CPU Process Scheduling

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Whenever the CPU becomes idle, the operating system must select one of the processes in the ready queue to be executed. The selection process is carried out by the CPU scheduler, which selects a process from the processes in memory that are ready to execute and allocates the CPU to that process.

Note that the ready queue is not necessarily a first-in, first-out (FIFO) queue. As we shall see when we consider the various scheduling algorithms, a ready queue can be implemented as a FIFO queue, a priority queue, a tree, or simply an unordered linked list. Conceptually, however, all the processes in the ready queue are lined up waiting for a chance to run on the CPU. The records in the queues are generally process control blocks (PCBs) of the processes.

Preemptive and Nonpreemptive Scheduling

CPU-scheduling decisions may take place under the following four circumstances:

1. When a process switches from the running state to the waiting state (for example, as the result of an I/O request or an invocation of wait() for the termination of a child process).

2. When a process switches from the running state to the ready state (for example, when an interrupt occurs).

3. When a process switches from the waiting state to the ready state (for example, at completion of I/O).

4. When a process terminates.

For situations 1 and 4, there is no choice in terms of scheduling. A new process (if one exists in the ready queue) must be selected for execution. There is a choice, however, for situations 2 and 3.

When scheduling takes place only under circumstances 1 and 4, we say that the scheduling scheme is nonpreemptive or cooperative. Otherwise, it is preemptive. Under nonpreemptive scheduling, once the CPU has been allocated to a process, the process keeps the CPU until it releases it either by terminating or by switching to the waiting state. Virtually all modern operating systems including Windows, macOS, Linux, and UNIX use preemptive scheduling algorithms.

Unfortunately, preemptive scheduling can result in race conditions when data are shared among several processes. Consider the case of two processes that share data. While one process is updating the data, it is preempted so that the second process can run. The second process then tries to read the data, which are in an inconsistent state.

Preemption also affects the design of the operating-system kernel. During the processing of a system call, the kernel may be busy with an activity on behalf of a process. Such activities may involve changing important kernel data (for instance, I/O queues). What happens if the process is preempted in the middle of these changes and the kernel (or the device driver) needs to read or modify the same structure? Chaos ensues.

Operating-system kernels can be designed as either nonpreemptive or preemptive. A nonpreemptive kernel will wait for a system call to complete or for a process to block while waiting for I/O to complete to take place before doing a context switch. This scheme ensures that the kernel structure is simple, since the kernel will not preempt a process while the kernel data structures are in an inconsistent state.

Unfortunately, this kernel-execution model is a poor one for supporting real-time computing, where tasks must complete execution within a given time frame. A preemptive kernel requires mechanisms such as mutex (from mutual exclusion) locks to prevent race conditions when accessing shared kernel data structures. Most modern operating systems are now fully preemptive when running in kernel mode.

Because interrupts can, by definition, occur at any time, and because they cannot always be ignored by the kernel, the sections of code affected by interrupts must be guarded from simultaneous use. The operating system needs to accept interrupts at almost all times. Otherwise, input might be lost or output overwritten. So that these sections of code are not accessed concurrently by several processes, they disable interrupts at entry and reenable interrupts at exit. It is important to note that sections of code that disable interrupts do not occur very often and typically contain few instructions.

About the Authors

Abraham Silberschatz is the Sidney J. Weinberg Professor of Computer Science at Yale University. Prior to joining Yale, he was the Vice President of the Information Sciences Research Center at Bell Laboratories. Prior to that, he held a chaired professorship in the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Professor Silberschatz is a Fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), a Fellow of Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

Greg Gagne is chair of the Computer Science department at Westminster College in Salt Lake City where he has been teaching since 1990. In addition to teaching operating systems, he also teaches computer networks, parallel programming, and software engineering.

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