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12.3.8 Useful Techniques

We have just looked at some abstract ideas for system design and implementation. Now we will examine a number of useful concrete techniques for system implementation. There are numerous other ones, of course, but space limitations restrict us to just a few of them.

Hiding the Hardware

A lot of hardware is ugly. It has to be hidden early on (unless it exposes power, which most hardware does not). Some of the very low-level details can be hidden by a HAL-type layer of the type shown in Fig. 12-1. However, many hardware details cannot be hidden this way.

One thing that deserves early attention is how to deal with interrupts. They make programming unpleasant, but operating systems have to deal with them. One approach is to turn them into something else immediately. For example, every interrupt could be turned into a pop-up thread instantly. At that point we are dealing with threads, rather than interrupts.

A second approach is to convert each interrupt into an unlock operation on a mutex that the corresponding driver is waiting on. Then the only effect of an interrupt is to cause some thread to become ready.

A third approach is convert an interrupt into a message to some thread. The low-level code just builds a message telling where the interrupt came from, enqueues it, and calls the scheduler to (potentially) run the handler, which was probably blocked waiting for the message. All these techniques, and other ones like them, all try to convert interrupts into thread synchronization operations. Having each interrupt handled by a proper thread in a proper context is easier to manage than running a handler in the arbitrary context that it happened to occur in. Of course, this must be done efficiently, but deep within the operating system, everything must be done efficiently.

Most operating systems are designed to run on multiple hardware platforms. These platforms can differ in terms of the CPU chip, MMU, word length, RAM size, and other features that cannot easily be masked by the HAL or equivalent. Nevertheless, it is highly desirable to have a single set of source files that are used to generate all versions; otherwise each bug that later turns up must be fixed multiple times in multiple sources, with the danger that the sources drift apart.

Some hardware differences, such as RAM size, can be dealt with by having the operating system determine the value at boot time and keep it in a variable. Memory allocators, for example, can use the RAM size variable to determine how big to make the block cache, page tables, etc. Even static tables such as the process table can be sized based on the total memory available.

However, other differences, such as different CPU chips, cannot be solved by having a single binary that determines at run time which CPU it is running on. One way to tackle the problem of one source and multiple targets is to use conditional compilation. In the source files, certain compile-time flags are defined for the different configurations and these are used to bracket code that is dependent on the CPU, word length, MMU, etc. For example, imagine an operating system that is to run on the Pentium and The init procedure could be written as illustrated in Fig. 12-4(a). Depending on the value of CPU, which is defined in the header file config.h, one kind of initialization or other is done. Because the actual binary contains only the code needed for the target machine, there is no loss of efficiency this way.

Figure 12-4. (a) CPU-dependent conditional compilation. (b) Word-length dependent conditional compilation.

As a second example, suppose there is a need for a data type Register, This could be handled by the conditional code of Fig. 12-4(b) (assuming that the compiler produces 32-bit ints and 64-bit longs). Once this definition has been made (probably in a header file included everywhere), the programmer can just declare variables to be of type Register and know they will be the right length.

The header file, config.h, has to be defined correctly, of course. For the Pen-tium it might be something like this:

   #define CPU PENTIUM
   #define WORD3LENGTH 32


   #define WORD3LENGTH 64

Some readers may be wondering why CPU and WORD_LENGTH are handled by different macros. We could easily have bracketed the definition of Register with a test on However, this is not a good idea. Consider what happens when we later port the system to the 64-bit Intel Itanium. We would have to add a third conditional to Fig. 12-4(b) for the Itanium. By doing it as we have, all we have to do is include the line

  #define WORD3LENGTH 64

to the config.h file for the Itanium.

This example illustrates the orthogonality principle we discussed earlier. Those items that are CPU-dependent should be conditionally compiled based on the CPU macro and those things that are word-length dependent should use the WORD_LENGTH macro. Similar considerations hold for many other parameters.


It is sometimes said that there is no problem in computer science that cannot be solved with another level of indirection. While something of an exaggeration, there is definitely a grain of truth here. Let us consider some examples. On Pentium-based systems, when a key is depressed, the hardware generates an interrupt and puts the key number, rather than an ASCII character code, in a device register. Furthermore, when the key is released later, a second interrupt is generated, also with the key number. This indirection allows the operating system the possibility of using the key number to index into a table to get the ASCII character, which makes it easy to handle the many keyboards used around the world in different countries. Getting both the depress and release information makes it possible to use any key as a shift key since the operating system knows the exact sequence the keys were depressed and released.

Indirection is also used on output. Programs can write ASCII characters to the screen, but these are interpreted as indices into a table for the current output font. The table entry contains the bitmap for the character. This indirection makes it possible to separate characters from fonts.

Another example of indirection is the use of major device numbers in UNIX. Within the kernel there is a table indexed by major device number for the block devices and another one for the character devices. When a process opens a special file such as /dev/hd0, the system extracts the type (block or character) and major and minor device numbers from the i-node and indexes into the appropriate driver table to find the driver. This indirection makes it easy to reconfigure the system, because programs deal with symbolic device names, not actual driver names.

Yet another example of indirection occurs in message-passing systems that name a mailbox rather than a process as the message destination. By indirecting through mailboxes (as opposed to naming a process as the destination), considerable flexibility can be achieved (e.g., having a secretary handle her boss' messages).

In a sense, the use of macros, such as

#define PROC3TABLE3SIZE 256

is also a form of indirection, since the programmer can write code without having to know how big the table really is. It is good practice to give symbolic names to all constants (except sometimes -1, 0, and 1), and put these in headers with comments explaining what they are for.


It is frequently possible to reuse the same code in slightly different contexts. Doing so is a good idea as it reduces the size of the binary and means that the code has to be debugged only once. For example, suppose that bitmaps are used to keep track of free blocks on the disk. Disk block management can be handled by having procedures alloc and free that manage the bitmaps.

As a bare minimum, these procedures should work for any disk. But we can go further than that. The same procedures can also work for managing memory blocks, blocks in the file system's block cache, and i-nodes. In fact, they can be used to allocate and deallocate any resources that can be numbered linearly.


Reentrancy refers for the ability of code to be executed two or more times simultaneously. On a multiprocessor, there is always the danger than while one CPU is executing some procedure, another CPU will start executing it as well, before the first one has finished. In this case, two (or more) threads on different CPUs might be executing the same code at the same time. This situation must be protected against by using mutexes or some other means to protect critical regions.

However, the problem also exists on a uniprocessor. In particular, most of any operating system runs with interrupts enabled. To do otherwise, would lose many interrupts and make the system unreliable. While the operating system is busy executing some procedure, P, it is entirely possible that an interrupt occurs and that the interrupt handler also calls P. If the data structures of P were in an inconsistent state at the time of the interrupt, the handler will see them in an inconsistent state and fail.

An obvious example where this can happen is if P is the scheduler. Suppose that some process used up its quantum and the operating system was moving it to the end of its queue. Part way through the list manipulation, the interrupt occurs, makes some process ready, and runs the scheduler. With the queues in an inconsistent state, the system will probably crash. As a consequence even on a uniprocessor, it is best that most of the operating system is reentrant, critical data structures are protected by mutexes, and interrupts are disabled at moments when they cannot be tolerated.

Brute Force

Using brute force to solve a problem has acquired a bad name over the years, but it is often the way to go in the name of simplicity. Every operating system has many procedures that are rarely called or operate with so little data that optimizing them is not worthwhile. For example, it is frequently necessary to search various tables and arrays within the system. The brute force algorithm is just leave the table in the order the entries are made and search it linearly when something has to be looked up. If the number of entries is small (say, under 100), the gain from sorting the table or hashing it is small, but the code is far more complicated and more likely to have bugs in it.

Of course, for functions that are on the critical path, say, context switching, everything should be done to make them fast, possibly even writing them in (heaven forbid) assembly language. But large parts of the system are not on the critical path. For example, many system calls are rarely called. If there is one fork every 10 sec, and it takes 10 msec to carry out, then even optimizing it to 0 wins only 0.1%. If the optimized code is bigger and buggier, a case can be made not to bother with the optimization.

Check for Errors First

Many system calls can potentially fail for a variety of reasons: the file to be opened belongs to someone else; process creation fails because the process table is full; or a signal cannot be sent because the target process does not exist. The operating system must painstakingly check for every possible error before carrying out the call.

Many system calls also require acquiring resources such as process table slots, i-node table slots, or file descriptors. A general piece of advice that can save a lot of grief is to first check to see if the system call can actually be carried out before acquiring any resources. This means putting all the tests at the beginning of the procedure that executes the system call. Each test should be of the form

if (error3condition) return(ERROR 3CODE);

If the call gets all the way through the gauntlet of tests, then it is certain that it will succeed. At that point resources can be acquired.

Interspersing the tests with resource acquisition means that if some test fails along the way, all the resources acquired up to that point must be returned. If an error is made here and some resource is not returned, no damage is done immediately. For example, one process table entry may just become permanently unavailable. However, over a period of time, this bug may be triggered multiple times. Eventually, most or all the process table entries may become unavailable, leading to a system crash in an extremely unpredictable and difficult to debug way.

Many systems suffer from this problem in the form of memory leaks. Typically, the program calls malloc to allocate space but forgets to call free later to release it. Ever so gradually, all of memory disappears until the system is rebooted.

Engler et al. (2000) have proposed an interesting way to check for some of these errors at compile time. They observed that the programmer knows many invariants that the compiler does not know, such as when you lock a mutex, all paths starting at the lock must contain an unlock and no more locks of the same mutex. They have devised a way for the programmer to tell the compiler this fact and instruct it to check all the paths at compile time for violations of the invariant. The programmer can also specify that allocated memory must be released on all paths and many other conditions as well.

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