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Processes in UNIX

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10.3.4 Booting UNIX

The exact details of how UNIX is booted vary from system to system. Below we will look briefly at how 4.4BSD is booted, but the ideas are somewhat similar for all versions. When the computer starts, the first sector of the boot disk (the master boot record) is read into memory and executed. This sector contains a small (512-byte) program that loads a standalone program called boot from the boot device, usually an IDE or SCSI disk. The boot program first copies itself to a fixed high memory address to free up low memory for the operating system.

Once moved, boot reads the root directory of the boot device. To do this, it must understand the file system and directory format, which it does. Then it reads in the operating system kernel and jumps to it. At this point, boot has finished its job and the kernel is running.

The kernel start-up code is written in assembly language and is highly machine dependent. Typical work includes setting up the kernel stack, identifying the CPU type, calculating the amount of RAM present, disabling interrupts, enabling the MMU, and finally calling the C-language main procedure to start the main part of the operating system.

The C code also has considerable initialization to do, but this is more logical than physical. It starts out by allocating a message buffer to help debug boot problems. As initialization proceeds, messages are written here about what is happening, so they can be fished out after a boot failure by a special diagnostic program. Think of this as the operating system's cockpit flight recorder (the black box investigators look for after a plane crash).

Next the kernel data structures are allocated. Most are fixed size, but a few, such as the buffer cache and certain page table structures, depend on the amount of RAM available.

At this point the system begins autoconfiguration. Using configuration files telling what kinds of I/O devices might be present, it begins probing the devices to see which ones actually are present. If a probed device responds to the probe, it is added to a table of attached devices. If it fails to respond, it is assumed to be absent and ignored henceforth.

Once the device list has been determined, the device drivers must be located. This is one area in which UNIX systems differ somewhat. In particular, 4.4BSD cannot load device drivers dynamically, so any I/O device whose driver was not statically linked with the kernel cannot be used. In contrast, some other versions of UNIX, such as Linux, can load drivers dynamically (as can all versions of MS-DOS and Windows, incidentally).

The arguments for and against dynamically loading drivers are interesting and worth stating briefly. The main argument for dynamic loading is that a single binary can be shipped to customers with divergent configurations and have it automatically load the drivers it needs, possibly even over a network. The main argument against dynamic loading is security. If you are running a secure site, such as a bank's database or a corporate Web server, you probably want to make it impossible for anyone to insert random code into the kernel. The system administrator may keep the operating system sources and object files on a secure machine, do all system builds there, and ship the kernel binary to other machines over a local area network. If drivers cannot be loaded dynamically, this scenario prevents machine operators and others who know the superuser password from injecting malicious or buggy code into the kernel. Furthermore, at large sites, the hardware configuration is known exactly at the time the system is compiled and linked. Changes are sufficiently rare that having to relink the system when a new hardware device is added is not an issue.

Once all the hardware has been configured, the next thing to do is to carefully handcraft process 0, set up its stack, and run it. Process 0 continues initialization, doing things like programming the real-time clock, mounting the root file system, and creating init (process 1) and the page daemon (process 2).

Init checks its flags to see if it is supposed to come up single user or multiuser. In the former case, it forks off a process that execs the shell and waits for this process to exit. In the latter case, it forks off a process that executes the system initialization shell script, /etc/rc, which can do file system consistency checks, mount additional file systems, start daemon processes, and so on. Then it reads /etc/ttys, which lists the terminals and some of their properties. For each enabled terminal, it forks off a copy of itself, which does some housekeeping and then execs a program called getty.

Getty sets the line speed and other properties for each line (some of which may be modems, for example), and then types


on the terminal's screen and tries to read the user's name from the keyboard. When someone sits down at the terminal and provides a login name, getty terminates by executing /bin/login, the login program. Login then asks for a password, encrypts it, and verifies it against the encrypted password stored in the password file, /etc/passwd. If it is correct, login replaces itself with the user's shell, which then waits for the first command. If it is incorrect, login just asks for another user name. This mechanism is illustrated in Fig. 10-9 for a system with three terminals.

In the figure, the getty process running for terminal 0 is still waiting for input. On terminal 1, a user has typed a login name, so getty has overwritten itself with login, which is asking for the password. A successful login has already occurred on terminal 2, causing the shell to type the prompt (%). The user then typed

cp f1 f2 

which has caused the shell to fork off a child process and have that process exec the cp program. The shell is blocked, waiting for the child to terminate, at which time the shell will type another prompt and read from the keyboard. If the user at terminal 2 had typed cc instead of cp, the main program of the C compiler would have been started, which in turn would have forked off more processes to run the various compiler passes.

Figure 10-9. The sequence of processes used to boot some UNIX systems.

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