Basics: What is an OS?

Dec 05 2013 Published by under Programming

A reader of this blog apparently likes the way I explain things, and wrote to me to ask a question: what is an operating system? And how does a computer know how to load it?

I'm going to answer that, but I'm going to do it in a roundabout way. The usual answer is something like: "An operating system or OS is a software program that enables the computer hardware to communicate and operate with the computer software." In my opinion, that's a cop-out: it doesn't really answer anything. I'm going to take a somewhat roundabout approach, but hopefully give you an answer that actually explains things in more detail, which should help you understand it better.

When someone like me sets out to write a program, how can we do it? That sounds like an odd question, until you actually think about it. The core of the computer, the CPU, is a device which really can't do very much. It's a self-contained unit which can do lots of interesting mathematical and logical operations, but they all happen completely inside the CPU (how they happen inside the CPU is way beyond this post!). To get stuff in and out of the CPU, the only thing that the computer can do is read and write values from the computer's memory. That's really it.

So how do I get a program in to the computer? The computer can only read the program if it's in the computer's memory. And every way that I can get it into the memory involves the CPU!

Computers are built so that there are certain memory locations and operations that are used to interact with the outside world. They also have signal wires called interrupt pins where other devices (like disk drives) can apply a current to say "Hey, I've got something for you". The exact mechanics are, of course, complicated, and vary from CPU to CPU. But to give you an idea of what it's like, to read some data from disk, you'd do something like the following.

  1. Set aside a chunk of memory where the data should be stored after it's read. This is called a buffer.
  2. Figure out where the data you want to read is stored on the disk. You can identify disk locations as a number. (It's usually a bit more complicated than that, but we're trying to keep this simple.
  3. Write that number into a special memory location that's monitored by the disk drive controller.
  4. Wait until the disk controller signals you via an interrupt that the data is ready. The data will be stored in a special memory location, that can be altered by the disk. (Simplifying again, but this is sometimes called a DMA buffer.)
  5. Copy the data from the controller's DMA buffer into the application's memory buffer that you allocated.

When you down to that level, programming is an intricate dance! No one
wants to do that - it's too complicated, too error prone, and just generally
too painful. But there's a deeper problem: at this level, it's every program
for itself. How do you decide where on the disk to put your data? How can you
make sure that no one else is going to use that part of the disk? How can you
tell another program where to find the data that you stored?

You want to have something that creates the illusion of a much simpler computational world. Of course, under the covers, it's all going to be that incredibly messy stuff, but you want to cover it up. That's the job of an operating system: it's a layer between the hardware and the programs that you run that create a new computational world that's much easier to work in.

Instead of having to do the dance of mucking with the hard disk drive controller yourself, the operating system gives you a way of saying "Open a file named 'foo'", and then it takes that request, figures out where 'foo' is on the disk, talks to the disk drive, gets the data, and then hands you a buffer containing it. You don't need to know what kind of disk drive the data is coming from, how the name 'foo' maps to sectors of the disk. You don't need to know where the control memory locations for the drive are. You just let the operating system do that for you.

So, ultimately, this is the answer: The operating system is a program that runs on the computer, and creates the environment in which other programs can run. It does a lot of things to create a pleasant environment in which to write and run other programs. Among the multitude of services provided by most modern operating system are:

  1. Device input and output. This is what we talked about above: direct interaction with input and output devices is complicated and error prone; the operating system implements the input and output processes once, (hopefully) without errors, and then makes it easy for every other program to just use its correct implementation.
  2. Multitasking: your computer has enough power to do many things at once. Most modern computers have more than one CPU. (My current laptop has 4!) And most programs end up spending a lot of their time doing nothing: waiting for you to press a key, or waiting for the disk drive to send it data. The operating system creates sandboxes, called processes, and allows one program to run in each sandbox. It takes care of ensuring that each process gets to run on a CPU for a fair share of the time.
  3. Memory management. With more than one program running at the same time on your computer, you need to make sure that you're using memory that isn't also being used by some other program, and to make sure that no other program can alter the memory that you're using without your permission. The operating system decides what parts of memory can be used by which program.
  4. Filesystems. Your disk drive is really just a huge collection of small sections, each of which can store a fixed number of bits, encoded in some strange format dictated by the mechanics of the drive. The OS provides an abstraction that's a lot easier to deal with.

I think that's enough for one day. Tomorrow: how the computer knows how to run the OS when it gets switched on!

6 responses so far

  • What a great explanation! Looking forward to learning more about my precious, lovely electronic gizmos!

  • David Warman says:

    Back in the Wild West days of computing there was no abstraction layer between the programmers and the hardware. We had to manage every exquisite detail manually, even down to having to flip lots of switches and push many buttons before a computer could even begin to be ready to actually start running a useful program.

    In fact the proximity of the metal to the software was so intimate it was impossible to be just software, or just hardware. The hardware/software boundary today is if anything even more fragmented than it was back then, but unless you are in the rare position of having to build hardware from the ground up, today's abstractions allow most people to use computers effectively despite being blissfully unaware of the multitude of sins bandaged over by the OS of their choice.

    50 years designing these babies and I still think it's a miracle they work at all.

    Mark is taking us on the painful trip from that place to the magic that is so assumed today. With sugar coating.

  • It would also be pretty interesting to see a series on, "What is a compiler?" that is along the same lines. Pretty sure most of us know the rote definition, and maybe a bunch even know how to implement it, but from the same perspective you're taking would be interesting to hear.

  • spencerbliven says:

    Nice explanation. My only critique is that using 'sandbox' to describe the set of abstractions which let a program pretend that it is the only thing running on the computer is at least as jargony and confusing as 'process'.

  • AMW says:

    This is great! Thanks and please keep it up! And I second the compiler question.

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