Written by John Harris, Updated on October 06, 2023

A kernel is a main component of an operating system that acts as an interface between the user applications and the hardware resources of the computer like CPU, devices, memory, etc. The core purpose of the kernel is to manage the communication between the software that is the user-level applications and the computer’s hardware components.

A kernel is situated at the core part of the operating system and has complete control over everything that occurs in the system. It is the first one to get loaded into memory during system startup, and it remains in the main memory until the computer session is closed because its services are required continuously.

Kernel Functions

Kernel carries out basic functions for other parts of the OS to execute the user request, some of these include:

  • Memory management
  • Process and task management
  • Disk management
  • File Management
  • Input / Output (I/O) management, providing access to peripheral devices

Actually, these services are requested by other parts of the operating system or by other application programs through system callas (a specified set of program codes executed for requesting a service from the kernel). Kernels even provide methods for synchronization and communication between processes that are referred to as inter-process communication (IPC).

Kernel contents:

Contents of a kernel vary considerably according to the operating system, but normally they include the following components:

  • Scheduler: It determines how and in what order the various processes could share the kernel's processing time.
  • Supervisor: It grants permission to each process to use the computer when it is scheduled.
  • Interrupt handler: This component handles all the requests coming from the various hardware devices such as disk drives and the keyboard that compete to obtain the kernel's services.
  • Memory manager: Divided and assigns the system's address spaces i.e., memory among all users of the kernel's services.

Categories of Kernel

Kernels can be classified into five broad categories: monolithic kernels, microkernels, hybrid kernels, nanokernels, and exokernels. Each has its own uses that are listed below:

Monolithic kernels:These kernels are used by Unix-like operating systems and contain all the core functions of the operating system and the device drivers. They have the ability to load modules at runtime, thereby allowing the easy extension of the kernel's capabilities as and when required.

Microkernel: They usually provide minimal services, such as defining memory address spaces, inter-process communication (IPC), and process management. Examples of microkernel operating systems are Mac OS X, AIX, Mach, BeOS, Hurd, MINIX and QNX.

Hybrid kernels: These types of kernels are similar to microkernels, but they include additional code in kernel space to run more swiftly. Examples of Operating systems with hybrid kernels are including Microsoft Windows NT, 2000 XP, etc. DragonFly BSD, a recent variant of FreeBSD, is the first non-Mach-based BSD operating system to employ hybrid kernel architecture.

Nano Kernels: these kernels simplify the memory requirement by delegating the services, including the interrupt controllers or timers to device drivers.

Exo Kernels: They are tailored to allocate physical hardware resources such as processor time and disk memory block to other programs that link to the library operating system.

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