Many modern turbo diesel engines are primarily controlled by an ECU. Since the introduction of electronic diesel injection systems some time ago, the way has been opened for diesel performance chips. The ECU is quite literally a small computer.
Inside the ECU can be information on all aspects of the vehicle, from simple data such as model, year and engine type to more complex data relating to the exact time in the engine cycle that injection is to begin and the quantity of fuel to be injected.
Changing information is recieved from engine management sensors such as throttle position, air flow and engine speed, and the ECU uses these inputs to determine optimum values for how much fuel to inject. To do this the ECU compares the recieved information to large areas of pre-determined reference data stored within a chip on the circuitboard.
These areas of data are known as memory maps - you may have heard of vehicle "mapping". As the inputs are constantly changing during driving, so are the values returned from these memory maps, meaning that the settings for fuel injecton and timing will remain appropriate to any particular driving situation. In slightly older diesel engines that are operated by means of a mechanical fuel injection pump the fuelling is not controlled by an ECU, and so these cannot be upgraded in this way.