Operating System Design/Kernel Architecture/Microkernel

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Structure of monolithic and microkernel-based operating systems, respectively.

The microkernel approach is to define a very simple abstraction over the hardware, with a set of primitives or system calls to implement minimal OS services such as thread management, address spaces and interprocess communication. All other services, those normally provided by the kernel such as networking, are implemented in user-space programs referred to as servers. Servers are programs like any others, allowing the operating system to be modified simply by starting and stopping programs. For a small machine without networking support, for instance, the networking server simply isn't started. Under a traditional system this would require the kernel to be recompiled, something well beyond the capabilities of the average end-user. In theory the system is also more stable, because a failing server simply stops a single program, rather than causing the kernel itself to crash.

However, part of the system state is lost with the failing server, and it is generally difficult to continue execution of applications, or even of other servers with a fresh copy. For example, if a (theoretic) server responsible for TCP/IP connections is restarted, applications could be told the connection was "lost" and reconnect, going through the new instance of the server. However, other system objects, like files, do not have these convenient semantics, are supposed to be reliable, not become unavailable randomly and keep all the information written to them previously. So, database techniques like transactions, replication and checkpointing need to be used between servers in order to preserve essential state across single server restarts.

Microkernels generally underperform traditional designs, sometimes dramatically. This is due in large part to the overhead of moving in and out of the kernel, a context switch, in order to move data between the various applications and servers. It was originally believed that careful tuning could reduce this overhead dramatically, but by the mid-90s most researchers had given up. In more recent times newer microkernels, designed for performance first, have addressed these problems to a very large degree. Nevertheless the market for existing operating systems is so entrenched that little work continues on microkernel design.