In computing, the kernel is the central component of most computer operating systems; it is a bridge between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level. The kernel's responsibilities include managing the system's resources (the communication between hardware and software components). Usually as a basic component of an operating system, a kernel can provide the lowest-level abstraction layer for the resources (especially processors and I/O devices) that application software must control to perform its function. It typically makes these facilities available to application processes through inter-process communication mechanisms and system calls.
Operating system tasks are done differently by different kernels, depending on their design and implementation. While monolithic kernels execute all the operating system code in the same address space to increase the performance of the system, microkernels run most of the operating system services in user space as servers, aiming to improve maintainability and modularity of the operating system. A range of possibilities exists between these two extremes.
On the definition of "kernel", Jochen Liedtke said that the word is "traditionally used to denote the part of the operating system that is mandatory and common to all other software." Most operating systems rely on this concept of the kernel. The existence of a kernel is a natural consequence of designing a computer system as a series of abstraction layers, each relying on the functions of layers beneath it. The kernel, from this viewpoint, is simply the name given to the lowest level of abstraction that is implemented in software. In order to avoid having a kernel, one would have to design all the software on the system not to use abstraction layers; this would increase the complexity of the design to such a point that only the simplest systems could feasibly be implemented.
While it is today mostly called the kernel, originally the same part of the operating system was also called the nucleus or core and was originally conceived as containing only the essential support features of the operating system. However the term core has also been used to refer to the primary memory of a computer system, because some early computers used a form of memory called core memory.
In most cases, the boot loader starts executing the kernel in supervisor mode. The kernel then initializes itself and starts the first process. After this, the kernel does not typically execute directly, only in response to external events (e.g., via system calls used by applications to request services from the kernel, or via interrupts used by the hardware to notify the kernel of events). Additionally, the kernel typically provides a loop that is executed whenever no processes are available to run; this is often called the idle process.
Kernel development is considered one of the most complex and difficult tasks in programming. Its central position in an operating system implies the necessity for good performance, which defines the kernel as a critical piece of software and makes its correct design and implementation difficult. For various reasons, a kernel might not even be able to use the abstraction mechanisms it provides to other software. Such reasons include memory management concerns (for example, a user-mode function might rely on memory being subject to demand paging, but as the kernel itself provides that facility it cannot use it, because then it might not remain in memory to provide that facility) and lack of reentrancy, thus making its development even more difficult for software engineers.
A kernel will usually provide features for low-level scheduling of processes (dispatching), inter-process communication, process synchronization, context switching, manipulation of process control blocks, interrupt handling, process creation and destruction, and process suspension and resumption.
Kernel basic facilities
The kernel's primary purpose is to manage the computer's resources and allow other programs to run and use these resources. Typically, the resources consist of:
- The Central Processing Unit (CPU, the processor). This is the most central part of a computer system, responsible for running or executing programs on it. The kernel takes responsibility for deciding at any time which of the many running programs should be allocated to the processor or processors (each of which can usually run only one program at a time)
- The computer's memory. Memory is used to store both program instructions and data. Typically, both need to be present in memory in order for a program to execute. Often multiple programs will want access to memory, frequently demanding more memory than the computer has available. The kernel is responsible for deciding which memory each process can use, and determining what to do when not enough is available.
- Any Input/Output (I/O) devices present in the computer, such as keyboard, mouse, disk drives, printers, displays, etc. The kernel allocates requests from applications to perform I/O to an appropriate device (or subsection of a device, in the case of files on a disk or windows on a display) and provides convenient methods for using the device (typically abstracted to the point where the application does not need to know implementation details of the device).
Key aspects necessary in resource managements are the definition of an execution domain (address space) and the protection mechanism used to mediate the accesses to the resources within a domain.
A kernel may implement these features itself, or rely on some of the processes it runs to provide the facilities to other processes, although in this case it must provide some means of IPC to allow processes to access the facilities provided by each other.
Finally, a kernel must provide running programs with a method to make requests to access these facilities.
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