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Definition

What is a kernel?

The kernel is the essential foundation of a computer's operating system (OS). It is the core that provides basic services for all other parts of the OS. It is the main layer between the OS and underlying computer hardware, and it helps with tasks such as process and memory management, file systems, device control and networking.

During normal system startup, a computer's basic input/output system, or BIOS, completes a hardware bootstrap or initialization. It then runs a bootloader which loads the kernel from a storage device -- such as a hard drive -- into a protected memory space. Once the kernel is loaded into computer memory, the BIOS transfers control to the kernel. It then loads other OS components to complete the system startup and make control available to users through a desktop or other user interface.

If the kernel is damaged or cannot load successfully, the computer will be unable to start completely -- if at all. This will require service to correct hardware damage or restore the operating system kernel to a working version.

Kernel architecture
A kernel serves as the bridge between the operating system and hardware.

What is the purpose of the kernel?

In broad terms, an OS kernel performs three primary jobs.

  1. It provides the interfaces needed for users and applications to interact with the computer.
  2. It launches and manages applications.
  3. It manages the underlying system hardware devices.

In more granular terms, accomplishing these three kernel functions involves a range of computer tasks, including the following:

  • loading and managing less-critical OS components, such as device drivers;
  • organizing and managing threads and the various processes spawned by running applications;
  • scheduling which applications can access and use the kernel, and supervising that use when the scheduled time occurs;
  • deciding which nonprotected user memory space each application process uses;
  • handling conflicts and errors in memory allocation and management;
  • managing and optimizing hardware resources and dependencies, such as central processing unit (CPU) and cache use, file system operation and network transport mechanisms;
  • managing and accessing input/output devices such as keyboards, mice, disk drives, USB ports, network adapters and displays; and
  • handling device and application system calls using various mechanisms such as hardware interrupts or device drivers.

Scheduling and management are central to the kernel's operation. Computer hardware can only do one thing at a time. However, a computer's OS components and applications can spawn dozens and even hundreds of processes that the computer must host. It's impossible for all of those processes to use the computer's hardware -- such as a memory address or CPU instruction pipeline -- at the same time. The kernel is the central manager of these processes. It knows which hardware resources are available and which processes need them. It then allocates time for each process to use those resources.

The kernel is critical to a computer's operation, and it requires careful protection within the system's memory. The kernel space it loads into is a protected area of memory. That protected memory space ensures other applications and data don't overwrite or impair the kernel, causing performance problems, instability or other negative consequences. Instead, applications are loaded and executed in a generally available user memory space.

A kernel is often contrasted with a shell, which is the outermost part of an OS that interacts with user commands. Kernel and shell are terms used more frequently in Unix OSes than in IBM mainframe and Microsoft Windows systems.

A kernel is not to be confused with a BIOS, which is an independent program stored on a chip within a computer's circuit board.

Device drivers

A key part of kernel operation is communication with hardware devices inside and outside of the physical computer. However, it is impractical to write an OS capable of interacting with every possible device in existence. Instead, kernels rely on the ability of device drivers to add kernel support for specialized devices, such as printers and graphics adapters.

When an OS is installed on a computer, the installation adds device drivers for any specific devices detected within the computer. This helps tailor the OS installation to the specific system with just enough components to support the devices present. When a new or better device replaces an existing device, the device driver is updated or replaced.

There are several types of device drivers. Each addresses a different data transfer type. The following are some of the main driver types:

  • Character device drivers implement, open, close, read and write data, as well as grant data stream access for the user space.
  • Block device drivers provide device access for hardware that transfers randomly accessible data in fixed blocks.
  • Network device drivers transmit data packets for hardware interfaces that connect to external systems.

Device drivers are classified as kernel or user. A kernel mode device driver is a generic driver that is loaded along with the OS. These drivers are often suited to small categories of major hardware devices, such as CPU and motherboard device drivers.

User mode device drivers encompass an array of ad hoc drivers used for aftermarket, user-added devices, such as printers, graphics adapters, mice, advanced sound systems and other plug-and-play devices.

The OS needs the code that makes up the kernel. Consequently, the kernel code is usually loaded into an area in the computer storage that is protected so that it will not be overlaid with less frequently used parts of the OS.

Kernel mode vs. user mode

Computer designers have long understood the importance of security and the need to protect critical aspects of the computer's behavior. Long before the internet, or even the emergence of networks, designers carefully managed how software components accessed system hardware and resources. Processors were developed to support two operating modes: kernel mode and user mode.

Kernel mode

Kernel mode refers to the processor mode that enables software to have full and unrestricted access to the system and its resources. The OS kernel and kernel drivers, such as the file system driver, are loaded into protected memory space and operate in this highly privileged kernel mode.

User mode

User mode refers to the processor mode that enables user-based applications, such as a word processor or video game, to load and execute. The kernel prepares the memory space and resources for that application's use and launches the application within that user memory space.

User mode applications are less privileged and cannot access system resources directly. Instead, an application running in user mode must make system calls to the kernel to access system resources. The kernel then acts as a manager, scheduler and gatekeeper for those resources and works to prevent conflicting resource requests.

The processor switches to kernel mode as the kernel processes its system calls and then switches back to user mode to continue operating the application(s).

It's worth noting that kernel and user modes are processor states and have nothing to do with actual solid-state memory. There is nothing intrinsically safe or protected about the memory used for kernel mode. Kernel driver crashes and memory failures within the kernel memory space can still crash the OS and the computer.

Types of kernels

Kernels fall into three architectures: monolithic, microkernel and hybrid. The main difference between these types is the number of address spaces they support.

  • A microkernel delegates user processes and services and kernel services in different address spaces.
  • A monolithic kernel implements services in the same address space.
  • A hybrid kernel, such as the Microsoft Windows NT and Apple XNU kernels, attempts to combine the behaviors and benefits of microkernel and monolithic kernel architectures.

Overall, these kernel implementations present a tradeoff -- admins get the flexibility of more source code with microkernels or they get increased security without customization options with the monolithic kernel.

Some specific differences among the three kernel types include the following:

Microkernels

Microkernels have all of their services in the kernel address space. For their communication protocol, microkernels use message passing, which sends data packets, signals and functions to the correct processes. Microkernels also provide greater flexibility than monolithic kernels; to add a new service, admins modify the user address space for a microkernel.

Because of their isolated nature, microkernels are more secure than monolithic kernels. They remain unaffected if one service within the address space fails.

Monolithic kernels

Monolithic kernels are larger than microkernels, because they house both kernel and user services in the same address space. Monolithic kernels use a faster system call communication protocol than microkernels to execute processes between the hardware and software. They are less flexible than microkernels and require more work; admins must reconstruct the entire kernel to support a new service.

Monolithic kernels pose a greater security risk to systems than microkernels because, if a service fails, then the entire system shuts down. Monolithic kernels also don't require as much source code as a microkernel, which means they are less susceptible to bugs and need less debugging.

The Linux kernel is a monolithic kernel that is constantly growing; it had 20 million lines of code in 2018. From a foundational level, it is layered into a variety of subsystems. These main groups include a system call interface, process management, network stack, memory management, virtual file system and device drivers.

Administrators can port the Linux kernel into their OSes and run live updates. These features, along with the fact that Linux is Open Source, make it more suitable for server systems and environments that require real-time maintenance.

Hybrid kernels

Apple developed the XNU OS kernel in 1996 as a hybrid of the Mach and Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) kernels and paired it with an Objective-C application programming interface or API. Because it is a combination of the monolithic kernel and microkernel, it has increased modularity, and parts of the OS gain memory protection.

Diagram of user and kernel address space in Windows 10
See how user and kernel address space for physical memory is configured in Windows 10.

History and development of the kernel

Before the kernel, developers coded actions directly to the processor, instead of relying on an OS to complete interactions between hardware and software.

The first attempt to create an OS that used a kernel to pass messages was in 1969 with the RC 4000 Multiprogramming System. Programmer Per Brinch Hansen discovered it was easier to create a nucleus and then build up an OS, instead of converting existing OSes to be compatible with new hardware. This nucleus -- or kernel -- contained all source code to facilitate communications and support systems, eliminating the need to directly program on the CPU.

After RC 4000, Bell Labs researchers started work on Unix, which radically changed OS development and kernel development and integration. The goal of Unix was to create smaller utilities that do specific tasks well instead of having system utilities try to multitask. From a user standpoint, this simplifies creating shell scripts that combine simple tools.

As Unix adoption increased, the market started to see a variety of Unix-like computer OSes, including BSD, NeXTSTEP and Linux. Unix's structure perpetuated the idea that it was easier to build a kernel on top of an OS that reused software and had consistent hardware, instead of relying on a time-shared system that didn't require an OS.

Unix brought OSes to more individual systems, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon expanded kernel technology. From 1985 to 1994, they expanded work on the Mach kernel. Unlike BSD, the Mach kernel is OS-agnostic and supports multiple processor architectures. Researchers made it binary-compatible with existing BSD software, enabling it to be available for immediate use and continued experimentation.

The Mach kernel's original goal was to be a cleaner version of Unix and a more portable version of Carnegie Mellon's Accent interprocessor communications (IPC) kernel. Over time, the kernel brought new features, such as ports and IPC-based programs, and ultimately evolved into a microkernel.

Shortly after the Mach kernel, in 1986, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam developer Andrew Tanenbaum released MINIX (mini-Unix) for educational and research uses. This distribution contained a microkernel-based structure, multitasking, protected mode, extended memory support and an American National Standards Institute C compiler.

The next major advancement in kernel technology came in 1992, with the release of the Linux kernel. Founder Linus Torvalds developed it as a hobby, but he still licensed the kernel under general public license, making it open source. It was first released with 176,250 lines of code.

The majority of OSes -- and their kernels -- can be traced back to Unix, but there is one outlier: Windows. With the popularity of DOS- and IBM-compatible PCs, Microsoft developed the NT kernel and based its OS on DOS. That is why writing commands for Windows differs from Unix-based systems.

Learn more about the differences between monolithic and microkernel architectures.

This was last updated in August 2022

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