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Introduction to Operating Systems

An operating system is software that acts as an intermediary between a computer user and the computer's applications and hardware.

Operating system

The basic computer hardware consists of a Central Processing Unit (CPU), temporary memory storage, and semi-permanent storage such a hard disk where files can be stored. The user interface to the computer might consist of a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Allications may be word processors, spreadsheets, databases, web browser, and so on.

Types of Computers and Operating Systems

A workstation is a computer that is connected to a network of other workstations and servers. The operating system facilitates the sharing of resources on the network such as file storage and printers. A workstation would have a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

A server is a computer that provides resources to workstations and devices on a network These resources may be applications, databases, file storage, mail systems, web services, and many more. A server would be accessed by system administrators that might use a Command Line (CMD) interface.

Smartphones and tablets are mobile devices that connect to networks through cellular and wireless technologies. Mobile devices have specialized operating systems. The user interface for a mobile device is usually a touch screen.

Embedded controllers are used in automobiles and other devices. An embedded controller usually uses a Microcontroller Unit (MCU) rather than a CPU. Embedded systems use specialized operating systems designed to control these devices and usually have no fixed user interface. The first embedded microcontroller chip was the TMS1802NC developed by Texas Instruments in 1971.

What an Operating System Does

We can view an operating system as a resource allocator. Resources might be CPU time, memory space, file storage space, and input/output (I/O) devices. The operating system loads and executes applications and processes and manages memory allocation and file storage. It also controls I/O devices such as display screens, printers, and audio systems.

Common Operating Systems

Unix, developed by Bell Labs in the 1970s
Windows, developed by Microsoft in 1985
Linux, free and open-source OS developed at the University of Helsinki in 1991
Android, a mobile OS based on Linux and developed by Google in 2008
Apple IOS, developed by Apple in 2007

What an Operating System Consists Of

Because most operating systems are large and complex they consist of many components. The core software component of an operating system is called the kernel. The kernel is loaded by a boot program that is stored in firmware. Firmware is permanent software stored in read-only memory.

Once the kernel is loaded, it loads other system programs, called system processes or daemons, to provide services to the operating system. Next user applications may be loaded either by the operating system or by users. The applications usually load additional services as required. An operating system can serve multiple users and run many applications and services simultaneously.

One of the most important things an operating system does is to prevent different processes from interfering with each other. To do this, each process is given a privilege level. Processes with the highest privilege level can be controlled only by the kernel. Other processes have lower privilege levels that do not allow them to interfere with any other processes that are running in the system. These processes can not overwrite other processes memory areas or files, and can access only system resources as dictated by system privileges levels.

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