Operating systems are a type of system software that is vital in order for our computer systems to actually run. All computer systems will have some form of operating system in order to:
- Manage the computers hardware and peripheral devices
- Provide an interface to the user
- Manage software
- Manage memory
- Manage users
Providing An Interface
The interface provides a user-friendly screen instead of showing the complexity of the operating system code. The majority of operating systems that we come across in everyday life will be graphical user interfaces (GUI). These can be easily identified by their for distinguishing features: windows, icons, menus, and pointers, or WIMP for short.
GUIs are installed with operating systems as they are easier for non-technical users to use with very little training. However, these are not the only interfaces that an OS may have.
Command line interfaces (CLI) allow highly technical users to access all areas of the operating system through a set of written commands and no images. Whilst these are much quicker and allow far greater access, they are also much more prone to issues for non-technical users and much more difficult to use.
The operating system manages hardware through additional “bolt on” software called a driver. A driver is a small piece of software that tells the operating system what the peripheral does, and how to obtain data from it and send data back.
For example, when you plug in a new mouse you will often see a pop-up that tells you that your operating system is searching online for a driver before it can install your new piece of hardware. Once downloaded and installed, the driver extends your operating system allowing it to detect the movement of the mouse and output this as a pointer on your screen.
Managing software includes the storage of software, its data, and also how the software interacts with the hardware on the system. The operating system also acts as a platform on which to install additional piece of software. This means that you cannot install any software onto your computer system until it has an operating system.
As the operating system is key to managing the hardware of the computer systems, part of that is allocating primary memory for data and programs.
As new programs are started, the operating system helps to allocate space in the RAM to hold the required programs and data, and smaller sections of primary memory within the cache to hold the instructions that allow us to interact with the hardware & software of our computer systems.
Most operating systems will allow more than one user account (although they log in at different times). When a user account is created a folder structure is assigned to hold their personal files, keeping them hidden from other users.
Often, there will be different levels of user accounts including administrators that have access to all areas, and individual users access is limited to just their own files.
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