The adjectives big-endian and little-endian refer to which bytes are most significant in multi-byte data types and describe the order in which a sequence of bytes is stored in a computer’s memory.
In a big-endian system, the most significant value in the sequence is stored at the lowest storage address (i.e., first). In a little-endian system, the least significant value in the sequence is stored first. For example, consider the number 1025 (2 to the tenth power plus one) stored in a 4-byte integer:
00000000 00000000 00000100 00000001
|Address||Big-Endian representation of 1025 ||Little-Endian representation of 1025 |
Many mainframe computers, particularly IBM mainframes, use a big-endian architecture. Most modern computers, including PCs, use the little-endian system. The PowerPC system is bi-endian because it can understand both systems.
Converting data between the two systems is sometimes referred to as the NUXI problem. Imagine the word UNIX stored in two 2-byte words. In a Big-Endian systems, it would be stored as UNIX. In a little-endian system, it would be stored as NUXI.
Note that the example above shows only big- and little-endian byte orders. The bit ordering within each byte can also be big- or little-endian, and some architectures actually use big-endian ordering for bits and little-endian ordering for bytes, or vice versa.
The terms big-endian and little-endian are derived from the Lilliputians of Gulliver's Travels, whose major political issue was whether soft-boiled eggs should be opened on the big side or the little side. Likewise, the big-/little-endian computer debate has much more to do with political issues than technological merits.