Computer Questions: How Operating Systems Work

Without an operating system, your PC would be useless. Find out what an operating system does, and how it helps your computer's hardware and software function.

Most PC users see their computer system as hardware and software that effortlessly work together, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Your PC needs a great deal of help to get it to run smoothly. And it receives that help from the operating system.

Operating systems are software. But they don't crunch numbers, produce reports, or create presentations; they organize and manage the resources of your computer.

When you want to print a document, the operating system takes control. When you need to scan some paperwork, the operating system handles the request. The operating system acts as a middleman between you, the user, and your PC's hardware and software. In addition, it decides how to best utilize your computer's limited processing power. Here are some other important operating system functions:

* Input and Output (I/O)

The operating system helps you interact with your PC through your monitor, keyboard, and mouse without having to worry about the details of those I/O devices.

* File Management

It allows users to create, save, delete, move, and copy files.

* Program Execution

It loads your other programs (i.e., word processing, spreadsheets, database, etc.) from the hard drive into RAM.

Starting Up the Operating System

Because they take up so much memory, operating systems must be stored on your hard drive until they can be loaded into random access memory (RAM). When you turn on your computer, your PC's BIOS (Basic Input Output System) places a small amount of operating system code into RAM. As a result, the reminder of the operating system is loaded into memory.

The Kernel and the Shell

The kernel is the part of the operating system that deals with your hardware. As the user, you never work with the kernel itself. You must interact with it through a shell program.

The shell program is the visual setting you see when you use your computer. It's also the part of the operating system where users can issue commands to the computer. Some operating systems use a command line interface that allows you to type in specific commands. Others have a graphical user interface (GUI). GUIs use windows, menus, and icons to help you control your computer. Some operating systems have a variety of GUIs, allowing users to select the one they want.

Additional Operating System Features

* Multi-user and Multitasking

Although some operating systems only serve the needs of individual users, others must service hundreds of workers in large businesses. These multi-user operating systems are especially proficient at giving employees the ability to share resources such as printers or memory.

Today, many operating systems have multitasking capabilities. They can run several programs at once, and monitor each process. A process is a program that is currently running.

* Utility Programs

These applications work with the operating system to make a user's life a little easier. They may format floppy disks. Or tell you how many bytes are in a particular file. Whatever their function, utility programs expand the functionality of your PC and help you work more effectively.

Because they are so critical, operating systems are often the source of many heated debates. Which one's the best? Which one has the most flaws? People will always question the merits of a particular operating system. But one thing is certain: they will never question the need for one.

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