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), where CPU-driven computer systems help run industrial production operations. CAM uses direct or indirect connections that exist between the CPU and production operations to schedule, control and manage manufacturing activity.


The telecom industry offers its own bread-and-butter products—communication technology devices—but also assists other industries in important ways. Those use cases include enabling digital transactions (for the financial services industry) and assisting healthcare by supporting robotic surgeries with precision capabilities and data updates. In addition, CPUs are essential to operating autonomous vehicles, which rely on telecom signals for navigational guidance.

Key parts of the CPU

Modern CPUs typically contain the following components:

  • Arithmetic/logic unit (ALU): Executes arithmetic and logical operations, including math equations and logic-based comparisons.
  • Buses: Manages proper data transfer and data flow between components within a computer system.
  • Control unit: Uses intensive circuitry that controls the computer system by issuing a system of electrical pulses and instructs the system to execute high-level computer instructions.
  • Instruction registers and pointer: Shows location of next instruction set to be executed by the CPU.
  • Memory unit: Manages memory usage and data flow between RAM and the CPU. The main memory unit supervises the handling of the cache memory.
  • Registers: Provides built-in permanent memory for constant, repeated data needs that must be administered regularly, without exception.

Important CPU concepts

To be fully conversant in CPU terminology, it’s helpful to understand the following concepts:

Cache: Storage areas whose location allows users to quickly access data that’s been in recent use. Cache memory stores data in areas that are built into a CPU’s processor chip to reach data retrieval speeds even faster than random access memory (RAM).

Clock speed: The rate of activity per computer clock cycle. The internal clock built into computers regulates the speed and frequency of computer operations. The clock manages the CPU’s circuitry through the transmittal of electrical pulses. The delivery rate of pulses is called “clock speed.”

Core: The processor within the processor. Cores are processing units that read and execute various program instructions. Processors are classified according to how many cores are embedded into them; single-core, dual-core and quad-core processors are some of the examples. (The term “Intel Core” is used commercially to market Intel’s product line of multi-core CPUs.)

Threads: The shortest sequences of programmable instructions that an operating system’s scheduler can manage and send to a CPU for processing. Through multithreading, the use of multiple threads running simultaneously, various computer processes can be run concurrently, supporting multitasking. (“Hyper-threading” is Intel’s proprietary term for its form of multithreading.)

Top CPU manufacturers and products

The two major companies battling for control of this ultra-lucrative marketplace are Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD):


Markets processors and microprocessors through four product lines: Intel® Core® (high-end premium line), Intel® Xeon® (office and business use), Intel® Pentium® (personal computers and laptops), and Intel®Celeron® (low-end, low-cost personal computing use).

Obviously, different chips are best suited to certain applications. The Intel® Core i5-13400F is a good desktop processor that features 10 cores. But when it comes to a processing-intensive application like video editing, many users opt for the Intel® Core i7 14700KF 20-Core, 28-thread CPU.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)

Sells two types of processors and microprocessors: CPUs and APUs (which stands for accelerated processing units). APUs are CPUs that are equipped with proprietary Radeon® graphics. AMD® makes high-speed, high-performance Ryzen® processors for the video-game market. The AMD® Ryzen® 7 5800X3D, for example, features a 3D V-Cache technology that helps it push game graphics to new heights.

Athlon® processors used to be considered AMD’s high-end line, but AMD now uses it as a basic computing alternative.


Arm® doesn’t manufacture equipment, but instead leases out its valued processor designs and/or other proprietary technologies to other companies who do make equipment.

For general-purpose computing, such as running an operating system like Windows and using multimedia programs, most AMD Ryzen® or Intel® Core® processors can handle the workloads involved.

Ongoing CPU trends

Several tangential issues will continue to influence CPU development and the use cases for which they are utilized in coming years:

Increased use of GPUs: Graphics processing units (GPUs) are an electronic circuit first developed for use in smartphone and video game consoles. Their use is about driving processing speeds, so in addition to accelerating graphics cards, GPUs are being used in processing-intensive pursuits like cryptocurrency mining and the training of neural networks.

The drive to miniaturize: The history of computer hardware has been a quest to make computer processors smaller. Early computers required vast floor space and vacuum tubes. Then, CPUs became smaller and more efficient with the introduction of transistors. Later, computer scientists created a CPU called the microprocessor that could be held within a small integrated circuit chip. The drive to make processors smaller will continue unabated as long as there are consumers and businesses who want more processing power and faster speed.

Peripheral proliferation: Peripheral devices help optimize and increase the functionality of computing. Peripherals can be attached to the outside of a computer and include devices like keyboards, mice, scanners and printers. Expect to see more peripherals created in response to ongoing customer demand.

Sustainability issues: Moving forward, matters of power consumption will become increasingly important. Companies will become more focused on energy-efficient solutions as energy costs rise. When CPU use increases on a grand scale—like in hyperscale data centers, with thousands of linked computers working around the clock, the energy used is often measured in gigahertz (GHz)—which is comparable to the entire energy consumption of villages or small towns.

Forecasting future CPU growth

In its 2022–2028 processor revenue forecast, analyst group Yole Intelligence calculated that the total processor market in 2022 was worth $154 billion. That total figure included the following processor segments and their respective worths:

  • Central processing units (CPUs): USD 65 billion
  • Application processing units (APUs): USD 61 billion
  • Graphics processing units (GPUs): USD 22 billion
  • SoC FPGA: USD 2.6 billion (SoC FPGA stands for “system-on-chip field programmable gate array,” which are semiconductor-based devices that incorporate programmable logic into processor cores.)
  • AI ASICs: USD 1.5 billion (AI ASICs stands for “application-specific integrated circuits,” specifically those related to artificial intelligence.)
  • Data processing units (DPUs): USD 0.6 billion

In its 2028 projections, you can see how Yole’s experts expect certain segments to grow, namely AI and DPUs. Yole anticipates an 8% total yearly growth, leading to an expected 2028 total value of USD 242 billion, based on these figures:

  1. CPUs: USD 97 billion
  2. APUs: USD 65 billion
  3. GPUs: USD 55 billion
  4. AI ASICs: USD 11 billion
  5. DPUs: USD 8.1 billion
  6. SoC FPGAs: USD 5.2 billion

In addition to substantial market growth in AI ASICs and DPUs, Yole Intelligence’s forecast shows nearly identical growth for CPUs and GPUs during the same period, with growth predictions of USD 32 billion and USD 33 billion respectively. These projections also demonstrate the ongoing centrality of CPUs, since this category leads all others now and will continue to do so in the future, according to Yole Intelligence.

Take the next step

With over 200 billion CPUs in current operation, it’s reasonable to conclude that CPUs are here to stay—very probably a permanent part of the human condition moving forward. But it’s also a safe bet that the CPU will continue to be further developed and refined, to keep maxing out its utility for high-performance systems and the new, graphics-rich computer programs they run.

That’s why it’s smart to invest wisely when purchasing the associated equipment needed to execute computing objectives. It’s important to have hardware that can keep pace with modern CPUs. IBM servers offer flexibility in addition to strength, so you can get the processing power you need now, along with room to grow in the future.

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