What I have learned from resurrecting my operating system

Back at school in 2011 when I was still studying software engineering, I implemented a simple operating system for i386 architecture. When I wrote it, I did not have too much experience with makefiles, automated tests, builds, etc. Thus the project does not look too nice. For a long time I was eager to refactor some parts, port to C++, maybe use llvm and some of nice C++ features to better organize the code. Fortunately, I wish I could use C++11 or above, maybe even implement 64bit support and run it on arm architecture :)

I just spent a week figuring out how to compile and run the OS. And eventually I've learned some new things. Some of it I knew, but forgot, some if it was completely new to me :)


When I was implementing the OS, I used bochs to test it. But this time QEMU seemed more attractive to me.

I can run QEMU with floppy disk image:

$ qemu-system-i386 -fda sos.img

Alternatively I can tell QEMU to emulate usb disk:

$ qemu-system-i386 -usb -usbdevice disk:sos.img
$ qemu-system-i386 -usb -usbdevice host:$vendor_id:$product_id

I've learned that if I press ctrl+alt+shift+2 when OS is running inside QEMU, it will open console which allows me to control the emulated machine.

I can dump physical memory at given address:

xp /10xb 0x7E00
  • 10 - number of items to display
  • x - print numbers in hex format
  • b - item size is one byte

I can scroll console with ctrl+page up/down.


My simple OS has a small handcrafter bootloader written in assembly language. I use nasm to produce machine code.

I can produce raw binaries with nasm:

$ nasm -f bin boot.asm -o boot.bin

To disassemble I use objdump:

$ objdump -D -b binary -m i386 -M intel boot.bin


  • -D means disassemble all segments
  • -b binary specifies file format
  • -m i386 specifies architecture
  • -M intel specifies assembly language syntax

Also, it was new to me that nasm has local labels. Meaning you can have multiple labels with the same name. Local labels must go after regular labels and start with a period:

label1  ; some code
.loop   ; some more code
        jne .loop
label2  ; some code
.loop   ; some more code
        jne .loop

OS loading

When computer starts, BIOS loads the first sector (512 bytes) of a bootable device. My bootloader (at least first stage) has to fit into those 512 bytes. Then it is able to read some more data: other parts of bootloader or kernel.

BIOS provides basic functionality to read some data from floppy or USB disk. In real mode BIOS emulates USB as floppy. Thus reading from USB is identical to reading from floppy.

There are two functions to read data from disk:

The difference is that ah=0x2 is older and uses CHS (Cylinder, Head, Sector) addressing. Whereas ah=0x42 uses linear addressing. Personally, I prefer ah=0x42, because it's more intuitive to me. And it's use looks more or less like this:

boot_disk db 0x80 ; disk number
        db 0x10
        db 0
.count: dw 0 ; int 13 resets this to # of blocks actually read/written
.buf:   dw 0 ; memory buffer destination address
.seg:   dw 0 ; in memory page zero
.addr:  dq 1 ; skip 1st disk sector which is bootloader, which is loaded by BIOS

mov ax, 127
mov [dapack.count], ax
mov ax, 0x7E00
mov [dapack.buf], ax

mov dl, [boot_disk]
mov si, dapack
mov ah, 0x42
int 0x13

Memory paging

When I was finally able to boot the OS, all I saw was page faults. I had completely forgotten how i386 paging works, except that page size usually is 4096 bytes :)


In protected mode MMU (Memory Management Unit) translates the virtual address the running process is trying to access into physical address. MMU consults CR3 register and two tables: page directory and page table:

                               Page Tables                  Pages
                             +--------------+           +--------------+
                             |              |---------> |              |
                             +--------------+           |              |
                             |              |-----+     |              |
                             +--------------+     |     |              |
                      +----> |              |     |     |              |
 Page Directory       |      +--------------+     |     +--------------+
+--------------+      |                           |
|              |------+      +--------------+     |     +--------------+
+--------------+             |              |     +---->|              |
|              |------+      +--------------+           |              |
+--------------+      |      |              |           |              |
|              |      |      +--------------+           |              |
+--------------+      +----> |              |           |              |
                             +--------------+           +--------------+

I had completely forgotten about control registers. Basically CR3 is a 32bit register that holds the address of page directory.

MMU algorithm:

page_directory_addr = CR3
page_table_addr = page_directory_addr[virtual_addr[31:22]]
page_addr = page_table[virtual_addr[21:12]]
physical_addr = page_addr[virtual_addr[11:0]]

Context swithing

When it was pretty much clear how paging works, it was easier to investigate page faults. After playing around for some time, it was clear that context switching was causing the page faults. So I started to refresh my knowledge how pages are refreshed for running processes.

Kernel holds physical addresses of every page a process owns. Virtual memory for every process starts a 0x0. So what task scheduler does, when it switches the processes, it alters the Page Tables entries to point to new pages. Turns out everything was ok with this procedure.

The BUG was that, when new pages were linked, MMU would not start using them immediately because of TLB. I did not know about TLB before, but basically it's a cache of virtual to physical address mappings. Flushing TLB is pretty easy. I only have to update CR3 register:

set_page_directory(PageDirectory *page_dir)
    asm volatile ("mov %0, %%eax;"
        "mov %%eax, %%cr3"
        : : "r" (page_dir)
        : "eax"

So, I updated OS task scheduler to update CR3 every time context switch happened. And that fixed the page faults. After that the OS ran smoothly, just like 6 years ago :)


I'm happy I spent 5 days on this. I've learned some QEMU, nasm, objdump features, refreshed my knowledge of i386 boot process and memory management. And now I have a working environment that empowers me to play with real devices, misc CPU instructions, test some OS design ideas, etc.