Operating Systems and Computer Networks

Modern operating systems have built-in networking capabilities

Microsoft Windows 8

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Every commonly available modern computer ships with an operating system (OS) — software that manages the apps, functions, and hardware on the computer and provides an interface that humans use to interact with it all. Operating system software runs not just on laptop and desktop computers but also on smartphones, tablets, network routers, and other smart devices. Networking capabilities are built into all modern operating systems.

Types of Operating Systems

Corporations, universities, and enterprising individuals have developed hundreds of computer operating systems over the years. The best-known, most common operating systems are those found on personal computers:

Some operating systems are designed for certain types of equipment, such as:

  • Apple iOS and Google Android for smartphones and tablets
  • Solaris, HP-UX, DG-UX, and other variants of Unix for server computers
  • DEC VMS (virtual memory system) for mainframe computers
  • Apple's tvOS for Apple TV digital media players
  • Wear OS for Google smartwatches

Other operating systems are of only historical interest now:

  • Novell Netware was a popular OS for Windows computers in the 1990s.
  • IBM OS/2 was an early Windows OS that competed with Microsoft Windows for a time but had limited success in the consumer market.
  • Multics was an especially innovative operating system created for mainframes in the 1960s; it influenced the later development of Unix.

Network Operating Systems

Command Prompt - Ping - Web Site
Command Prompt - Ping - Web Site. Bradley Mitchell / About.com

A modern OS contains built-in software designed to simplify networking. Typical OS software includes an implementation of TCP/IP and related utility programs such as ping and traceroute, along with the necessary device drivers and other software to automatically enable a device's Ethernet or wireless interface. The operating systems of mobile devices normally provide the programs needed to enable Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other wireless connectivity.

Early versions of Microsoft Windows did not provide any support for computer networking. Microsoft added basic networking capability to its operating system starting with Windows 95 and Windows for Workgroups. Microsoft also introduced its Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) feature in Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98 SE) and Windows HomeGroup for home networking in Windows 7. Contrast that with Unix, which was designed from the beginning with networking in view.

Windows 10 Network and Sharing Center screenshot
Windows 10 Network and Sharing Center.

Today, networking support is the norm rather than the exception. Most modern operating systems qualify as network operating systems by virtue of the facts that they enable internet access and support home networking.

Embedded Operating Systems

An embedded OS supports no or limited configuration of its software. Embedded OSs such as that in routers, for example, typically include a preconfigured web server, DHCP server, and some utilities, but they do not allow the installation of new programs. Examples of embedded operating systems for routers include:

  • Cisco IOS (Internetwork Operating System)
  • DD-WRT
  • Juniper Junos