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How Operating Systems Work

How Operating Systems Work

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Published by: Chandra Prakash Khatri on Jun 17, 2010
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How Operating Systems Work  byCurt Franklin
 The operating system defines our computing experience. It's the firstsoftware we see when we turn on the computer, and the last softwarewe see when the computer is turned off. It's the software that enablesall the programs we use. The operating system organizes and controlsthe hardware on our desks and in our hands, yet most users can't saywith any certainty precisely what it is that the operating system does.In this edition of 
, we'll tell you what a piece of software must do to be called an operating system, and show you howthe operating system works to turn a collection of hardware into apowerful computing tool!
 The Bare Bones
It's important to realize that not all computers have operating systems. The computer that controls themicrowave ovenin your kitchen, forexample, doesn't need an operating system. It has one set of relativelysimple tasks to perform, very simple input and output methods (akeypad and anLCDscreen), and simple, never-changing hardware tocontrol. For a computer like this, an operating system would beunnecessary baggage, adding complexity where none is required.Instead, the computer in a microwave oven simply runs a singleprogram all the time.For computer systems that go beyond the complexity of themicrowave, however, an operating system can be the key to greateroperating efficiency and easier application development. Alldesktopcomputershave operating systems. The most common are theWindowsfamily of operating systems, theUNIXfamily of operating systems and theMacintoshoperatingsystems. There are hundreds of otheroperating systems available for special-purpose applications, includingspecializations for mainframes, robotics,manufacturing, real-time control systemsand so on.At the simplest level, an operating systemdoes two things:
It manages the hardware and software resources of the computer system. Theseresources include such things as the processor, memory, disk space, etc.
It provides a stable, consistent way for applications to deal with the hardware
 
without having to know all the details of the hardware.The first task,
managing the hardware and software resources
, is very important, asvarious  programsand input methods compete for the attention of the central processing unit(CPU) and demand memory, storage and input/output (I/O) bandwidth for their own purposes. In this capacity, the operating system plays the role of the good parent, makingsure that each application gets the necessary resources while playing nicely with all theother applications, as well as husbanding the limited capacity of the system to the greatestgood of all the users and applications.
 The second task,
providing a consistent application interface
, isespecially important if there is to be more than one of a particular typeof computer using the operating system, or if the hardware making upthe computer is ever open to change. A consistent application programinterface (
API
) allows a software developer to write an application onone computer and have a high level of confidence that it will run onanother computer of the same type, even if the amount of memory orthe quantity of storage is different on the two machines. Even if aparticular computer is unique, an operating system can ensure thatapplications continue to run when hardware upgrades and updatesoccur, because the operating system and not the application is chargedwith managing the hardware and the distribution of its resources.Windows 98 is a great example of the flexibility an operating systemprovides. Windows 98 runs on hardware from thousands of vendors. Itcan accommodate thousands of differentprinters,disk drivesand special peripherals in any possible combination.Within the broad family of operating systems, there are generally fourtypes, categorized based on the types of computers they control andthe sort of applications they support. The broad categories are:
Real-time operating system
(RTOS) - Real-time operating systems are used tocontrol machinery, scientific instruments and industrial systems. An RTOStypically has very little user-interface capability, and no end-user utilities, sincethe system will be a "sealed box" when delivered for use. A very important part of an RTOS is managing the resources of the computer so that a particular operationexecutes in precisely the same amount of time every time it occurs. In a complexmachine, having a part move more quickly just because system resources areavailable may be just as catastrophic as having it not move at all because thesystem is busy.
Single-user, single task 
- As the name implies, this operating system is designedto manage the computer so that one user can effectively do one thing at a time.The Palm OS for Palm handheld computersis a good example of a modern single- user, single-task operating system.
Single-user, multi-tasking
- This is the type of operating system most people useon their desktopandlaptopcomputers today. Windows 98 and the MacOS are  both examples of an operating system that will let a single user have several programs in operation at the same time. For example, it's entirely possible for a
 
Windows user to be writing a note in a word processor while downloading a filefrom the Internet while printing the text of ane-mailmessage.
Multi-user
- A multi-user operating system allows many different users to takeadvantage of the computer's resources simultaneously. The operating system mustmake sure that the requirements of the various users are balanced, and that each of the programs they are using has sufficient and separate resources so that a problem with one user doesn't affect the entire community of users. Unix, VMS,and mainframe operating systems, such as MVS, are examples of multi-user operating systems.It's important to differentiate here between multi-user operating systems and single-user operating systems that support networking.Windows 2000 and Novell Netware can each support hundreds or thousands of networked users, but the operating systems themselvesaren't true multi-user operating systems. The system administrator is the only "user" for Windows 2000 or Netware. The network support and all of the remote user logins thenetwork enables are, in the overall plan of the operating system, a program being run bythe administrative user.
With the different types of operating systems in mind, it's time to lookat the basic functions provided by an operating system.
Wake-Up Call
When thepower to a computeris turned on, the first program that runsis usually a set of instructions kept in the computer's
read-onlymemory
(ROM) that examines the system hardware to make sureeverything is functioning properly. This
power-on self test
(POST)checks theCPU,memory, andbasic input-output systems(BIOS) for errors and stores the result in a special memory location. Once thePOST has successfully completed, the software loaded in ROM(sometimes called
firmware
) will begin to activate the computer's diskdrives. In most modern computers, when the computer activates thehard disk drive, it finds the first piece of the operating system: thebootstrap loader. The
bootstrap loader
is a small program that has a single function: Itloads the operating system into memory and allows it to beginoperation. In the most basic form, the bootstrap loader sets up thesmall driver programs that interface with and control the varioushardware subsystems of the computer. It sets up the divisions of memory that hold the operating system, user information andapplications. It establishes the data structures that will hold the myriadsignals, flags and semaphores that are used to communicate withinand between the subsystems and applications of the computer. Then itturns control of the computer over to the operating system. The operating system's tasks, in the most general sense, fall into sixcategories:
Processor management
 
Memory management
 

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