Architecture of Windows NT

The architecture of Windows NT, a line of operating systems produced and sold by Microsoft, is a layered design that consists of two main components, user mode and kernel mode. It is a preemptive, reentrant operating system, which has been designed to work with uniprocessor and symmetrical multi processor (SMP)-based computers. To process input/output (I/O) requests, they use packet-driven I/O, which utilizes I/O request packets (IRPs) and asynchronous I/O. Starting with Windows 2000, Microsoft began making 64-bit versions of Windows available—before this, these operating systems only existed in 32-bit versions.

Programs and subsystems in user mode are limited in terms of what system resources they have access to, while the kernel mode has unrestricted access to the system memory and external devices. The Windows NT kernel is known as a hybrid kernel. The architecture comprises a simple kernel, hardware abstraction layer (HAL), drivers, and a range of services (collectively named Executive), which all exist in kernel mode.

User mode in Windows NT is made of subsystems capable of passing I/O requests to the appropriate kernel mode software drivers by using the I/O manager. Two subsystems make up the user mode layer of Windows NT: the Environment subsystem (which runs applications written for many different types of operating systems), and the Integral subsystem operates system specific functions on behalf of the environment subsystem. Kernel mode in Windows NT has full access to the hardware and system resources of the computer. The kernel mode stops user mode services and applications from accessing critical areas of the operating system that they should not have access to.

The Executive interfaces, with all the user mode subsystems, deals with I/O, object management, security and process management. The kernel sits between the Hardware Abstraction Layer and the Executive to provide multiprocessor synchronization, thread and interrupt scheduling and dispatching, and trap handling and exception dispatching. The kernel is also responsible for initializing device drivers at bootup. Kernel mode drivers exist in three levels: highest level drivers, intermediate drivers and low level drivers. Windows Driver Model (WDM) exists in the intermediate layer and was mainly designed to be binary and source compatible between Windows 98 and Windows 2000. The lowest level drivers are either legacy Windows NT device drivers that control a device directly or can be a PnP hardware bus.

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