In my humble opinion, a bioinformatician must know the computer he works with. After all, the computer is the machine that allows us to perform numerous actions and I believe that knowing, even in a rough way, how this works is important for anyone who works in the informatic sector.

The computer is an electronic device capable of carrying out mathematical and logical calculations in a very short time allowing us to solve problems in a much simpler way than we human beings can do with our own brain.

This consists of a component hardware and a component software. The first is the set of physical elements of the computer, while the second is the set of non-physical elements, such as programs. It can be said that the hardware executes the software, while the software commands the hardware.

In any case, the main components of a hardware are:

  • The motherboard, that is the electronic support of the whole computer, in fact this manages all the electrical circuits and therefore the transmission of signals between the different hardware components of the computer. Here, we could say that if the motherboard has problems, the health of our computer is significantly compromised.
  • The processor or CPU. This is the real brain of the computer, in fact it is the one who has the task of calculating, reading and executing the commands we give using the keyboard and mouse.
  • The memories. Obviously our computer must have a location dedicated to the storage of information, therefore of data contained in files. In this regard, there are several memory sites on a computer but the most well-known ones are:
    • The RAM. This is called volatile memory because the programs to be executed by the CPU are copied (loaded) into it. Once the program is closed, the changes made, if not properly saved on the hard disk or other non-volatile memory, will be lost.
    • The fixed memory. This is the one found in the hard drive (HDD) or solid state (SSD) of our computer and has the purpose of statically containing our files that remain even after the end of a process. In short, in the fixed memory is where we save everything that is inside our machine.
  • The external input devices, such as the mouse and keyboard.
  • The external output devices, such as the monitor, the printer and all that brings the results of the operations performed by the computer.

A very interesting aspect is that to make easier for the user to manage the hardware we have been designed operating systems (OS), which thanks to the rather intuitive graphic interface, act as intermediaries between the user and the hardware. Personally, and as I have noticed many professional bioinformaticians, I use as an operating system Linux. For example, on my pc I have installed Ubuntu 20.04 which is nothing more than a Linux distribution.

But let’s go back to the files inside a computer. As I wrote in the article entitled Data in bioinformatics, a file is nothing more than an object that contains information, of any type, they can be images, text, a table, and so on. The interesting thing is that each type of file has a different extension, for example the .txt extension indicates that it’s a text file, or .xls indicates that it’s an Excel file, etc.

Obviously the files on a computer can be very many, therefore it is necessary to organize them in order to have an easier management of them. Fortunately, there is the File System , that is a subset of the operating system that creates a logical and non-physical organization of the computer files, this organization is based on enclosing files in folders that can contain other folders and that are among them in a hierarchical relationship. The folder at the top of the hierarchy is called root (and is indicated with the symbol / ), we can say that this is the parent folder, in fact when we move from this to an internal folder in the hierarchy we say that we are moving with a path called absolute, while if we move from one inner folder to another, without starting from root, we are moving with a relative path.

Another concept to know Is that a computer can be used by several users, but only one is the root user, or administrator, that is the one who has the most control over the system, in fact it is the only one able to edit the root folder and all the other folders that are located below, and is therefore able to perform operations not allowed to standard users , who can only operate on files in the home folder under the permission of the root user.

I’d say it’s best to stop here for now. I hope that now, when you find yourself using the computer, even for a simple online search, you are more aware of how it works.

Bye and see you soon.