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O'Reilly Book Excerpts: Understanding the Linux Kernel

How Your Computer Boots

Related Reading

Understanding the Linux Kernel
By Daniel P. Bovet, Marco Cesati

by Daniel P. Bovet and Marco Cesati

This excerpt from Understanding the Linux Kernel by Daniel P. Bovet and Marco Cesati explains what happens right after users have switched on their computers, that is, how a Linux kernel image is copied into memory and executed. In short, we discuss how the kernel, and thus the whole system, is "bootstrapped."

Traditionally, the term bootstrap refers to a person who tries to stand up by pulling her own boots. In operating systems, the term denotes bringing at least a portion of the operating system into main memory and having the processor execute it. It also denotes the initialization of kernel data structures, the creation of some user processes, and the transfer of control to one of them.

Computer bootstrapping is a tedious, long task, since initially nearly every hardware device including the RAM is in a random, unpredictable state. Moreover, the bootstrap process is highly dependent on the computer architecture; as usual, we refer to IBM's PC architecture in this appendix.

Prehistoric Age: the BIOS

The moment after a computer is powered on, it is practically useless because the RAM chips contain random data and no operating system is running. To begin the boot, a special hardware circuit raises the logical value of the RESET pin of the CPU. After RESET is thus asserted, some registers of the processor (including cs and eip) are set to fixed values, and the code found at physical address 0xfffffff0 is executed. This address is mapped by the hardware to some read-only, persistent memory chip, a kind of memory often called ROM (read-only memory). The set of programs stored in ROM is traditionally called BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), since it includes several interrupt-driven low-level procedures used by some operating systems, including Microsoft's MS-DOS, to handle the hardware devices that make up the computer.

Once initialized, Linux does not make any use of BIOS but provides its own device driver for every hardware device on the computer. In fact, the BIOS procedures must be executed in real mode, while the kernel executes in protected mode, so they cannot share functions even if that would be beneficial.

BIOS uses real mode addresses because they are the only ones available when the computer is turned on. A real mode address is composed of a seg segment and an off offset; the corresponding physical address is given by seg*16+off. As a result, no global descriptor table (GDT), local descriptor table (LDT), or paging table is needed by the CPU addressing circuit to translate a logical address into a physical one. Clearly, the code that initializes the GDT, LDT, and paging tables must run in real mode.

Linux is forced to use BIOS in the bootstrapping phase, when it must retrieve the kernel image from disk or from some other external device. The BIOS bootstrap procedure essentially performs the following four operations:

  1. Executes a series of tests on the computer hardware, in order to establish which devices are present and whether they are working properly. This phase is often called POST (power-on self-test). During this phase, several messages, such as the BIOS version banner, are displayed.

  2. Initializes the hardware devices. This phase is crucial in modern PCI-based architectures, since it guarantees that all hardware devices operate without conflicts on the IRQ lines and I/O ports. At the end of this phase, a table of installed PCI devices is displayed.

  3. Searches for an operating system to boot. Actually, depending on the BIOS setting, the procedure may try to access (in a predefined, customizable order) the first sector (boot sector) of any floppy disk, any hard disk, and any CD-ROM in the system.

  4. As soon as a valid device is found, copies the contents of its first sector into RAM, starting from physical address 0x00007c00, then jumps into that address and executes the code just loaded.

The rest of this article takes you from the most primitive starting state to the full glory of a running Linux system.

Ancient Age: the boot loader

The boot loader is the program invoked by the BIOS to load the image of an operating system kernel into RAM. Let us briefly sketch how boot loaders work in IBM's PC architecture.

In order to boot from a floppy disk, the instructions stored in its first sector are loaded in RAM and executed; these instructions copy all the remaining sectors containing the kernel image into RAM.

Booting from a hard disk is done differently. The first sector of the hard disk, named the master boot record (MBR), includes the partition table and a small program, which loads the first sector of the partition containing the operating system to be started. Some operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows 98, identify this partition by means of an active flag included in the partition table; following this approach, only the operating system whose kernel image is stored in the active partition can be booted. As we shall see later, Linux is more flexible since it replaces the rudimentary program included in the MBR with a sophisticated program called LILO that allows users to select the operating system to be booted.

Booting Linux from floppy disk

The only way to store a Linux kernel on a single floppy disk is to compress the kernel image. As we shall see, compression is done at compile time and decompression by the loader.

If the Linux kernel is loaded from a floppy disk, the boot loader is quite simple. It is coded in the arch/i386/boot/bootsect.S assembly language file. When a new kernel image is produced by compiling the kernel source, the executable code yielded by this assembly language file is placed at the beginning of the kernel image file. Thus, it is very easy to produce a bootable floppy containing the Linux kernel. The floppy can be created by copying the kernel image starting from the first sector of the disk. When the BIOS loads the first sector of the floppy disk, it actually copies the code of the boot loader.

The boot loader, which is invoked by the BIOS by jumping to physical address 0x00007c00, performs the following operations:

  1. Moves itself from address 0x00007c00 to address 0x00090000.

  2. Sets up the real mode stack, from address 0x00003ff4. As usual, the stack will grow toward lower addresses.

  3. Sets up the disk parameter table, used by the BIOS to handle the floppy device driver.

  4. Invokes a BIOS procedure to display a "Loading" message.

  5. Invokes a BIOS procedure to load the setup( ) code of the kernel image from the floppy disk and puts it in RAM starting from address 0x00090200.

  6. Invokes a BIOS procedure to load the rest of the kernel image from the floppy disk and puts the image in RAM starting from either low address 0x00010000 (for small kernel images compiled with make zImage) or high address 0x00100000 (for big kernel images compiled with make bzImage). In the following discussion, we will say that the kernel image is "loaded low" or "loaded high" in RAM, respectively. Support for big kernel images was introduced quite recently: While it uses essentially the same booting scheme as the older one, it places data in different physical memory addresses to avoid problems with the ISA hole mentioned in the section "Reserved Page Frames" in Chapter 2.

  7. Jumps to the setup( ) code.

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