Turning on a computer and starting the operating system poses an interesting dilemma. By definition, the computer does not know how to do anything until the operating system is started. This includes running programs from the disk. So if the computer can not run a program from the disk without the operating system, and the operating system programs are on the disk, how is the operating system started?
This problem parallels one in the book The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. A character had fallen part way down a manhole, and pulled himself out by grabbing his bootstraps, and lifting. In the early days of computing the term bootstrap was applied to the mechanism used to load the operating system, which has become shortened to ``booting''.
On x86 hardware the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) is responsible for loading the operating system. To do this, the BIOS looks on the hard disk for the Master Boot Record (MBR), which must be located on a specific place on the disk. The BIOS has enough knowledge to load and run the MBR, and assumes that the MBR can then carry out the rest of the tasks involved in loading the operating system.
If you only have one operating system installed on your disks then the standard MBR will suffice. This MBR searches for the first bootable slice on the disk, and then runs the code on that slice to load the remainder of the operating system.
If you have installed multiple operating systems on your disks then you can install a different MBR, one that can display a list of different operating systems, and allows you to choose the one to boot from. FreeBSD comes with one such MBR which can be installed, and other operating system vendors also provide alternative MBRs.
The remainder of the FreeBSD bootstrap system is divided into three stages. The first stage is run by the MBR, which knows just enough to get the computer into a specific state and run the second stage. The second stage can do a little bit more, before running the third stage. The third stage finishes the task of loading the operating system. The work is split into these three stages because the PC standards put limits on the size of the programs that can be run at stages one and two. Chaining the tasks together allows FreeBSD to provide a more flexible loader.
The kernel is then started and it begins to probe for devices and initialize them for use. Once the kernel boot process is finished, the kernel passes control to the user process init(8), which then makes sure the disks are in a usable state. init(8) then starts the user-level resource configuration which mounts file systems, sets up network cards to communicate on the network, and generally starts all the processes that usually are run on a FreeBSD system at startup.
This, and other documents, can be downloaded from ftp://ftp.FreeBSD.org/pub/FreeBSD/doc/.
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