Multitasking

During this posting from some time ago, I wrote at length about the subject of interrupt prioritization. I wanted to demonstrate that I really did study System Software, and that therefore, I know something which I can pass along, about the subject of multitasking, which is a different subject.

The perspective from which I appreciate multitasking, is the perspective of the device-driver. According to what I was taught – and it is a bit dated – a device-driver had a top half and a bottom half. The top half was invoked by user-space processes, in a way that required a system-call, while the bottom half was invoked by interrupt requests, from the hardware. This latter detail did not changed if instead of using purely interrupt-driven I/O, the hardware and driver used DMA.

A system-call is also known as a software-interrupt.

The assumption which is made is that a user-space process can request a resource, thus invoking the top half of the device driver, but that the resource is recognized by the device driver as being busy, and that processes on the CPU run much faster than the I/O device. What the device-driver will do is change the state of the process which invoked it from ‘running’ to ‘blocked’, and it will make an entry in a table it holds, which identifies which process had requested the resource, as well as device-specific information, regarding what exactly the process asked for. Then, the top half of the device-driver will send whatever requests to the device that are needed, to initiate the I/O operation, and to ensure that at some future point in time, the resource and piece of data which were asked for, will become available. The top half of the device-driver then exits, and the process which invoked it will typically not be in a ‘running’ state anymore, unless for some reason the exact item being requested was immediately available. So as far as the top half is concerned, what usually needs to happen next is that some other process, which is in the ‘ready’ state, needs to be made ‘running’ by the kernel.

The bottom half of the device driver responds to the interrupt request from the device, which has signaled that something has become available, and looks up in the table belonging to the device driver, which process asked for that item, out of several possible processes which may be waiting on the same device. The bottom half then changes the state of the process in question from ‘blocked’ to ‘ready’, so that whenever a ‘ready’ process is about to be made ‘running’, the previously-blocked process will have become a contender.

The O/S kernel is then free to schedule the ‘ready’ process in question, making it ‘running’.

Now, aside from the fact that processes can be ‘running’, ‘ready’, or ‘blocked’, a modern O/S has a differentiation, between ‘active’ and ‘suspended’, that applies to ‘ready’ and ‘blocked’ processes. My System Software course did not go into great detail about this, because in order to understand why this is needed, one also needs to understand that there exists virtual memory, and that processes can be swapped out. The System Software course I took, did not cover virtual memory, but I have read about this subject privately, after taking the course.

The kernel could have several reasons to suspend a process, and the programmer should expect that his process can be suspended at any time. But one main reason why it would be suspended in practice, would be so that it can be swapped out. Only the kernel can make a ‘suspended’ process ‘active’ again.

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