First of all, developing an operating system is probably one of the most challenging things you can do on a computer (next to killing the final boss in Doom on Nightmare difficulty level). Composing an operating system requires a lot of knowledge about several complex areas within computer science. You need to understand how hardware works, be able to read and write the complex Assembly language, and also a higher level language (like for instance C, C++ or Pascal). Your mind has to be able to wrap itself around abstract theory, and hold a myriad of thoughts. Feel discouraged yet? Don't fear! Because all of these things are also the things that makes OS programming fun and entertaining.
There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment. When you, finally, after hours of struggling finally solve the problem. And after some time you are able to look back and see all of the things you've created from scratch. Your handwritten system is able to boot, performs magic against the hardware, and gives the user a user interface and programs to play with.
There is no absolute path you have to take when creating an OS. Once you get your initial system up and running (and you do this by finding appropriate tutorials), you choose the path you want to take next. Your OS is exactly that - yours. You have ultimate control, and the sky is the limit!
The Hard Truth
Hopefully the basic fact that operating system development is a complicated and on-going process does not discourage you. The truth is, operating system development is truly unparalleled since it requires the utmost amount of patience, careful code design and returns very little to no "instant gratification" you get from the development of things like games and web based scripting.
You have been fairly warned of the hard work ahead, but if you are still interested then proceed forward into the realm of the operating system programmer. Prepare yourself for occasional bouts of confusion, discouragement, and for some of us... temporary insanity. In time, and with enough dedication, you will find yourself among the elite few who have contributed to a working operating system. If you do get discouraged along the way, refresh yourself with the contents of this book, hopefully it will remind you of why you started such an insane journey in the first place.
At this stage, it would also pay to read the Beginner Mistakes page. Users on the forum have noticed a lot of these mistakes getting repeated over time, and avoiding them is a great way to not make a fool of yourself.
People tend to claim that it is OK to write inefficient software, stating that computer systems are so fast these days, that you won't see the impact. This type of mentality is dangerous in operating system design. It might be OK to write sloppy code when making a simple application, but when it comes to critical code that may get called thousands of times per second, you need to take out all the overhead you can. The operating system should supply the computer as a basic resource to the running application's', with as little complication, abstraction and overhead as possible.
People who design operating systems in this day and age tend to have the "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality. They take it upon themselves to account for everything, which of course is good, but it shouldn't be done in order to allow poorly written programs to flourish. There are many things that go on "under the hood" when program errors occur. Poorly written programs cost precious execution time, and involve task switches that are expensive in both memory and frequency. We encourage you to discourage poorly written software.
If you think you can skip this, it's just for you.
This section has been moved to a separate page, because it is referred to so often in forum discussions.
Choosing your development environment
You need a platform to develop your new system on. Following the trends of general computing, the two most popular are Windows and GNU/Linux. Developers using a GNU/Linux system have a slight advantage in availability of tools, but this can be solved on Windows using a system such as Cygwin.
- binutils: Fundamental tools for manipulation of object files.
- GCC: The GNU Compiler Collection. GCC contains compilers for C, C++, Fortran and Ada, amongst others.
- Make: For automating the build process, which becomes really helpful once you have more than a handful of files.
- grep and sed: For doing more powerful searches and search and replaces (helpful when filling out tables with data).
- diffutils: Incredibly useful for showing the differences between two files.
- Perl or Python: One of these two scripting languages should be installed. Useful for string manipulation, amongst other things. Perl used to be the recommendation, but Python is now quite mature, and is possibly easier to learn. Both have hundreds of packages/modules available for doing various tasks.
- An editor: For writing your assembly, C and other (code) files.
You might not use all of these tools, but it is best to have them on hand 'just in case', and know how to use them, even at a basic level.
In order to get the tools necessary, you should install the Cygwin environment. MinGW or DJGPP are alternatives, but Cygwin is strongly suggested as it is the most complete and compatible environment.
For all of the above, it is strongly suggested to build a cross-compiler, not only because the default compilers target different executable formats, but because it's generally a good idea. Check the GCC Cross-Compiler page for details and instructions.
You will also need an editor. Using Notepad will work, but it's easier if you have a more complete editor. For example, Notepad++ or Notepad2 can and are used by many people. If you are comfortable with Unix editors, you can pick one from the choice Cygwin provides (which includes e.g. vim and Emacs, which take some getting-used-to but are very powerful).
It is also possible to use Visual Studio, or the freely downloadable Visual C++ Express Edition, to write and compile your operating system. You will require a special configuration file, and you will certainly be in the minority, but it does work quite well. You can even install the Windows SDK ontop, enabling 64 bit development. The only pitfall is this doesn't support inline assembly.
When using GNU/Linux, most of the GNU development tools are probably already present. If not, use your distribution's package management tools (apt-get, rpm, emerge) to install them as needed. Again, making a cross-compiler is recommended, so as not to link in the development system's runtime files.
Testing your operating system
- Main article: Testing
The above article goes into a lot of depth about choosing how to test your operating system and how to integrate that with your development process. Both physical and emulated testing environments are discussed.
Protecting your code
During your code building you will write hundreds, even thousands, of lines of code. You'll spend an unmentionable number of hours, and sit up late at night coding when you really should go to bed. The last thing you need is a disk crash or a poorly written 'rm' or 'format' command throwing all your work away.
What you need is a version control system. CVS has been used for a number of years, but has gotten a lot of competition from Subversion, Bazaar, Mercurial and Git lately. If you can, you should set up a remote computer or server as a version control server, but if you do not have such a machine available you can also host the version control system on your local development computer. Just remember to backup your code to CD or FTP once in a while.
A convenient way of getting access to a Subversion server is to create a project over at SourceForge. You can also set up your project at Google Code or at HIT Open Source Platform (Chinese). For Git you can create your project on GitHub. Keep in mind this does require your project to be open source. Bitbucket is also a good alternative as it supports both Git and Mercurial, and counts with free, private repositories.
Common starting points
There are many other Tutorials available, too.
Attaining further knowledge
There is an amazing amount of knowledge about operating system development available on the Internet today. It's just a matter of finding it. First of all, there is this wiki itself. Amongst others we have lots of Tutorials. Since you're here, you've probably already found it. Also on this site is the forum, where many developers hang out and can help you (but make sure you read How To Ask Questions first). Quite a few books on operating system development have been written. A number of these are featured on our Books page, and more over at osdever.net as well.