How Do Computers Store Data? - Memory & Function

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  • 0:04 Computer Memory & Function
  • 2:57 How a Computer Uses Memory
  • 4:15 Caching & Virtual Memory
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

This lesson covers the basics of the computer memory function, including how data is stored and used in computers. Different types of memory, from ROM and RAM to cache and virtual memory, will be covered.

Computer Memory and Function

So, what is computer memory, and why is it so important?

Computer memory is technically any type of electronic storage. Without it and without access to it, a computer is just a useless box. From startup to shutdown, and all processes in between, a computer relies on several types of memory in order to function.

Memory's Place in a Computer

This diagram displays all inputs/outputs and processing pieces of a computer.

cpu overview memory

At the core of the computer is the central processing unit or CPU, the source of control that runs all programs and instructions. In order to function, computers use two types of memory: primary and secondary. The main storage is the primary memory, and data and programs are stored in secondary memory. However, memory is not stored in the CPU, but the CPU would only be a mess of wires without it!


Nevertheless, if you had the memory of a computer, you would have a large capacity for forgetting information! That is because most computers make use of what is called random access memory (RAM). This memory is used only when the computer is completing a task. To help you better understand this, imagine the following:

You are an expert gardener, except for one important drawback. Each day, when you leave the garden, everything that you completed that day, from planting to weeding, is erased from your memory. But you are still are woken up the next morning, and asked to garden. At this command, all memories return, and you begin toiling. When the day is done, all is forgotten again.

The garden, the tools, seeds, etc., can be thought of as the secondary memory in this analogy.

Memory and Storage

While the terms 'primary memory', 'main storage', 'primary storage', 'internal storage', 'main memory', and 'RAM' are used interchangeably, the most common term used is random access memory or RAM, which is the data that contains instructions for processing computer operations: like the hapless gardener, the memory is used only for as long as the program needing it is running. Some of the reasons that a computer only needs the memory for processing include:

  • The computer needs to be powered on for most programs to run; once the power is off, the memory storage is wiped out.
  • No single program can use all the memory. Programs running simultaneously need to share memory, meaning it is split among those programs.
  • The memory storage may not be big enough to hold the processing data, so it is released when it's done.

How a Computer Uses Memory

RAM may be the most common reference to computer memory; however, computers will use all types in a basic hierarchy.


Once the computer is turned on, the computer accesses read-only memory (ROM) and makes a quick test of the pieces of memory to ensure there are no errors. Next, the computer starts the basic input/output (BIOS) from the ROM. The operating system is started after the BIOS makes it through the startup routine; the operating system is loaded into RAM. This gives the CPU quick access to the operating system, improving performance and functionality. The CPU accesses this in a continuous cycle--and it happens millions of times per second!

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