Operating Systems and Computer Networks

Microsoft Windows 8
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What is a Computer Operating System?

Computers use low-level software called an operating system (O/S) to help people operate the physical machines. An O/S enables running application software (called "programs") as well as building new programs. Operating system software runs not just on laptop computers but also on cell phones, network routers and other so-called embedded devices.

Types of Operating Systems

Hundreds of different computer operating systems have been developed over the years by corporations, universities, and enterprising individuals.

The best-known operating systems are those found on personal computers:

  • Microsoft Windows
  • Mac OS X
  • Linux

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

  • Apple iOS and Google Android (a variant of Linux) - for cell phones
  • Solaris, HP-UX, DG-UX, and other variants of Unix - for server computers
  • DEC VMS (Virtual Memory System) - for mainframe computers

Other operating systems enjoyed a period of notoriety but are of only historical interest now:

  • Novell Netware was a popular O/S for PCs in the 1990s
  • IBM OS/2 was an early PC O/S 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, that influenced the later development of Unix

Network Operating Systems

A modern O/S contains much built-in software designed to simplify networking of a computer. Typical O/S software includes an implementation of TCP/IP protocol stack and related utility programs like ping and traceroute.

This includes the necessary device drivers and other software to automatically enable a device's Ethernet interface. Mobile devices also normally provide the programs needed to enable Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other wireless connectivity.

Early versions of Microsoft Windows did not provide any support for computer networking.

Microsoft added basic networking capability into 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), Windows HomeGroup for home networking in Windows 7, and so on. Contrast that with Unix, which was designed from the beginning with networking in view. Nearly any consumer O/S today qualifies as a network operating system due to the popularity of the Internet and home networking.

Embedded Operating Systems

A so-called embedded system supports no or limited configuration of its software. Embedded systems like routers, for example, typically include a pre-configured Web server, DHCP server, and some utilities but 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

An embedded OS can also be found inside an increasing number of consumer gadgets including phones (iPhone OS), PDAs (Windows CE), and digital media players (ipodlinux).