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12.3.2 Mechanism versus Policy

Another principle that helps architectural coherence, along with keeping things small and well structured, is that of separating mechanism from policy. By putting the mechanism in the operating system and leaving the policy to user processes, the system itself can be left unmodified, even if there is a need to change policy. Even if the policy module has to be kept in the kernel, it should be isolated from the mechanism, if possible, so that changes in the policy module do not affect the mechanism module.

To make the split between policy and mechanism clearer, let us consider two real-world examples. As a first example, consider a large company that has a payroll department, which is in charge of paying the employees' salaries. It has computers, software, blank checks, agreements with banks, and more mechanism for actually paying out the salaries. However, the policy—determining who gets paid how much—is completely separate and is decided by management. The payroll department just does what it is told to do.

As the second example, consider a restaurant. It has the mechanism for serving diners, including tables, plates, waiters, a kitchen full of equipment, agreements with credit card companies, and so on. The policy is set by the chef, namely, what is on the menu. If the chef decides that tofu is out and big steaks are in, this new policy can be handled by the existing mechanism.

Now let us consider some operating system examples. First, consider thread scheduling. The kernel could have a priority scheduler, with k priority levels. The mechanism is an array, indexed by priority level, as shown in Fig. 10-11 or Fig. 11-19. Each entry is the head of a list of ready threads at that priority level. The scheduler just searches the array from highest priority to lowest priority, selecting the first threads it hits. The policy is setting the priorities. The system may have different classes of users, each with a different priority, for example. It might also allow user processes to set the relative priority of its threads. Priorities might be increased after completing I/O or decreased after using up a quantum. There are numerous other policies that could be followed, but the idea here is the separation between setting policy and carrying it out.

A second example is paging. The mechanism involves MMU management, keeping lists of occupied pages and free pages, and code for shuttling pages to and from disk. The policy is deciding what to do when a page fault occurs. It could be local or global, LRU-based or FIFO-based, or something else, but this algorithm can (and should) be completely separate from the mechanics of actually managing the pages.

A third example is allowing modules to be loaded into the kernel. The mechanism concerns how they are inserted, how they are linked, what calls they can make, and what calls can be made on them. The policy is determining who is allowed to load a module into the kernel and which modules. Maybe only the superuser can load modules, but maybe any user can load a module that has been digitally signed by the appropriate authority.

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