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Basic Operating System Concepts:
All Operating systems
have some common functions. The older the OS, the fewer
functions. Figures 5.1 thru 5.5 show several views of ‘the
operating system’, with schematics showing the perspective from: User
Interface; RAM; the *ix Shell visualtization; a Windows GUI shell;
& with a generic ‘command processor’ loaded in RAM. The text
aggregates the functions into five basic components: User interface,
device management, file management, memory management, processor
Here’s a system analyst’s template that pretty much summed up the
devices and media used in systems of the 60s: punched card &
magnetic tape were used copiously; ‘display’, magnetic disk & drum,
and ‘terminal interrupt’ were used less often. Those ‘manual process’
blocks got heavy workout, usually meaning that some employee needed to
stand in front of a card sorter & tend ‘gang punches’ and other
heavy machinery used to read and punch records onto cards.
From the mid-70s onward, a template this size
can’t hold symbols for all the i/o and other devices of which the
modern OS must be ‘aware’: mouse, control keys, USB, CD, DVD, ZipDisk,
game controllers, serial ports, ethernet, &c, &c have been
interfaced with our popular OSs that make new technology easily
accessible to application developers and users.
Standardization in how the devices’ controllers work often allows
newer, more efficient technology to be deployed without any changes in
the OS’s device drivers. Examples of this are seen in devices
that attach to PCI bus, IDE controllers, SCSI, USB, and other hardware
interface interfaces in use today.
A modern OS goes well beyond static textbook schematics in complexity,
and when multiprogramming techniques like SMP are added into the mix
the OSs operations become so complex that schematics can’t show all
that’s going on and it’s hard for us to draw a picture of what’s going
on. There’s an old axiom about this: ‘the computer doesn’t have
to draw lines’. Instead, computers use data structures like
stacks, linked lists, ‘process status words’, and other techniques to
keep track of it all. OS developers must be able to
visualize, or otherwise make a ‘mental map’ of, the data structures and
instructions that were hinted at in the last chapters, when they write
the memory & processor management schemes that they can tailor the
OS to service each device supported by their platform.
Here are important concepts from the text:
- The User Interface
(1) is the most important OS component as far as we _users_ are
concerned. It might be graphical, or might be a
character-based. Most systems today provide a mix.
Figure 5.1 shows what the UI makes available for a system’s
users. That Device Management (2) box is right full these
days. File, memory, and processor management functions (3, 4,
& 5) round out the ‘classic’ OSs 5 components, and each is
optimized for the particular platform at hand.
In this figure, the text puts the UI at the top of the hierarchy, and
shows the four other OS functions under the UI.
- Another important OS interface does _not_
interface with the User. Application Program Interfaces
are alternate interfaces that software developers provide so that
_programs_ can use programs as well as users. For example,
Microsoft’s Excel provides APIs so that a script written in VisualBasic
or VB.NET can easily open an Excel workbook and read/write on the
worksheets, using any formulas or macros that may be in the worksheets’
- The Shell interfaces
the computer with that most complex of ‘devices’, the User. A shell
accepts users’ commands in the format and syntax of its ‘command
language’ (which might include mouseclicks) and can give some kind of
error message if an improperly formatted or unknown command is issued,
or if the user doesn’t have sufficient privilege to use the
These days, shells are either ‘character based’ or ‘GUI’ (Graphical
User Interface), as in Windows, a Linux workstation running Gnome or
KDE, or a Mac.
- A character-based shell generally uses a
‘command line’ interface where the commands typed are generally the
name of a program to load and run. A Linux ‘console
session’ uses a command line interface, and may be entered on a PC’s
monitor, or remotely from another Linux machine or a Windows machine
running ‘terminal emulation software’ like putty.exe or Windows’ secure
A prompt ($, %, # are common in unix) lets the user know that the
system is waiting for their command. Users type in their command
a character at a time, perhaps assistied by ‘tab completion’ or
‘scrolling thru a command stack’, and commands are ‘submitted’ to
the shell when the user hits the Enter key.
On Windows machines, the norm is to use the GUI, discussed next, but
there are occasions in system or network management when a command line
interface is more desirable than the GUI. Windows 95 & 98
continued to provide DOS ‘underneath’ Windows and the icon to get to a
Windows command line is labelled ‘DOS Command Line’ (needs
verification). On XP, there is no more DOS, per se,
although DOS shell commands and scripts are generally supported.
Now, the command line appears when you choose the ‘Command Window’.
- A graphical-based shell (GUI) adds options
where the user can double-click on an icon, or click on a link or menu
choice, or use a ‘keyboard shortcut’ to call up a program in these
‘object oriented’ environments. A command line is available, but
most users use the GUI. When a choice has been made, the OS
looks at the properties of the icon or shortcut to discover the
‘target’ OS function or program to load and run for the user. (In
Windows, right-click on an icon to see its properties. The target
will likely be a full path to an executable or batch file that the OS
- Commands might be ‘built into’ the OS (, or
they might be files kept in directories on the user’s
‘path’. For example: in Windows the ‘copy’ command is built
into the OS and doesn’t have a separate file for the command; the
‘format’ command’s code is kept in c:WindowsSystem32 along with other
In Linux, practically all the commands are external and the most
commonly used are in /bin, with those likely to be used by a super user
kept in /sbin.
When a command has been issued by a user, the OS first checks to see if
the command is built into the OS, as many of the most primitive
functions are. If it is, it’s executed instantly.
Otherwise, it looks on the user’s ‘path’, in order, to find a
match. The path is part of a user’s ‘environment’ and the OS
starts searching for external commands at the beginning of a user’s
path and executes the first match it encounters.
In windows, open a dos or command prompt window and type ‘path’ to see
the path that you have, or your systems administrator has, set up for
you. In Linux, type ‘set’ to see all the setting for your
environment, and find the PATH line.
We’ll take a side-trip in class looking at commands, and will make new
commands by editing ‘batch files’ on Windows XP and Linux platforms.
- Device Management
functions allow the computer to communicate with a platform’s
‘peripheral’ devices like disk drives, network interfaces, serial
ports, or devices on a SCSI bus or USB. Notice that memory
& processor are not peripheral, they are at the center of the CPU’s
influence, and get their own OS functions.
The best news about device management is that it is practically
automatic on popular platforms, or they wouldn’t be popular.
Windows and desktop Linux distributions have processes (kudzu is one in
Linux) that recognize that new devices have been added, or that old
ones have been removed, and automatically adjust the OS configuration
and load drivers to accommodate the changes.
In Windows, the Device Manager is used to show and configure devices
attached to the system. We’ll look at this briefly in
Linux keeps track of all its devices (and processes) in the /proc and
/dev directories, and super users can use various programs, similar to
Windows’ Device Manager, to configure interfaces or load drivers for
printers and other devices that need them. We’ll look at some of
Along with other descriptive stuff, the text addresses two concepts I’d
like to discuss further: IOCS (I/O Control System), Logical vs.
Physical I/O, and Interrupts.
Desktop PCs used to support Windows & Linux platforms have a BIOS
(Basic I/O System) to handle the ‘basic’ devices used in the bootup
process: keyboard, mouse, disk, & monitor. The BIOS is a
relatively simple program burned onto a ROM or EPROM, that starts
running when the mainboard is first powered up, or when it is
reset. The BIOS has enough intelligence to display bootup
progress and watch the keyboard for a user’s keystrokes like
‘delete key’ or ‘F8’ that have significance for the BIOS at hand.
The BIOS knows how to find a ‘bootable device’ (which may be a CD,
floppy, or hard disk) and start the software on that device, which is
usually an OS like Windows or Linux that can handle more of the less
An IOCS is made up of OS code with primitive commands to communicate
directly with controllers for all the peripheral devices likely to be
attached to a platform. This way, application programmers can
usually write their programs to issue ‘logical requests’ for I/O
without having to know the primitives that handle ‘physical I/O’ on the
devices their code accesses.
Think back to the ‘cylinder, surface, sector’ organization of blocked
data on a hard disk. The portion of the IOCS that handles disk
access knows how to take a program’s open & read statements
(logical I/O), convert them to the primitive commands understood by the
disk controller, and move blocks of data among disk to RAM (physical
I/O) where they are available for the script that is being executed.
are signals passed to a CPU to let it know that a device or a process
needs its attention. Hardware and software can ‘raise an
interrupt’ that is (as) immediately (as possible) processed by a CPU
according to the protocol that has been established for that
For example, when network traffic arrives over a LAN the NIC buffers
the incoming traffic and ‘raises an interrupt’ so that the CPU can
process the data. Whenever you touch a key on a PC’s keyboard an
interrupt is generated so that the OS can handle the keystroke for you.
‘Hardware Interrupts’ are some of the most limited ‘real estate’ on any
platform since each is represented by a trace on the bust. An
intel 8086 processor only provided 16 hardware interrupts, IRQ0 thru
IRQ15. Here is a listing
of hardware and software interrupts for the 8086. It was easy to have
‘conflicts in IRQ settings’ on PCs with lots of interface cards in
Today’s Pentiums have more, and looking at the control panel, system
folder, device manager, and choosing view by type or connection will
show how the 24 (?need to verify this) interrupts are assigned on
your PC. Also, the PCI bus and BIOS can do some ‘IRQ Steering’
automatically to keep network admins from pulling out their hair.
There are many more ‘software interrupts’ available than hardware, as
you may notice in the above listing.
Interrupt processing is relatively ‘expensive’ for a CPU since whatever
the CPU is doing is literally interrupted when an interrupt is
received. When multiple interupts are generated at nearly the
same instant they are queued.
This is a great simplification of ‘interrupt processing’: the OS 1)
saves the status of the ‘current’ program it is running and may have to
save any data in the CPU that is associated with it, 2) transfers
control to an appropriate I/O routine for the device on that interrupt,
3) handles the interrupt request, and 4) after the interrupt is
serviced the current program is reloaded and processing
How and where interrupts are processed varies depending on a platform’s
configuration. For example, a desktop PC running Windows passes
an interrupt to the CPU for every keystroke a user makes.
Keystrokes made in a system running on a host minicomputer with
dedicated ‘terminal I/O controllers’ interrupt an I/O controller, which
responds by storing the keystroke in a buffer and echoing it to the
users’ displays. Most of these ‘intelligent I/O controllers’ can handle
more complex tasks, like the backspace or other edit keys. The
processor on the I/O controller interrupts the CPU only when users hit
their Enter keys. Then the contents of the buffer for that
keyboard are transmitted all at once to the CPU when it acknowledges
Disk, network, tape, and other controllers on larger machines are
likely to have dedicated microprocessors that perform similar to an
intelligent keyboard controller. They can handle interrupts from
the devices on their channel until everything has been queued up to
send along to a CPU, which only gets one interrupt instead of dozens or
hundred handled by the peripheral controller.
- File Systems are
associated with platforms. A particular platform may support
several files systems that may sound familiar, and some platforms can
accommodate ‘foreign’ file systems.
Linux distributions currently use the ext3 file system, but there are
other options available to a system administrator when a disk drive is
Windows’ single user OSs have used FAT (File Allocation Table), and
more lately FAT32 as their file systems. Windows’ servers use
NTFS, which adds features needed to secure and backup files in a
multi-user environment. A ‘hybrid’ Windows like XP Pro allows
disk partitions to be formatted as either FAT32 or NTFS, and some users
keep the FAT because it’s sometimes faster since it doesn’t have as
much to do. Longhorn will come with an entirely new file system
when it’s released that will facilitate the searching and browsing we’d
like to see easier and faster .
File system management functions extend at the ‘logical side’ of the
IOCS, and allow the OS and application programs to reference data files
by ‘directory path’ and ‘name’ and leave all the physical & logical
i/o to the OS.
Directories, or folders, are a common feature on most OSs. A
‘disk directory’ forms the ‘root’ of a ‘tree structured’ directory in
most of them. The file system knows how to search this tree very
quickly, finding a file by name and returning the drive, partition,
cylinder, and sector where a file starts.
A multi-user file system must be able to handle issues of ‘file
locking’ or ‘record locking’ so that it is clearly evident when a file
or record sought by one user is being updated by some other user.
This isn’t a problem for a single-user system like Windows98 running on
a desktop PC.
Linux/Unix extends the ‘file system’ concept to almost any device that
can be attached to it can be opened, read from, and written to without
too much concern by the application programmer. They also provide
for the creation of ‘named pipes’ and ‘sockets’ via system bus, LAN, or
The Internet so that programs, running on one machine or many, can
easily move data among themselves without programmers having to be
concerned with the physical i/o involved.
Linux divides all devices into two classes: character devices handle
‘streams’ of data, like keyboards, usb, or a video camera; block
devices transfer data in blocks, like disk, tape, or ramdisk (areas of
RAM formatted like a file system).
Block devices always transfer data in fixed-sized blocks. A tape drive
block might be 16,384 bytes. A disk might be formatted for blocks of
512, 1024, 2048, or more bytes.
Character devices transfer data one byte at a time and use some signal
specified in the devices protocol to indicate where one data structure
begins and another ends. Keyboards typically use ascii
character 12 (carriage return, generated by the enter key) to signal
the end of a line of text. Video devices, scanners, and other
character devices use signals expected by their drivers.
Programmers writing applications for the devices
Since all Unix devices are defined in a directory in ‘the file system’
(/dev) programmers can reference most devices in their code using
similar notation. A data file might be named like
/home/AStudent/web/index.html. A tape drive might be named like
/dev/st0 or /dev/st1, literally ‘SCSI Tape zero’ and ‘SCSI Tape
One’. A serial port might be named like /dev/ttys1 or
/dev/ttyS1, depending on how the device attached to it is
confgured. For most purposes in Unix or Linux, the same ‘open’
and ‘read’ statements are used to get data from any of them into RAM
where a program can use them.
- The term Boot Process
comes from the old adage: lift yourself up by your own
bootstraps. ‘Bootstrap loaders’ are common on most platforms
today. We just hit the power switch and the machine ‘boots up.’
In the good old days, a systems administrator for something like a DEC
PDP-8 started one of these big beasts by hitting the power switch, but
then nothing else happened. We had to toggle a ‘starting address’
into switches on the computer’s chassis before hitting the ‘load &
run’ button. The starting address might be for a tape drive if a
new OS was being installed from a tape, or the address of the
controller for the disk drive holding the OS for an ordinary day’s
run. (I stuck a red dot on the switches that needed to be pressed
so I could talk somebody easily through the process if the machine had
to be rebooted in my absence.)
Today, boot processing is mostly automatic on most platforms, and on a
Windows or Linux-based PC it is handled by the BIOS. The BIOS on
a mainboard for an Intel processor lets the user set and save a ‘bootup
sequence’ that will be followed whenever the machine is powered up or
reset. It was common a few years back to keep it set to look for
a ‘bootable diskette’ in A: first and boot with it if found.
Then, C: (the hard drive) would be checked if the floppy drive is
empty. Today, the sequence is more likely to go: CD/DVD, then
floppy (if at all), and then C:. Either of these allow the user
to ‘boot to a floppy’ or CD that will install software or hardware, or
perhaps pillage the machine, without having to load the complete OS
- Utilities are programs
that are distributed with the OS to handle routine file system
tasks. In Windows these are scattered among the accessories and
system tools folders, and are used to backup, defrag, or format disks,
or maybe recover ‘lost’ data. In Linux, there are several
utilities for backing up data (cpio, tar, cc, & backup) depending
on the requirements.
Some utility programs may be purchased, perhaps because the do a better
job than the one that distributed with the OS, or because the OS
doesn’t provide that utility. In Windows, for example, many
systems administrators use Veritas or other 3rd party software to do
backups of data since the backup utility in Windows is slow and clumsy
to use. In Linux, a systems administrator who needs to backup a
lot of machines might purchase software, or find an open source
solution like amanda to automate the process.
Windows users are used to buying virus scanners, which can be thought
of as utility programs, to make up for the lack of one in
- Memory Management
The text does a good job of outlining and detailing these
concepts. Read Chapter 6 and ask questions as needed.
Important basic terms are: resident vs. transient routines;
concurrency, partitions & regions; segmentation, address
translation, displacement, paging, memory protection.
Overlay structures are important for putting more code thru memory than
there is memory to handle it. Virtual Memory systems in
multi-processing OSs (most of them today) use techniques like these
along with ‘paging’ & ‘swapping’ that allows contents of ‘real
memory’ to be ‘paged in & out’ of areas set aside on disk for the
In a large host or server, paging is inevitable as the number of users
increases. On a desktop system, it becomes a problem when ‘too
many windows are open’ and we notice everything runs a _lot_
An important practical matter about paging is that ‘real memory’ access
is 1000s of times faster than ‘virtual memory’ access. Systems
that have to do a lot of paging are slower than those that don’t.
Multi-entrant coding techniques are used to minimize paging and help
keep system response snappy. Big mainframes can control swapping
between memory and disk by using RAMs that are gigabytes or terabytes
in size, but smaller CPUs don’t have this advantage quite yet.
Maybe next year, as the 64-bit Itanium and Athlon processors advance,
we’ll see huge RAMs on our PCs.
Where paging is excessive it’s referred to as ‘thrashing’. Couple
this thrashing with the interrupts generated by several users hitting a
host’s keyboards and the users will be posting those cartoons of a
skeleton covered with spider webs and the caption “How’s the system
response time today?” This provides a good argument to upgrade
the platform to one that can support enough memory & dedicated i/o
processors to handle the ‘user load.’
- Multi-programming is
common today on most platforms. Since Windows95 PCs have been
able to run more than one program at a time. Before that, a PC
user could have several programs ‘up’ at the same time, but only one at
a time would actually be running. Now, we’re used to having a few
windows open and seeing that they’re all running pretty much OK all the
Multi-user system have to do this multi-programming in spades.
They may have to keep track of thousands of users’ processes and give
the illusion that each user has access to the whole system at the same
The text does a good job of explaining how The Dispatcher, Control
Blocks, and Interrupts work together to support multi-processing.
- Time-Sharing platforms
are geared to providing the shortest possible ‘response time’ to the
largest number of users. They use techniques like
roll-in/roll-out, time-slicing, or polling to divide CPU attention
among the users. Minicomputer and mainframe platforms with their
multi-channels and dedicated i/o processors excel at time-sharing
applications and may provide thousands of users with subsecond response
time as they work on the system.
- Spooling is also
common on most platforms today. The most visible application is
the ‘print spooler’ that is provided on most OSs. When we print a
Word document in windows, it doesn’t ‘go directly to the printer’, but
is first written to disk & then copied to the printer. The
windows spooler is manifested in the Printers window, where a list of
‘spooled jobs’ will collect if the target printer is off-line because
of a paper jam or other problem. Large, multi-user platforms may
have to spool hundreds or thousands of print jobs among dozens or
hundreds of printers. They need to have ‘industrial strength’
interfaces to the print spooler so they can solve problems by
redirecting print jobs, or perhaps canceling one that goes wild.
(I can relate that many performance problems and system failures have
been caused by print jobs that ‘run wild’ and consume too much, or all
the available disk space!)
Spoolers also hold other types of data ‘in limbo’ on disk until they’re
accessed by their owners. In Linux, for example, /var/spool/mail
holds users’ email until they use an email client to move the email
into their own ‘folders’.
- Deadlock is,
hopefully, less and less common as platforms’ performance increases and
larger, faster machine become more affordable. When a
system, or one of its components, is overwhelmed is might not be able
to handle the user load. A disk that is too busy paging won’t
have time to retrieve programs or data needed by users — this might be
avoided by designating a separate disk for paging. Multi-user OSs
are programmed to avoid common causes of deadlock, such as more than
one process trying to access the same disk drive at the same time.
Recently, I’ve heard the term used to describe what happens when too
many users try to use an Access Database (designed for single user
access) at the same time. The solution here is to get a _real_
DBMS like SQL Server and stop trying to abuse Access.
Deadlock can sometimes be solved by ‘throwing hardware’ at the problem,
providing adequate resources for the users.
- Network Operating Systems (NOS) include
device drivers for network hardware, like NICs (Network Interface
Card), and they include software to send and receive data using various
network protocols. NOSs also include functions to ‘authenticate’
users & other machines, allow them to access system resources for
which they are ‘authorized’, and deny access to unauthorized users.
Before discussing NOS, here are a few paragraphs about their
precursors, ‘terminal emulators’. Many networks today use
terminal emulators to get access to host computers and/or servers made
available to users of the network. Before LANs and NOSs came on
the scene, host computers, mainframes and minicomputers, had for
decades been about the business of authenticating & authorizing
users and allowing them to access application software that ran on the
host to let them access data stored on the host’s devices.
As soon as PCs starting sitting on desktops there was a need to connect
them to some other computer. In the early ’80s I recollect lots
of PCs taking up space on desks along with a ‘terminal’, or ‘dumb
terminal’ used to get into some host mainframe or minicomputer.
It didn’t take long before software came along to save some of the
limited space on desks: ‘terminal emulation software’ and maybe an
interface card would be added to a PC so that it could ’emulate’, or
‘behave like’ the dumb terminal it would replace. For example, in
the School of Business, IRMA software and an interface card with a
co-axial connector were added to PCs and the IBM 3270 terminal could be
taken away. This way the PC could do all the PC stuff, like
word-processing & spreadsheeting, and could also be used as a
terminal on a host computer.
To attach to one of the many different ‘minicomputers’ of the time was
even easier. Most of these used a somewhat standard ‘serial
interface’, the typical PC had two ‘serial ports’ on its backside, and
all that was required to hook the PC up to a host minicomputer was
terminal emulation software that would use the serial port for I/O with
the minicomputer. Minicomputer manufacturers and third-part
software houses provided terminal emulation software that allowed a PC
to replace the terminals required.
This allowed a single PC to attach to one, or a few, ‘host
computers’. The host at the center of this star topology might,
or might not, have functions to let the PCs share files or other
resources. Many of them did, and for most intents and purposes,
offices rigged this way had ‘a network’ of PCs with a minicomputer at
the center. These networks were _not_ the LAN we’re familiar with
To be continued…