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Overview of Operating Systems and Kernels

Because of the ever-growing feature set and ill design of some modern commercial operating systems, the notion of what precisely defines an operating system is vague. Many users consider whatever they see on the screen to be the operating system. Technically speaking, and in this book, the operating system is considered the parts of the system responsible for basic use and administration. This includes the kernel and device drivers, boot loader, command shell or other user interface, and basic file and system utilities. It is the stuff you neednot a web browser or music players. The term system, in turn, refers to the operating system and all the applications running on top of it.

Of course, the topic of this book is the kernel. Whereas the user interface is the outermost portion of the operating system, the kernel is the innermost. It is the core internals; the software that provides basic services for all other parts of the system, manages hardware, and distributes system resources. The kernel is sometimes referred to as the supervisor, core, or internals of the operating system. Typical components of a kernel are interrupt handlers to service interrupt requests, a scheduler to share processor time among multiple processes, a memory management system to manage process address spaces, and system services such as networking and interprocess communication. On modern systems with protected memory management units, the kernel typically resides in an elevated system state compared to normal user applications. This includes a protected memory space and full access to the hardware. This system state and memory space is collectively referred to as kernel-space. Conversely, user applications execute in user-space. They see a subset of the machine's available resources and are unable to perform certain system functions, directly access hardware, or otherwise misbehave (without consequences, such as their death, anyhow). When executing the kernel, the system is in kernel-space executing in kernel mode, as opposed to normal user execution in user-space executing in user mode. Applications running on the system communicate with the kernel via system calls (see Figure 1.1). An application typically calls functions in a libraryfor example, the C librarythat in turn rely on the system call interface to instruct the kernel to carry out tasks on their behalf. Some library calls provide many features not found in the system call, and thus, calling into the kernel is just one step in an otherwise large function. For example, consider the familiar printf() function. It provides formatting and buffering of the data and only eventually calls write() to write the data to the console. Conversely, some library calls have a one-to-one relationship with the kernel. For example, the open() library function does nothing except call the open() system call. Still other C library functions, such as strcpy(), should (you hope) make no use of the kernel at all. When an application executes a system call, it is said that the kernel is executing on behalf of the application. Furthermore, the application is said to be executing a system call in kernel-space, and the kernel is running in process context. This relationshipthat applications call into the kernel via the system call interfaceis the fundamental manner in which applications get work done.

Figure 1.1. Relationship between applications, the kernel, and hardware.

The kernel also manages the system's hardware. Nearly all architectures, including all systems that Linux supports, provide the concept of interrupts. When hardware wants to communicate with the system, it issues an interrupt that asynchronously interrupts the kernel. Interrupts are identified by a number. The kernel uses the number to execute a specific interrupt handler to process and respond to the interrupt. For example, as you type, the keyboard controller issues an interrupt to let the system know that there is new data in the keyboard buffer. The kernel notes the interrupt number being issued and executes the correct interrupt handler. The interrupt handler processes the keyboard data and lets the keyboard controller know it is ready for more data. To provide synchronization, the kernel can usually disable interruptseither all interrupts or just one specific interrupt number. In many operating systems, including Linux, the interrupt handlers do not run in a process context. Instead, they run in a special interrupt context that is not associated with any process. This special context exists solely to let an interrupt handler quickly respond to an interrupt, and then exit.

These contexts represent the breadth of the kernel's activities. In fact, in Linux, we can generalize that each processor is doing one of three things at any given moment:

  • In kernel-space, in process context, executing on behalf of a specific process

  • In kernel-space, in interrupt context, not associated with a process, handling an interrupt

  • In user-space, executing user code in a process

This list is inclusive. Even corner cases fit into one of these three activities: For example, when idle, it turns out that the kernel is executing an idle process in process context in the kernel.

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