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The kernel is the essential center of a computer operating system, the core that provides basic services for all other parts of the operating system. A synonym is nucleus. A kernel can be contrasted with a shell, the outermost part of an operating system that interacts with user commands. Kernel and shell are terms used more frequently in Unix operating systems than in IBM mainframe or Microsoft Windows systems.
Typically, a kernel (or any comparable center of an operating system) includes an interrupt handler that handles all requests or completed I/O operations that compete for the kernel's services, a scheduler that determines which programs share the kernel's processing time in what order, and a supervisor that actually gives use of the computer to each process when it is scheduled. A kernel may also include a manager of the operating system's address spaces in memory or storage, sharing these among all components and other users of the kernel's services. A kernel's services are requested by other parts of the operating system or by application programs through a specified set of program interfaces sometimes known as system calls.
Because the code that makes up the kernel is needed continuously, it is usually loaded into computer storage in an area that is protected so that it will not be overlaid with other less frequently used parts of the operating system.
The kernel is not to be confused with the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS).
Some kernels have been developed independently for use in any operating system that wants to use it. A well-known example is the Mach kernel, developed at Carnegie-Mellon University, and currently used in a version of the Linux operating system for Apple's PowerMac computers.