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Introduction to Operating System

The Operating System of a computer can be defined as a collection of software modules which extend the computer hardware and make it more convenient and easier to use for other programs. In other words it "converts" real computer with hardware resources into a virtual machine with virtual resources.
Therefore, all software may be divided into two broad categories:
System Software, which runs on hardware resources (e.g. MacOS, Windows) and User Software, which runs on virtual resources provided by operating system (e.g. MS Word, Adobe Photoshop). Every computer needs to have operating system in order to run any end-user application.

An operating system is a layer of software which takes care of technical aspects of a computer's operation. It shields the user of the machine from the low-level details of the machine's operation and provides frequently needed facilities. There is no universal definition of what an operating system consists of. You can think of it as being the software which is already installed on a machine, before you add anything of your own. Normally the operating system has a number of key elements
 (i) a technical layer of software for driving the hardware of the computer, like disk drives, the keyboard and the screen.
 (ii) afilesystem which provides a way of organizing files logically.
 (iii) a simple command language which enables users to run their own programs and to manipulate their files in a simple way. Some operating systems also provide text editors, compilers, debuggers and a variety of other tools. Since the operating system (OS) is in charge of a computer, all requests to use its resources and devices need to go through the OS. An OS therefore provides.
 (iv)legal entry points into its code for performing basic operations like writing to devices.

Basic functions of an operating system


An operating system is a group of computer programs that coordinates all the activities among computer hardware devices. It is the first program loaded into the computer by a boot program and remains in memory at all times.

Functions of an operating system

The basic functions of an operating system are:
  1. Booting the computer
  2. Performs basic computer tasks eg managing the various peripheral devices eg mouse, keyboard
  3. Provides a user interface, e.g. command line, graphical user interface (GUI)
  4. Handles system resources such as computer's memory and sharing of the central processing unit (CPU) time by various applications or peripheral devices
  5. Provides file management which refers to the way that the operating system manipulates, stores, retrieves and saves data.

Booting the computer

The process of starting or restarting the computer is known as booting. A cold boot is when you turn on a computer that has been turned off completely. A warm boot is the process of using the operating system to restart the computer.

Performs basic computer tasks

The operating system performs basic computer tasks, such as managing the various peripheral devices such as the mouse, keyboard and printers. For example, most operating systems now are plug and play which means a device such as a printer will automatically be detected and configured without any user intervention.

Provides a user interface

A user interacts with software through the user interface. The two main types of user interfaces are: command line and a graphical user interface (GUI). With a command line interface, the user interacts with the operating system by typing commands to perform specific tasks. An example of a command line interface is DOS (disk operating system). With a graphical user interface, the user interacts with the operating system by using a mouse to access windows, icons, and menus. An example of a graphical user interface is Windows Vista or Windows 7.
The operating system is responsible for providing a consistent application program interface (API) which is important as it allows a software developer to write an application on one computer and know that it will run on another computer of the same type even if the amount of memory or amount of storage is different on the two machines.

Handles system resources

The operating system also handles system resources such as the computer's memory and sharing of the central processing unit (CPU) time by various applications or peripheral devices. Programs and input methods are constantly competing for the attention of the CPU and demand memory, storage and input/output bandwidth. The operating system ensures that each application gets the necessary resources it needs in order to maximise the functionality of the overall system.

Provides file management

The operating system also handles the organisation and tracking of files and directories (folders) saved or retrieved from a computer disk. The file management system allows the user to perform such tasks as creating files and directories, renaming files, coping and moving files, and deleting files. The operating system keeps track of where files are located on the hard drive through the type of file system. The type two main types of file system are File Allocation table (FAT) or New Technology File system (NTFS).

Mac OS X Panther screen shot
Photo courtesy Apple

Types of Operating Systems

Within the broad family of operating systems, there are generally four types, categorized based on the types of computers they control and the sort of applications they support. The categories are:
  • Real-time operating system(RTOS) - Real-time operating systems are used to control machinery, scientific instruments and industrial systems. An RTOS typically has very little user-interface capability, and no end-user utilities, since the system will be a "sealed box" when delivered for use. A very important part of an RTOS is managing the resources of the computer so that a particular operation executes in precisely the same amount of time, every time it occurs. In a complex machine, having a part move more quickly just because system resources are available may be just as catastrophic as having it not move at all because the system is busy.
  • Single-user, single task - As the name implies, this operating system is designed to manage the computer so that one user can effectively do one thing at a time. The Palm OS for Palm handheld computers is a good example of a modern single-user, single-task operating system.
  • Single-user, multi-tasking - This is the type of operating system most people use on their desktop and laptop computers today. Microsoft's Windows and Apple's MacOS platforms are both examples of operating systems that will let a single user have several programs in operation at the same time. For example, it's entirely possible for a Windows user to be writing a note in a word processor while downloading a file from the Internet while printing the text of an e-mail message.
  • Multi-user - A multi-user operating system allows many different users to take advantage of the computer's resources simultaneously. The operating system must make sure that the requirements of the various users are balanced, and that each of the programs they are using has sufficient and separate resources so that a problem with one user doesn't affect the entire community of users. Unix, VMS and mainframe operating systems, such as MVS, are examples of multi-user operating systems.
It's important to differentiate between multi-user operating systems and single-user operating systems that support networking. Windows 2000 and Novell Netware can each support hundreds or thousands of networked users, but the operating systems themselves aren't true multi-user operating systems. Thesystem administrator is the only "user" for Windows 2000 or Netware. The network support and all of the remote user logins the network enables are, in the overall plan of the operating system, a program being run by the administrative user.

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