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Computer multiprogramming is the allocation of a computer system and its resources to more than one concurrent application, job or user ("program" in this nomenclature).

Initially, this technology was sought in order to optimize use of a computer system, since time and processing resources were often wasted when a single job waited for human interaction or other data input/output operations.

Multiprogramming capability was developed as a feature of operating systems in the late 1950s and came into common use in mainframe computing in the mid- to late 1960s. This followed the development of hardware systems that possessed the requisite circuit logic and instruction sets to facilitate the transfer of control between the operating system and one or more independent applications, users or job streams.

The use of multiprogramming was enhanced by the arrival of virtual memory and virtual machine technology, which enabled individual programs to make use of memory and operating system resources as if other concurrently running programs were, for all practical purposes, non-existent and invisible to them.

Multiprogramming should be differentiated from multi-tasking since not all multiprogramming entails—or has the capability for-- "true" multi-tasking. This is the case even though the use of multi-tasking generally implies the use of some multiprogramming methods.

In this context, the root word "program" does not necessarily refer to a compiled application, rather, any set of commands submitted for execution by a user or operator. Such could include a script or job control stream and any included calls to macro-instructions, system utilities or application program modules. An entire, interactive, logged-in user session can be thought of as a "program" in this sense.

A program generally comprises numerous tasks, a task being a relatively small group of processor instructions which together achieve a definable logical step in the completion of a job or the execution of a continuous-running application program. A task frequently ends with some request requiring the moving of data, a convenient opportunity to allow another program to have system resources, particularly CPU time.

In multiprogramming, concurrent running (sharing of the processor) is achieved when the operating system identifies opportunities to interrupt the handling of one program between tasks (e.g., when it is waiting for input/output) and to transfer process control to another program (application, job or user). To a great extent, the ability of a system to share its resources equitably—or according to certain priorities—is dependent upon the design of the programs being handled and how frequently they may be interrupted.

Multi-tasking eliminates that dependency and expands upon multiprogramming by enabling the operating system supervisor to interrupt programs in the middle of tasks and to transfer processor control so rapidly that each program is now assured a portion of each processing second, making the interruptions imperceptible to most human-interactive applications.

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