Executable file definition
An executable file is a computer file that contains a software application in a form that can be run (“executed”) by the host device’s operating system. To stop malware attacks, executable files are often digitally signed to verify their authenticity and integrity.
How executable files work
Executable files hold instructions for the host device’s CPU. Executable files only work for their designated operating system (such as Windows, macOS, or Linux) and, in some cases, a particular hardware architecture (like x86 or ARM).
When you open an executable file, the operating system loads it into memory and starts the execution process. The CPU reads and interprets the instructions within the file to run the software.
Executable file extensions indicate their format and the operating system they are designed for. For example, Windows executable files commonly have “.exe” extensions, macOS application bundles have the “.app” extension, while Linux executables may end with “.elf.”
Common executable file types
- Binary executables contain instructions in machine code instructions that are directly executed by the CPU.
- Script executables contain scripts written in Python, JavaScrit, or other scripting languages that are translated by a script interpreter utility.
- Dynamic Link Libraries (DLL) hold executable code and can thus be technically classified as executable files. They are found only on Windows devices.