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Replying to Linux Versus Other Unix-Like Kernels
Posted 04 October 2004 - 10:03 PM
6 The various Unix-like systems on the market, some of which have a long history and may show signs of archaic practices, differ in many important respects. All commercial variants were derived from either SVR4 or 4.4BSD; all of them tend to agree on some common standards like IEEE's POSIX (Portable Operating Systems based on Unix) and X/Open's CAE (Common Applications Environment). Understanding the Linux Kernel 7 The current standards specify only an application programming interface (API) that is, a well-defined environment in which user programs should run. Therefore, the standards do not impose any restriction on internal design choices of a compliant kernel.  As a matter of fact, several non-Unix operating systems like Windows NT are POSIX-compliant. In order to define a common user interface, Unix-like kernels often share fundamental design ideas and features. In this respect, Linux is comparable with the other Unix-like operating systems. What you read in this book and see in the Linux kernel, therefore, may help you understand the other Unix variants too. The 2.2 version of the Linux kernel aims to be compliant with the IEEE POSIX standard. This, of course, means that most existing Unix programs can be compiled and executed on a Linux system with very little effort or even without the need for patches to the source code. Moreover, Linux includes all the features of a modern Unix operating system, like virtual memory, a virtual filesystem, lightweight processes, reliable signals, SVR4 interprocess communications, support for Symmetric Multiprocessor (SMP) systems, and so on. By itself, the Linux kernel is not very innovative. When Linus Torvalds wrote the first kernel, he referred to some classical books on Unix internals, like Maurice Bach's The Design of the Unix Operating System (Prentice Hall, 1986). Actually, Linux still has some bias toward the Unix baseline described in Bach's book (i.e., SVR4). However, Linux doesn't stick to any particular variant. Instead, it tries to adopt good features and design choices of several different Unix kernels. Here is an assessment of how Linux competes against some well-known commercial Unix kernels: " The Linux kernel is monolithic. It is a large, complex do-it-yourself program, composed of several logically different components. In this, it is quite conventional; most commercial Unix variants are monolithic. A notable exception is Carnegie- Mellon's Mach 3.0, which follows a microkernel approach. " Traditional Unix kernels are compiled and linked statically. Most modern kernels can dynamically load and unload some portions of the kernel code (typically, device drivers), which are usually called modules. Linux's support for modules is very good, since it is able to automatically load and unload modules on demand. Among the main commercial Unix variants, only the SVR4.2 kernel has a similar feature. " Kernel threading. Some modern Unix kernels, like Solaris 2.x and SVR4.2/MP, are organized as a set of kernel threads. A kernel thread is an execution context that can be independently scheduled; it may be associated with a user program, or it may run only some kernel functions. Context switches between kernel threads are usually much less expensive than context switches between ordinary processes, since the former usually operate on a common address space. Linux uses kernel threads in a very limited way to execute a few kernel functions periodically; since Linux kernel threads cannot execute user programs, they do not represent the basic execution context abstraction. (That's the topic of the next item.) " Multithreaded application support. Most modern operating systems have some kind of support for multithreaded applications, that is, user programs that are well designed in terms of many relatively independent execution flows sharing a large portion of the application data structures. A multithreaded user application could be composed of many lightweight processes (LWP), or processes that can operate on a common Understanding the Linux Kernel address space, common physical memory pages, common opened files, and so on. Linux defines its own version of lightweight processes, which is different from the types used on other systems such as SVR4 and Solaris. While all the commercial Unix variants of LWP are based on kernel threads, Linux regards lightweight processes as the basic execution context and handles them via the nonstandard clone( ) system call. " Linux is a nonpreemptive kernel. This means that Linux cannot arbitrarily interleave execution flows while they are in privileged mode. Several sections of kernel code assume they can run and modify data structures without fear of being interrupted and having another thread alter those data structures. Usually, fully preemptive kernels are associated with special real-time operating systems. Currently, among conventional, general-purpose Unix systems, only Solaris 2.x and Mach 3.0 are fully preemptive kernels. SVR4.2/MP introduces some fixed preemption points as a method to get limited preemption capability. " Multiprocessor support. Several Unix kernel variants take advantage of multiprocessor systems. Linux 2.2 offers an evolving kind of support for symmetric multiprocessing (SMP), which means not only that the system can use multiple processors but also that any processor can handle any task; there is no discrimination among them. However, Linux 2.2 does not make optimal use of SMP. Several kernel activities that could be executed concurrently like filesystem handling and networking must now be executed sequentially. " Filesystem. Linux's standard filesystem lacks some advanced features, such as journaling. However, more advanced filesystems for Linux are available, although not included in the Linux source code; among them, IBM AIX's Journaling File System (JFS), and Silicon Graphics Irix's XFS filesystem. Thanks to a powerful objectoriented Virtual File System technology (inspired by Solaris and SVR4), porting a foreign filesystem to Linux is a relatively easy task. " STREAMS. Linux has no analog to the STREAMS I/O subsystem introduced in SVR4, although it is included nowadays in most Unix kernels and it has become the preferred interface for writing device drivers, terminal drivers, and network protocols. This somewhat disappointing assessment does not depict, however, the whole truth. Several features make Linux a wonderfully unique operating system. Commercial Unix kernels often introduce new features in order to gain a larger slice of the market, but these features are not necessarily useful, stable, or productive. As a matter of fact, modern Unix kernels tend to be quite bloated. By contrast, Linux doesn't suffer from the restrictions and the conditioning imposed by the market, hence it can freely evolve according to the ideas of its designers (mainly Linus Torvalds).