What is an operating system? Hard to define precisely, because
operating systems arose historically as people needed to solve
problems associated with using computers.
Much of operating system history driven by relative cost factors
of hardware and people. Hardware started out fantastically expensive
relative to people and the relative cost has been decreasing ever
Relative costs drive the goals of the operating system.
In the beginning: Expensive Hardware, Cheap People
Goal: maximize hardware utilization.
Now: Cheap Hardware, Expensive People
Goal: make it easy for people to use computer.
In the early days of computer use, computers were
huge machines that are expensive to buy, run and maintain. Computer
used in single user, interactive mode. Programmers interact with the
machine at a very low level - flick console switches, dump cards into
card reader, etc. The interface is basically the raw hardware.
Problem: Code to manipulate external I/O devices. Is very complex, and
is a major source of programming difficulty.
Solution: Build a subroutine library (device
drivers) to manage the interaction with the I/O devices. The
library is loaded into the top of memory and stays there.
This is the first example of something that would grow into
an operating system.
Because the machine is so expensive, it is important to
keep it busy.
Problem: computer idles while programmer sets things up.
Poor utilization of huge investment.
Solution: Hire a specialized person to do setup. Faster
than programmer, but still a lot slower than the machine.
Solution: Build a batch monitor. Store jobs on a disk (spooling), have
computer read them in one at a time and execute them.
Big change in computer usage: debugging
now done offline from print outs and memory dumps.
No more instant feedback.
Problem: At any given time, job is actively using either
the CPU or an I/O device, and the rest of the machine is idle and
Solution: Allow the job to overlap computation and I/O. Buffering
and interrupt handling added to subroutine library.
Problem: one job can't keep both CPU and I/O devices busy.
(Have compute-bound jobs that tend to use only the CPU and
I/O-bound jobs that tend to use only the I/O devices.)
Get poor utilization either of CPU or I/O devices.
Solution: multiprogramming - several jobs share system.
Dynamically switch from one job to another when the running job
Big issue: protection. Don't want one job to affect the results of
another. Memory protection and relocation added to hardware, OS must
manage new hardware functionality. OS starts to become a significant
software system. OS also starts to take up significant resources on
Phase shift: Computers become much cheaper. People costs become
It becomes important to make computers easier to use and
to improve the productivity of the people. One big productivity
sink: having to wait for batch output (but is this really true?).
So, it is important to run interactively. But computers are still
so expensive that you can't buy one for every person. Solution:
Problem: Old batch schedulers were designed to run a job
for as long as it was utilizing the CPU effectively (in practice,
until it tried to do some I/O). But now, people need reasonable
response time from the computer.
Solution: Preemptive scheduling.
Problem: People need to have their data and programs around while
they use the computer.
Solution: Add file systems for quick access to data.
Computer becomes a repository for data, and people don't have to
use card decks or tapes to store their data.
Problem: The boss logs in and gets terrible response time
because the machine is overloaded.
Solution: Prioritized scheduling. The boss gets more of the
machine than the peons. But, CPU scheduling is just an example
of resource allocation problems. The timeshared machine was full
of limited resources (CPU time, disk space, physical memory space, etc.)
and it became the responsibility of the OS to mediate the allocation
of the resources. So, developed things like disk and physical memory
Overall, time sharing was a success. However, it was a limited success.
In practical terms, every timeshared computer became overloaded and
the response time dropped to annoying or unacceptable levels.
Hard-core hackers compensated by working at night, and we developed
a generation of pasty-looking, unhealthy insomniacs addicted to caffeine.
Computers become even cheaper. It becomes
practical to give one computer to each user.
Initial cost is very important in market.
Minimal hardware (no networking or hard disk, very slow microprocessors
and almost no memory)
shipped with minimal OS (MS-DOS). Protection, security
less of an issue. OS resource consumption becomes a big issue (computer
only has 640K of memory).
OS back to a shared subroutine library.
Hardware becomes cheaper and users more sophisticated.
People need to share data and information with other people.
Computers become more information transfer, manipulation and
storage devices rather than machines that perform arithmetic
operations. Networking becomes very important, and as sharing
becomes an important part of the experience so does
security. Operating systems become more sophisticated.
Start putting back features present in the old
time sharing systems (OS/2, Windows NT, even Unix).
Rise of network. Internet is a huge popular phenomenon and drives
new ways of thinking about computing. Operating system is no
longer interface to the lower level machine - people structure
systems to contain layers of middleware. So, a Java API
or something similar may be
the primary thing people need, not a set of system calls.
In fact, what the operating system is may become irrelevant as long
as it supports the right set of middleware.
Network computer. Concept of a box that gets all of its
resources over the network. No local file system, just network
interfaces to acquire all outside data. So have a slimmer version of
In the future, computers will become physically small and portable.
Operating systems will have to deal with issues like disconnected
operation and mobility. People will also start using information
with a psuedo-real time component like voice and video.
Operating systems will have to adjust to deliver acceptable
performance for these new forms of data.
What does a modern operating system do?
Provides Abstractions Hardware has low-level physical
resources with complicated, idiosyncratic interfaces. OS provides
abstractions that present clean interfaces. Goal: make computer
easier to use.
Examples: Processes, Unbounded Memory, Files, Synchronization and Communication Mechanisms.
Provides Standard Interface Goal: portability. Unix runs on
many very different computer systems. To a first approximation can
port programs across systems with little effort.
Mediates Resource Usage Goal: allow multiple users to
share resources fairly, efficiently, safely and securely. Examples:
Multiple processes share one processor. (preemptable resource)
Multiple programs share one physical memory (preemptable resource).
Multiple users and files share one disk. (non-preemptable resource)
Multiple programs share a given amount of disk and
network bandwidth (preemptable resource).
Solaris takes up about 8Mbytes physical memory (or about $400).
Abstractions often work well - for example,
timesharing, virtual memory and hierarchical and networked file systems.
But, may break down if stressed. Timesharing gives poor performance
if too many users run compute-intensive jobs. Virtual memory breaks
down if working set is too large (thrashing), or if there are too many large
processes (machine runs out of swap space).
Abstractions often fail for
Abstractions also fail because they prevent programmer from
controlling machine at desired level. Example: database systems often
want to control movement of information between disk and physical
memory, and the paging system can get in the way. More recently,
existing OS schedulers fail to adequately support
multimedia and parallel processing needs, causing poor performance.
Concurrency and asynchrony make operating systems
very complicated pieces of software. Operating systems are fundamentally
non-deterministic and event driven. Can be difficult to construct
(hundreds of person-years of effort) and impossible to completely
debug. Examples of concurrency and asynchrony:
I/O devices run concurrently with CPU, interrupting CPU when done.
On a multiprocessor multiple user processes execute in parallel.
Multiple workstations execute concurrently and communicate by
sending messages over a network. Protocol processing takes place
Operating systems are so large no one person understands whole system.
Outlives any of its original builders.
The major problem facing computer science today is how to build
large, reliable software systems. Operating systems are one of
very few examples of existing large software systems, and by
studying operating systems we may learn lessons applicable to the
construction of larger systems.