2.1. Various parts of an operating system
UNIX and 'UNIX-like' operating systems (such as Linux) consist
of a kernel and some
system programs. There are also some
application programs for doing work.
The kernel is the heart of the operating
system. In fact, it is often mistakenly considered to be the
operating system itself, but it is not. An operating system provides
provides many more services than a plain kernel.
It keeps track of files on the disk, starts programs and runs
them concurrently, assigns memory and other resources to various
processes, receives packets from and sends packets to the network,
and so on. The kernel does very little by itself, but it provides
tools with which all services can be built. It also prevents anyone
from accessing the hardware directly, forcing everyone to use the
tools it provides.
This way the kernel provides some protection for users from each
other. The tools provided by the kernel are used via
system calls. See manual page section 2 for more
information on these.
The system programs use the tools provided by the kernel to
implement the various services required from an operating system.
System programs, and all other programs, run `on top of the
kernel', in what is called the user mode.
The difference between system and application programs is
one of intent: applications are intended for getting useful
things done (or for playing, if it happens to be a game),
whereas system programs are needed to get the system working.
A word processor is an application; mount
is a system program. The difference is often somewhat blurry,
however, and is important only to compulsive categorizers.
An operating system can also contain compilers and their
corresponding libraries (GCC and the C library in particular under
Linux), although not all programming languages need be part of
the operating system. Documentation, and sometimes even games,
can also be part of it. Traditionally, the operating system has
been defined by the contents of the installation tape or disks;
with Linux it is not as clear since it is spread all over the
FTP sites of the world.