A computer is a highly layered system, and so you have to decide which layers you are the most interested in studying.
Although the layer are somewhat independent, they also sometimes interact, and when that happens it usually hurts your brain. E.g., if compilers were perfect, no one optimizing software would have to know anything about microarchitecture. But if you want to go hardcore enough, you might have to learn some lower layer.
It must also be said that like in any industry, certain layers are hidden in commercial secrecy mysteries making it harder to actually learn them. In computing, the lower level you go, the more closed source things tend to become.
But as you climb down into the abyss of low level hardcoreness, don't forget that making usefulness is more important than being hardcore: Figure 1. "xkcd 378: Real Programmers".
First, the most important thing you should know about this subject: cirosantilli.com/linux-kernel-module-cheat/should-you-waste-your-life-with-systems-programming
Here's a summary from low-level to high-level:
Figure 1.
xkcd 378: Real Programmers
. Source.
Video 1.
How low can you go video by Ciro Santilli (2017)
. Source. In this infamous video Ciro has summarized the computer hierarchy.
This is a general principle of software/hardware design that Ciro feels holds wide applicability.
The most extreme case of this is of course the integrated circuit itself, in which it is essentially impossible (?) to observe the specific value of some indidual wire at some point.
Somewhat on the other extreme, we have high level programming languages running on top of an operating system: at this point, you can just GDB step debug your program, print the value of any variable/memory location, and fully understand anything that you want. Provided that you manage to easily reach that point of interest.
And for anything in between we have various intermediate levels of complication. The most notable perhaps being developing the operating system itself. At this level, you can't so easily step debug (although techniques do exist). For early boot or bootloaders for example, you might want to use JTAG for example on real hardware.
In parallel to this, there is also another very important pair of closely linked tradeoffs:
  • the lower level at which something is implemented, the faster it runs
  • emulation gives you observability back, at the cost of slower runtime
Emulation also has another potential downside: unless you are very careful at implementing things correctly, your model might not be representative of the real thing. Also, there may be important tradeoffs between how much the model looks like the real thing, and how fast it runs. For example, QEMU's use of binary translation allows it to run orders of magnitude faster than gem5. However, you are unable to make any predictions about system performance with QEMU, since you are not modelling key elements like the cache or CPU pipeline.
Instrumentation is another technique that has can be considered to achieve greater observability.
Instrumentation basically means adding loggers/print statements to certain points of interest of your hardware/software.
Instrumentation tends to slow execution down a bit, but way less than emulation.
The downside is that if the instrumentation does not provide you the data you need to debug, there's not much you can do, you will need to modify it, i.e. you don't get full visibility from instrumention.
This is unlike emulation that provides full observability.
The term loosely refers to certain layers of the computer abstraction layers hierarchy, usually high level hardware internals like CPU pipeline, caching and the memory system. Basically exactly what gem5 models.

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