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1. Introduction to Multiboot Specification
This chapter describes some rough information on the Multiboot Specification. Note that this is not a part of the specification itself.
1.1 The background of Multiboot Specification
Every operating system ever created tends to have its own boot loader. Installing a new operating system on a machine generally involves installing a whole new set of boot mechanisms, each with completely different install-time and boot-time user interfaces. Getting multiple operating systems to coexist reliably on one machine through typical chaining mechanisms can be a nightmare. There is little or no choice of boot loaders for a particular operating system -- if the one that comes with the operating system doesn't do exactly what you want, or doesn't work on your machine, you're screwed.
While we may not be able to fix this problem in existing commercial operating systems, it shouldn't be too difficult for a few people in the free operating system communities to put their heads together and solve this problem for the popular free operating systems. That's what this specification aims for. Basically, it specifies an interface between a boot loader and a operating system, such that any complying boot loader should be able to load any complying operating system. This specification does not specify how boot loaders should work --- only how they must interface with the operating system being loaded.
1.2 The target architecture
This specification is primarily targeted at PC, since they are the most common and have the largest variety of operating systems and boot loaders. However, to the extent that certain other architectures may need a boot specification and do not have one already, a variation of this specification, stripped of the x86-specific details, could be adopted for them as well.
1.3 The target operating systems
This specification is targeted toward free 32-bit operating systems that can be fairly easily modified to support the specification without going through lots of bureaucratic rigmarole. The particular free operating systems that this specification is being primarily designed for are Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, Mach, and VSTa. It is hoped that other emerging free operating systems will adopt it from the start, and thus immediately be able to take advantage of existing boot loaders. It would be nice if commercial operating system vendors eventually adopted this specification as well, but that's probably a pipe dream.
1.4 Boot sources
It should be possible to write compliant boot loaders that load the OS image from a variety of sources, including floppy disk, hard disk, and across a network.
Disk-based boot loaders may use a variety of techniques to find the relevant OS image and boot module data on disk, such as by interpretation of specific file systems (e.g. the BSD/Mach boot loader), using precalculated block lists (e.g. LILO), loading from a special boot partition (e.g. OS/2), or even loading from within another operating system (e.g. the VSTa boot code, which loads from DOS). Similarly, network-based boot loaders could use a variety of network hardware and protocols.
It is hoped that boot loaders will be created that support multiple loading mechanisms, increasing their portability, robustness, and user-friendliness.
1.5 Configure an operating system at boot-time
It is often necessary for one reason or another for the user to be able to provide some configuration information to an operating system dynamically at boot time. While this specification should not dictate how this configuration information is obtained by the boot loader, it should provide a standard means for the boot loader to pass such information to the operating system.
1.6 How to make OS development easier
OS images should be easy to generate. Ideally, an OS image should simply
be an ordinary 32-bit executable file in whatever file format the
operating system normally uses. It should be possible to
Unfortunately, there is a horrendous variety of executable file formats even among free Unix-like PC-based operating systems -- generally a different format for each operating system. Most of the relevant free operating systems use some variant of a.out format, but some are moving to ELF. It is highly desirable for boot loaders not to have to be able to interpret all the different types of executable file formats in existence in order to load the OS image -- otherwise the boot loader effectively becomes operating system specific again.
This specification adopts a compromise solution to this problem. Multiboot-compliant OS images always contain a magic Multiboot header (see section 3.1 OS image format), which allows the boot loader to load the image without having to understand numerous a.out variants or other executable formats. This magic header does not need to be at the very beginning of the executable file, so kernel images can still conform to the local a.out format variant in addition to being Multiboot-compliant.
1.7 Boot modules
Many modern operating system kernels, such as those of VSTa and Mach, do not by themselves contain enough mechanism to get the system fully operational: they require the presence of additional software modules at boot time in order to access devices, mount file systems, etc. While these additional modules could be embedded in the main OS image along with the kernel itself, and the resulting image be split apart manually by the operating system when it receives control, it is often more flexible, more space-efficient, and more convenient to the operating system and user if the boot loader can load these additional modules independently in the first place.
Thus, this specification should provide a standard method for a boot loader to indicate to the operating system what auxiliary boot modules were loaded, and where they can be found. Boot loaders don't have to support multiple boot modules, but they are strongly encouraged to, because some operating systems will be unable to boot without them.
This document was generated by Jason Thomas on February, 4 2002 using texi2html