The linguistic barrier of operating system design

July 11, 2015 by Lucian Mogosanu

General-purpose operating systems have gone through an interesting evolution in the last five decades. From Unix, which has pretty much set the standard for OS design, to Windows, Mac OS, Android, iOS, etc., this landscape has become more and more varied in time in order to accommodate the need for computing machines ranging from personal computers to mobile devices and servers. However, as varied as they are, all operating systems have one thing in common: their kernel, which itself has evolved throughout the decades.

The kernel, as the name suggests, is an operating system's central component. From an engineering point of view, it is central in that it has full access to the underlying hardware; moreover, its proper functioning is essential: ideally, it must not have points of failure, nor must it impose security issues on the system. Thus the idea of microkernels was born1:

A concept is tolerated inside the microkernel only if moving it outside the kernel, i.e., permitting competing implementations, would prevent the implementation of the system’s required functionality.

Examples of microkernels include Minix, QNX, L4 and Mach. The opposite concept is that of monolithic kernels, which in addition implement at least some services, e.g. device drivers, as kernel primitives. Examples of monolithic kernels include FreeBSD, XNU, Linux and Windows NT.

The idea of monolithic kernels is clearly a paradox, as it contradicts our earlier definition. This has led certain engineers to redefine the kernel as the software component which runs in the processor's privileged mode -- e.g. x86's "Ring 0" domain. However, while this definition is useful for all its practical purposes, it does not hold any conceptual weight, and furthermore it causes certain issues which become inherent in the operating system's overall design.

I will reserve the rest of this post to present some of the existing OS kernel designs from a historical perspective, from which some of the current kernel design issues will stem. I will thus argue that OS design is facing what I call a linguistic barrier, that is, an impossibility to describe the kernel's functionality in order to meet current needs, and thus outgrow implementations in older, unsafe programming languages such as C. Finally, I will propose a general approach to this issue and draw a conclusion upon it.

A brief history of OS kernels

The first successful attempt at creating an operating system, and thus an operating system kernel, was Unix, namely Version 5, written in C for PDP-112. Its current descendants are Unix BSD kernels (FreeBSD, NetBSD, etc.) and to some degree Linux, which upholds most of the core principles of Unix, despite being written from scratch. Unix kernels are monolithic in the truest sense of the word: they implement core mechanisms such as scheduling, inter-process communication and memory management, along with device drivers and other services such as random number generation entropy pools or file systems. Their user space interface relies on the POSIX standard3, which is portable in the sense that a standard C program written in 1990 for 80386 can be compiled and run on nowadays' ARMv8 processors.

An alternative approach to kernel design started with the Mach microkernel, which aimed at reducing the number of services running as privileged applications. This has represented the majority of OS kernel research in the last three decades, from Minix4 to Liedtke's L4 to seL45. While L4 solved most of the performance issues specific to earlier microkernels, microkernels remain largely unadopted, with the notable exception of QNX.

A yet different attempt at OS redesign, started in the '80s, was made by Microsoft, IBM and Apple, with Windows NT, OS/2 and Mac OS/XNU respectively. In particular, XNU started out by being built on top of Mach, but all three were marketed as so-called "hybrid" kernels. While this may be true from a purely architectural point of view6, their actual implementation is that of a monolithic kernel; especially in the case of Windows -- e.g. Windows XP -- a third-party application including privileged services running in the kernel could easily crash the whole system, leading to the infamous Blue Screen of Death.

In contrast with the previous attempts, Singularity7 proposes a whole new approach to kernel design: the OS core is provided by a language run-time -- CLR in this particular case -- while all the other services and/or applications run as so-called "software isolated processes", i.e. applications that conform to, on one hand, compile-time checks, and on the other, run-time checks performed by the virtual machine. The idea is interesting, although seemingly useless, as it aims to replace hardware-enforced mechanisms with a possibly buggy software stack; its novelty however relies on the fact that performance-critical system-level services could be described and thus implemented in a higher-level, safer language, as opposed to, say, C.

Finally, a new perspective on OS design is given by virtualization, to the point that functionality is added in the hardware to make this practical. Virtual machines aim to abstract an entire hardware computing system8 in order to facilitate provisioning, for example by deploying an entire server from a VM template, and also to isolate faults and security breaches. Virtualization kernels are called hypervisors, and they are in many respects similar to a classical OS kernel, as they provide similar basic mechanisms, the main difference being that they are theoretically9 much closer in design to a microkernel than to a monolithic kernel.

Although hypervisors may in fact add complexity, since they incur a layer of abstraction in addition to the already complicated software stack employed on top of monolithic kernels, they may also isolate it. Additionally, new paradigms, such as that of Unikernels10, aim to remove complexity and provide operating systems-as-appliances running on top of hypervisors. However, hypervisors themselves are often deviating from the core principles of microkernels and thus lack a certain degree of reliability11.

Outstanding issues in OS kernel design

A fundamental problem with widely-deployed kernels such as Linux is that they are not in fact kernels. In addition to the core mechanisms, they offer functionality for file systems, virtualization, cryptography and many others12, all of these so-called "subsystems" running at the same level of privilege with the actual kernel, where by "level of privilege" we mean both hardware and software privileges. Although malicious "kernel modules" are a rare occurrence, given that they can only be loaded by the most privileged user in the system, faulty code is a common issue, tractable only palliatively through the large developer base and cautious testing mechanisms of Linux.

In other words, chances of faulty code reaching the kernel's main branch are relatively small from a statistical point of view, but the cost in man-hours for ensuring this is significant13. This comes only to support the notion that Linux is in fact not a kernel in the purest conceptual sense.

On the other hand, microkernels such as seL414 come with strong safety guarantees, while remaining yet usable only as research tools. Given nowadays' general context regarding security, we need such a deployable kernel not now, but yesterday. Moreover, seL4 shows that verifiably safe kernels are feasible, but not that they are practical, and furthermore it does not tell us anything about verifiably safe operating systems or software systems in general.

One may argue that the microkernel, not unlike the monolithic kernel, provides an extremist point of view: maybe some of the software in the system does indeed need to run in the processor's most privileged mode, be it a special hypervisor state or a classical "Ring 0". This would avoid the inherent performance overhead required by hardware context switches, but it should not come at the expense of reliability.

Thus I argue that the fundamental issue with operating system design is not that software components requiring a certain level of privilege are run in Ring 0; that would be nonsense. The fundamental issue with operating system design is that privileged operating system components -- often other than the conceptual kernel, but sometimes even the kernel itself -- are written in an unreliable manner. Projects such as Singularity and Mirage OS15 address this issue, but I am not yet convinced that they do it holistically.

I also argue that the current state of affairs is as described due to a so-called linguistic barrier that has been more or less acknowledged, but not yet resolved in the field of OS research.

The linguistic barrier of OS design

Most modern operating system architectures use a layered approach, sometimes with the hypervisor representing the lowest software layer. Uncoincidentally, that is why x86 protection modes are designed as so-called "rings": the initial idea was that some of the OS components would be run in the most privileged ring, while others would be employed in a less privileged ring. The programmer's point of view can be represented similarly, using the following three layers, with Layer 0 being the most privileged:

  • Layer 0, the hardware-specific language -- includes instructions that are typically never generated by compilers, e.g. return from interrupt, software interrupts, cache flushing mnemonics, etc.
  • Layer 1, hardware-agnostic omnipotence -- no less privileged than Layer 0, only it includes components written in a high-level language such as C, to abstract the underlying instruction set architecture.
  • Layer 2, hardware-enforced policies -- a separation layer including the system call API, virtual memory mappings, etc.
  • Layer 3, the virtual machine -- virtual machines have their privileged confined by the lower layers; they are conceptually identical to processes, so they may or may not be provided with the same interface as the lower layers. Virtual machines may be written in any language or even multiple languages.

In a typical monolithic scenario, the kernel and a specific set of services, e.g. device drivers, reside in Layer 0 and Layer 1, while other services and applications reside in Layer 3. The fundamental strength of this scenario is the possibility of direct access to I/O devices and strong coupling between OS subsystems, while its fundamental weakness is the lack of fault tolerance for components which require direct access to memory and OS data structures.

In a typical microkernel scenario, the kernel, and possibly a small set of services, e.g. cache control mechanisms, reside in Layer 0 and Layer 1, while the vast majority of services and applications reside in Layer 3. The fundamental strength of this scenario represents strong hardware isolation between services, applications and the kernel. Its fundamental weakness is the requirement to set up a protocol for access to I/O devices and to allow services to communicate among themselves and with applications; as far as experience goes, this approach is expensive in terms of performance, without providing portability. However, it has proven its usefulness in the field of virtualization, where an entire operating system is run in Layer 3.

In both scenarios there is a class of software components that do not benefit from this structure: device drivers and low-level system services such as file systems are unfit to be run either as tightly-coupled privileged components or as user space applications. In the first case they are given the same privileges as the trusted kernel; in the second case they must request privileges from other entities and go through hardware context-switches to the kernel each time they perform this action.

Thus I propose complementing this structure with a Layer 1.5, a software managed, or rather language managed layer that is hardware-agnostic. Ideally, such a layer is not to be used for performance-critical tasks that cannot be handled by the language run-time. The language run-time itself resides in Layer 1 and it validates software-defined policies for services running in Layer 1.5 -- for example providing them with access to I/O or ensuring that only valid byte code gets executed. Thus in a strictly orthodox design, the OS kernel would consist of only the language run-time, while all other "kernel-level" components would be developed in Layer 1.5.

This approach deserves a comparison with existing OS designs such as Windows NT and XNU. Fundamentally it derives from them, the main difference is that components such as loadable modules never cross their level of privilege and data structure sharing is done only explicitly and through safe primitives, e.g. for concurrency. It is also in many respects similar to the approaches employed by Singularity and the various Unikernels, with the fundamental difference that it is more general, thus being able to encompass one or both of these approaches.


I strongly believe that the approach presented in this post will break what I termed a "linguistic barrier" with regard to the implementation of operating system software components. Although I haven't presented any suitable languages for this, there are a lot of possibilities, such as OCaml, Haskell, Rust16 or SPARK17, some of which have already been used for operating system development.

However interesting it might be, this approach poses questions and challenges. For example, what components are run most efficiently in the language-managed layer and which ones are best suited for user space? What is the right API between the kernel and the language-managed applications? How can the run-time/kernel be made small enough so that it can be thoroughly and scalably verified?

  1. Liedtke, Jochen. On micro-kernel construction. Vol. 29. No. 5. ACM, 1995. 

  2. Ritchie, O. M., and Ken Thompson. "The UNIX time-sharing system." Bell System Technical Journal, The 57.6 (1978): 1905-1929. 

  3. POSIX.1-2008 

  4. Herder, Jorrit N., et al. "MINIX 3: A highly reliable, self-repairing operating system." ACM SIGOPS Operating Systems Review 40.3 (2006): 80-89. 

  5. Klein, Gerwin, et al. "seL4: Formal verification of an OS kernel." Proceedings of the ACM SIGOPS 22nd symposium on Operating systems principles. ACM, 2009. 

  6. Solomon, David A. "The Windows NT kernel architecture." Computer 31.10 (1998): 40-47. 

  7. Hunt, Galen C., and James R. Larus. "Singularity: rethinking the software stack." ACM SIGOPS Operating Systems Review 41.2 (2007): 37-49. 

  8. Although one might argue that a hardware computing system is no different from, say, the Java run-time, from a theoretical point of view. Each of them can be used to achieve the very same goals, only with different costs in terms of development effort, performance, security, flexibility, etc. 

  9. Unfortunately this only applies to Type I hypervisors. VMware and KVM, two canonical examples of Type II hypervisors, suffer from the same issues as monolithic kernels, given that they always or most often integrate into monolithic kernels. 

  10. Madhavapeddy, Anil, and David J. Scott. "Unikernels: Rise of the Virtual Library Operating System." Queue 11.11 (2013): 30. 

  11. Wojtczuk, Rafal. "Adventures with a certain Xen vulnerability (in the PVFB backend)." Message sent to bugtraq mailing list on October 15th (2008). 

  12. A short look at the Linux kernel tree should confirm that. 

  13. The author would like to note that this cost is most probably still significantly smaller than the cost to formally verify a snapshot of the Linux code base, not to mention maintaining those formal proofs. Albeit that is the issue of Linux, not of formal verification. 

  14. Elkaduwe, Dhammika, Gerwin Klein, and Kevin Elphinstone. "Verified protection model of the seL4 microkernel." Verified Software: Theories, Tools, Experiments. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2008. 99-114. 


  16. The Rust Programming Language 

  17. SPARK 2014 

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3 Responses to “The linguistic barrier of operating system design”

  1. [...] operating systems engineering has been completely stuck in a rut in the last few decades: kernels aren't what they mean, Unix is the standard -- and mostly rightfully so -- and only few people1 think beyond the current [...]

  2. [...] them very briefly in the past, mentioning that operating system design is in fact plagued by a more general problem that is not entirely solved by microkernels and is generally ignored by the engineering and [...]

  3. [...] last time I visited the field of operating system design, I concluded that journey with questions. That line of questioning didn't solve much, but merely [...]

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