The word "architecture" typically refers to building design and construction. In the computing world, "architecture" also refers to design, but instead of buildings, it describes the design of computer systems. Computer architecture is a broad topic that includes everything from the relationship between multiple computers (such as a "client-server" model) to specific components inside a computer.
The most important type of hardware design is a computer's processor architecture. The design of the processor determines what software can run on the computer and what other hardware components are supported. For example, Intel's x86 processor architecture is the standard architecture used by most PCs. By using this design, computer manufacturers can create machines that include different hardware components, but run the same software. Several years ago, Apple switched from the PowerPC architecture to the x86 architecture to make the Macintosh platform more compatible with Windows PCs.
The architecture of the motherboard is also important in determining what hardware and software a computer system will support. The motherboard design is often called the "chipset" and defines what processor models and other components will work with the motherboard. For example, while two motherboards may both support x86 processors, one may only work with newer processor models. A newer chipset may also require faster RAM and a different type of video card than an older model.
NOTE: Most modern computers have 64-bit processors and chipsets, while earlier computers used a 32-bit architecture. A computer with a 64-bit chipset supports far more memory than one with a 32-bit chipset and can run software designed specifically for 64-bit processors.
Updated: April 4, 2012