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Refers to which bytes are most significant in multi-byte data types. In big-endian architectures, the leftmost bytes (those with a lower address) are most significant. In little-endian architectures, the rightmost bytes are most significant. For example, consider the number 1025 (2 to the tenth power plus one) stored in a 4-byte integer
00000000 00000000 00000100 00000001
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.
On Holy Wars and a Plea for Peace
Robelle's explanation of byte-order
Copyright 1998 Mecklermedia Corporation.