This introduction is an overview of Linux, the free open-source operating system kernel.

Table of contents

  1. Linux
  2. Kernel
  3. Differences with Unix
  4. Kernel development
  5. Conclusion
  6. References


Linus Torvalds created linux in 1991 while a student at Helsinki university. He was frustrated at the lack of a free Unix system, so he decided to write his own [1, P. 3].

Although Linux is inspired by Unix and implements the Unix API (defined in the POSIX standard), it’s not a direct descendant of Unix [1, P. 3].

When people think of Linux, they often imagine a full Linux system including the kernel, the C library, and system utilities. Technically Linux is only the kernel, while the other features are part of the operating system [1, P. 4].


The kernel is the core functionality of an operating system. It provides an API for user interfaces to be written on top of. For example, interrupt handlers to handle signals (like a key press), a scheduler to manage processes, memory management to manage process address space, and services like networking [1, P. 5].

Typically a kernel runs with elevated privileges, like access to hardware memory. This execution state and memory space is known as kernel space. User applications run in user space. When a system is executing kernel code, it’s running in kernel mode, and when the kernel is executing a user application, it’s running in user mode [1, P. 5].

Programs running in user mode can communicate with the kernel using system calls: functions provided by the kernel that execute code in kernel mode [1, P. 5].

System calls are generally called as part of a function provided by a library, like the C library. Some C library functions do a lot of work before making a system call, like printf. Others are almost one to one mappings, like open. When an application calls a system call, we say that the application is executing a system call in user space, and the kernel is running in process context [1, P. 5].

The kernel manages the system’s hardware. Nearly all hardware uses interrupts to communicate with the kernel. When hardware sends an interrupt, the processor is interrupted and jumps to execute kernel code that was registered by the kernel on startup, known as an interrupt handler [1, P. 5]. For example, a keyboard might issue an interrupt when a key has been pressed to alert the kernel that there’s new data in the keyboard buffer. The kernel would use the interrupt number to execute the interrupt handler to process the new keyboard data and tell the keyboard control that it’s ready for more data [1, P. 5].

Interrupt handlers don’t run in a process context, they run in a special interrupt context. This exists so that the kernel can handle interrupts as quickly as possible [1, P. 5].

Linux is a monolithic kernel—it runs as a single process in a single address space. This is in contrast to microkernels, where kernel modules are separated into servers. Theoretically, most servers run as user processes in their own address space, although in practice the latency introduced by interprocess communication means that servers often run in kernel mode instead, defeating the main purpose of microkernels [1, P. 7].

Differences with Unix

Although Linux is similar to Unix, there are some notable differences:

  1. Linux can dynamically load and unload kernel modules
  2. Linux can preempt a task as it executes
  3. Linux doesn’t differentiate between threads and processes.
  4. Linux has an object oriented device model
  5. Linux ignores some Unix features that it believes are badly designed, such as streams
  6. Linux is free and open source

[1, P. 8]

Kernel development

Kernel development has different constraints to application programming. The kernel:

  • Doesn’t have access to the C library or standard headers
  • Is written in GNU C
  • Does not have memory protection like user programs do
  • Has a small, static stack
  • Cannot easily perform floating point operations
  • Is highly concurrent
  • Must be portable

[1, P. 17]

libc functions aren’t included in Linux mainly because of the size of the libraries. Instead, Linux implements many of the common functions in the lib directory, e.g. instead of printf the kernel has printk, which works almost the same as printf. You can call printk with a priority flag to set where the message is displayed by syslogd [1, P. 18] .

The kernel uses GNU C Instead of using the standardized ANSI C. The kernel makes use of various languages extensions available in GCC (the GNU compiler). This includes inline functions, and branch annotations: used to tell the compiler likelihood of a branch being taken, allowing the compiler to optimize the branch [1, Pp. 18-20].

There’s no memory protection like user programs have. Illegal memory access in the kernel will cause an oops (a major kernel error). Also “Kernel memory is not pageable, so every extra bye is one byte of memory you consume is one less byte of available memory” [1, P. 20].

“When a user-space process uses floating-point instructions, the kernel manages the transition from integer to floating point mode”. What the kernel does depends on the architecture, but it usually involves saving and restoring floating point registers. If you need do floating point in the kernel, you need to do these operations yourself [1, P. 20].

In user land, stacks can grow dynamically. In kernel mode, the size of the stack is fixed and is usually small (historically 16kb on 64bit architectures) [1, P. 20].

The kernel is a highly concurrent environment. Tasks can be scheduled and rescheduled at any time, Linux supports multiple processors, and interrupts can occur while a program is accessing a resource. This is normally resolved using synchronization mechanisms like spinlocks and semaphores [1, P. 21].

Finally, portability is vital for architecture independent c code in the kernel. You can’t make assumptions like the page size [1, P. 21].


Linux is the kernel, responsible for providing an environment for user applications to run. It manages processes, handles interrupts, and provides services like networking.

Kernel development has different constraints from user-space programming, including being highly concurrent, and not having access to the standard C library.


  1. [1] L. R., Linux Kernel Development (Developer’s Library), 3rd ed. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2010.