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In Computing, what is a Kernel?

By Kristen Grubb
Updated: May 16, 2024

In most computer operating systems, the kernel is the central component. It is the bridge between the user and applications and the computer hardware. It also is the mechanism that allows the computer to handle multiple users and multiple tasks simultaneously. The types of kernels are the monolithic kernel, the microkernel, the hybrid kernel, the nanokernel and the exokernel.

The kernel manages all of the computer's system resources. This includes long-term storage, the central processing unit (CPU), short-term memory and the input and output devices. When an application needs one of these resources, the kernel makes the resource available and completes the request.

This handling of resources allows the operating systems to be both multi-user and multitasking. The operating system does not actually perform more than one task at a time. Instead, the kernel switches tasks at such a high speed that the computer appears to be performing multiple tasks. The kernel also is responsible for making sure that resources used by one user or process are not violated the request of another user or process.

There two main types of kernels are the monolithic kernel and the microkernel. Monolithic kernels employ a supervisory method of resource management in which all of the operating system services are run in the same address space, called the kernel space. Some monolithic kernels can load and unload executable modules. This extends the operating system's capabilities while still maintaining a minimum amount of code running in the kernel space at any one time.

Microkernels run only the minimal amount of operating system services, such as memory management, thread management and inter-process communication in the kernel space. All other services, such as device drivers, user interfaces and file management, are run in the user space. The microkernel severely minimizes the amount of code that is running in the kernel mode.

A hybrid kernel is a combination of the monolithic and microkernels. Most of the operating system's system services are run in the kernel space, like a monolithic kernel. There are other services, such as the file system and windowing system, that are run in the user space.

The other kernel types are the nanokernel and the exokernel. The nanokernel uses device drivers to handle almost all of the services. The exokernel uses programs to allocate physical resources.

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