What kinds of OS are there?

Okay, so here’s the thing: operating systems are made up of a lot of components. The core component is called a ‘kernel’. The non-kernel bits of an operating system are collectively called a ‘userland’. Typically a kernel has more direct access to the machine than a userland and thus acts somewhat like a super user (with powers that even ‘sudo’ cannot give you). A kernel forms the basis of the abstractions and isolations. So, as OS developers, when we categorize operating systems, we tend to categorize them by what kinds of kernel they have.

By the way...

Although you may be used to hearing the term ‘Linux’ used as a name for an operating system, you may hear some people say, “It’s GNU/Linux, not Linux.” That’s because virtually all Linux distributions today use a Linux kernel + a GNU userland. So the GNU folks are a bit annoyed that the kernel gets all the credit. By the same token, a lot of people say ‘the kernel’ when they mean ‘the Linux kernel.’ This gets an entirely different set of people mad.

At the start, our ‘operating system’ will be just the kernel, and so we’ll tend to focus on kernels for the first part of our journey.

The way that we categorize different kernels largely comes down to “what is in the kernel and what is in userspace.” Upon reading this, you might then think the easiest kind of kernel to write is the smallest, where everything is in userspace. After all, smaller should be easier, right? Well... that’s not actually true. Or at least, it’s not clear that it’s true.

Monolithic kernels

First, we have ‘monolithic kernels’. ‘Mono’ meaning ‘one’. One big ol’ kernel. Most real-world kernels are monolithic kernels, or at least, pretend to be. Don’t worry about it. Linux, for example, is a monolithic kernel.

This means that monolithic kernels are kind of ‘the default’. Other kernels usually define themselves by solving some kind of problem that monolithic kernels have.

If a monolithic kernel were a web application, it would be a big ol’ Rails application. One repository. A million subdirectories. It may be a big ball of mud, but it pays the bills.


Microkernels are, well, micro. Smaller. A lot of the functionality that’s typically in the kernel is in userspace instead. This is a good idea in theory, but historically, microkernels have had issues. All that communication has overhead, which makes them slower.

Mach, the kernel that Mac OS X uses, is a microkernel. Well, sort of. It ended up being one, but Mac OS X uses a version of Mach from before that work was done... so it’s a bit blurry.

If a microkernel were a web application, it would be a microservice. And a bunch of the other stuff that’s in kernel space in a monolithic kernel are other microservices, but in userspace instead. It’s a bit cooler than a single monolithic web app by itself, and the communication is nice for flexibility’s sake, but has some overhead.

Exokernels & Unikernels

These two kinds of operating systems are closely related, but it’s a bit harder to dig into what exactly makes them different. Unikernels have one easy-to-describe feature: they only run one single program at a time. Exokernels are ‘more micro than micro’, but the details aren’t important right now.

The important thing to know here is that there are a lot of other kinds of designs than just monolithic vs. micro. There’s a lot of stuff to learn!