What Does Big-Endian Mean?

Big-endian refers to the way that data is sequentially stored in computer memory. Just as in books or magazines, where the first word appears in the top-left-hand corner of each page, the data in a big-endian system is organized such that the most significant digits or bytes appear in the upper left corner of a memory page, while the least significant ones appear in the bottom right-hand corner. This is in contrast to little-endian systems, in which the least significant data is organized in the upper left corner, while the most important bytes appear bottom-right. Both systems refer to a computer systems’ "endianness," or how bytes are arranged for that particular system.


Techopedia Explains Big-Endian

Although endianness is much less common now, big-endian architecture was typically used in mainframe computers, most particularly in IBM mainframes, while PCs used the little-endian convention instead. The endianness being used by a system can become quite troublesome because it can create incompatibility between systems, ensuring more work when trying to port different programs and applications. When sending data over a network, there is no assurance that it can be understood when it gets to the other end. The incompatibility becomes a hindrance because a receiver using a big-endian system will misinterpret data that comes from a sender using a little-endian system and vice versa.

However, this problem has been eliminated in modern computer systems by automatic conversions. In addition, using big-endian or little-endian systems only makes sense if you are breaking data into several small values. If you are using a 32-bit register or more, you can store everything and there is no need to consider endianness at all.


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Margaret Rouse

Margaret Rouse is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical, business audience. Over the past twenty years her explanations have appeared on TechTarget websites and she's been cited as an authority in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine and Discovery Magazine.Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages. If you have a suggestion for a new definition or how to improve a technical explanation, please email Margaret or contact her…