Process Control Block

All of the information needed to keep track of a process when switching is kept in a data package called a process control block. The process control block typically contains:

  • An ID number that identifies the process
  • Pointers to the locations in the program and its data where processing last occurred
  • Register contents
  • States of various flags and switches
  • Pointers to the upper and lower bounds of the memory required for the process
  • A list of files opened by the process
  • The priority of the process
  • The status of all I/O devices needed by the process

Each process has a status associated with it. Many processes consume no CPU time until they get some sort of input. For example, a process might be waiting for a keystroke from the user. While it is waiting for the keystroke, it uses no CPU time. While it's waiting, it is "suspended". When the keystroke arrives, the OS changes its status. When the status of the process changes, from pending to active, for example, or from suspended to running, the information in the process control block must be used like the data in any other program to direct execution of the task-switching portion of the operating system.

This process swapping happens without direct user interference, and each process gets enough CPU cycles to accomplish its task in a reasonable amount of time. Trouble can begin if the user tries to have too many processes functioning at the same time. The operating system itself requires some CPU cycles to perform the saving and swapping of all the registers, queues and stacks of the application processes. If enough processes are started, and if the operating system hasn't been carefully designed, the system can begin to use the vast majority of its available CPU cycles to swap between processes rather than run processes. When this happens, it's called thrashing, and it usually requires some sort of direct user intervention to stop processes and bring order back to the system.

One way that operating-system designers reduce the chance of thrashing is by reducing the need for new processes to perform various tasks. Some operating systems allow for a "process-lite," called a thread, that can deal with all the CPU-intensive work of a normal process, but generally does not deal with the various types of I/O and does not establish structures requiring the extensive process control block of a regular process. A process may start many threads or other processes, but a thread cannot start a process.

So far, all the scheduling we've discussed has concerned a single CPU. In a system with two or more CPUs, the operating system must divide the workload among the CPUs, trying to balance the demands of the required processes with the available cycles on the different CPUs. Asymmetric operating systems use one CPU for their own needs and divide application processes among the remaining CPUs. Symmetric operating systems divide themselves among the various CPUs, balancing demand versus CPU availability even when the operating system itself is all that's running.

If the operating system is the only software with execution needs, the CPU is not the only resource to be scheduled. Memory management is the next crucial step in making sure that all processes run smoothly.