Getting down to basics: Running Linux on a 32-/64-bit RISC architecture - Part 1This is the first part in a series all about how to run the Linux operating system on the MIPS 32k/64k architecture. Why? Well, this is what a CPU is for. A CPU "architecture" is the description of what a useful CPU does, and a useful CPU runs programs under the control of an operating system.
Although many operating systems run on the MIPS architecture, the great thing about Linux is that it's public. Anyone can download the source code, so anyone can see how it works.
Any operating system is just a bunch of programs. Ingenious programs, and - perhaps more than most software - built on a set of ideas that have been refined and figured out over the years. An operating system is supposed to be particularly reliable (doesn't crash) and secure (doesn't let some program do things the OS hasn't been told to let it do).
Correct usage sees "Linux" as the name of the operating system kernel originally written by Linus Torvalds, a kernel whose subsequent history is, well, history. Most of the (much larger) rest of the system came from projects organized under the "GNU" banner of the Free Software Foundation. Everybody sometimes forgets and calls the whole thing "Linux."
Both sides of this process emerged as a reaction to the seminal work on the UNIX operating system developed by Bell Laboratories in the 1970s. Probably because Bell saw it as of no commercial value, it distributed the software widely to academic institutions under terms that were then unprecedently "open."
But it wasn't "open source" - many programmers worked on UNIX at university, only to find that their contributions were either lost or were now owned by Bell Labs (and their many successors). Frustration with this process eventually drove people to write "really free" replacements.
The last key part was the kernel. Kernels are quite difficult programs, but the delay was cultural: OS kernels were seen as something for academic groups, and those groups wanted to go beyond UNIX, not to recreate it.
The post-UNIX fashion was for a small, modular operating system built of clearly separated components, but no OS built on that basis ever found a significant user base. Linux won out because it was a much more pragmatic project.
(Some claim that Windows/NT - and therefore most modern versions of Microsoft Windows - has a microkernel. That may be true, but it certainly lost any claims to be small or modular on its way to world domination.)
Linus and his fellow developers wanted something that worked (on x86 desktops, in the first instance). When the Linux kernel was in competition with offshoots of the finally free BSD4.4 system, BSD protagonists insisted with some justification on their superior engineering. But the Linux community had arrived at an understanding of a far more "open" development style.
Linux evolved quickly. Sometimes, it evolved quickly because Linux people were perfectly happy to adapt BSD code. It wasn't long before Linux triumphed, and the engineering got better, too.
Basic Linux Building Blocks
To get to grips with any artifact you need to attach some good working meaning to the terms used by its experts, and you are particularly likely to be confused by terms you already know, but with not quite the same meaning. The UNIX/Linux heritage is long enough that there are lots of magic words: thread, file, user mode and system calls: interrupt context, Interrupt service routine (ISR), scheduler, memory map/address space, thread group, high memory, libraries and applications.
Thread: The best general definition of "thread" I know is "a set of computer instructions being run in the order specified by the programmer." The Linux kernel has an explicit notion of a thread (for each thread there's a struct thread struct).
It's almost the same thing, but by the terms of my definition a low-level interrupt handler (for example) is a distinct thread that happens to have borrowed the environment of the interrupted thread to run with. Both definitions are valuable, and we'll say "Linux thread" when necessary.
Linux loves threads (there are currently 134 on the desktop machine I'm typing this on). Most of those threads correspond to an active application program - but there are quite a few special-purpose threads that run only in the kernel, and some applications have multiple threads. One of the kernel's basic jobs is scheduling - picking which Linux thread to run next, which will be discussed later.
File: A named chunk of data. In GNU/Linux, most of the interactions a program makes with the world beyond its process are done by reading and writing files. Files can just be things you write data to and get it back later.
But there are also special files that lead to device drivers: Read one of those and the data comes from a keyboard, write another and your data is interpreted as digital audio and sent out to a loudspeaker. The Linux kernel likes to avoid too many new system calls, so special /proc files are also used to allow applications to get information about the kernel.
User mode and system calls: Linux applications run in user mode, the lower-privilege state of MIPS CPUs. In user mode, the software can't directly access the parts of the address space where the kernel lives, and all the locations it can address are mapped to pages the kernel has agreed to let the application playwith. In usermode, you can't run the coprocessor zero CPU control instructions.
(GNU/Linux application code that runs in user mode is frequently referred to as userland.)
To obtain any service from the kernel (most often, to read or write a file) the application makes a systemcall. A systemcall is a deliberately planted exception, interpreted by the kernel's exception handler. The exception switches to high-privilege mode.
Through the system call, Linux application threads run quite happily in the kernel in high-privilege mode (but of course they're running trusted code there).
When it's done, the return from exception code involves an eret,
which makes sure that the change back to user mode and the return to
user mode code are done simultaneously.
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