Process (computing): Wikis


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In computing, a process is an instance of a computer program that is being executed. It contains the program code and its current activity. Depending on the operating system (OS), a process may be made up of multiple threads of execution that execute instructions concurrently.[1][2]

A computer program is a passive collection of instructions, a process is the actual execution of those instructions. Several processes may be associated with the same program; for example, opening up several instances of the same program often means more than one process is being executed.

Multitasking is a method to allow multiple processes to share processors (CPUs) and other system resources. Each CPU executes a single task at a time. However, multitasking allows each processor to switch between tasks that are being executed without having to wait for each task to finish. Depending on the operating system implementation, switches could be performed when tasks perform input/output operations, when a task indicates that it can be switched, or on hardware interrupts.

A common form of multitasking is time-sharing. Time-sharing is a method to allow fast response for interactive user applications. In time-sharing systems, context switches are performed rapidly. This makes it seem like multiple processes are being executed simultaneously on the same processor. The execution of multiple processes seemingly simultaneously is called concurrency.

For security and reliability reasons most modern operating systems prevent direct communication between independent processes, providing strictly mediated and controlled inter-process communication functionality.



In general, a computer system process consists of (or is said to 'own') the following resources:

  • An image of the executable machine code associated with a program.
  • Memory (typically some region of virtual memory); which includes the executable code, process-specific data (input and output), a call stack (to keep track of active subroutines and/or other events), and a heap to hold intermediate computation data generated during run time.
  • Operating system descriptors of resources that are allocated to the process, such as file descriptors (Unix terminology) or handles (Windows), and data sources and sinks.
  • Security attributes, such as the process owner and the process' set of permissions (allowable operations).
  • Processor state (context), such as the content of registers, physical memory addressing, etc. The state is typically stored in computer registers when the process is executing, and in memory otherwise.[1]

The operating system holds most of this information about active processes in data structures called process control blocks (PCB).

Any subset of resources, but typically at least the processor state, may be associated with each of the process' threads in operating systems that support threads or 'daughter' processes.

The operating system keeps its processes separated and allocates the resources they need so that they are less likely to interfere with each other and cause system failures (e.g., deadlock or thrashing). The operating system may also provide mechanisms for inter-process communication to enable processes to interact in safe and predictable ways.

Process management in multi-tasking operating systems

A multitasking* operating system may just switch between processes to give the appearance of many processes executing concurrently or simultaneously, though in fact only one process can be executing at any one time on a single-core CPU (unless using multi-threading or other similar technology).[3]

It is usual to associate a single process with a main program, and 'daughter' ('child') processes with any spin-off, parallel processes, which behave like asynchronous subroutines. A process is said to own resources, of which an image of its program (in memory) is one such resource. (Note, however, that in multiprocessing systems, many processes may run off of, or share, the same reentrant program at the same location in memory— but each process is said to own its own image of the program.)

Processes are often called tasks in embedded operating systems. The sense of 'process' (or task) is 'something that takes up time', as opposed to 'memory', which is 'something that takes up space'. (Historically, the terms 'task' and 'process' were used interchangeably, but the term 'task' seems to be dropping from the computer lexicon.)

The above description applies to both processes managed by an operating system, and processes as defined by process calculi.

If a process requests something for which it must wait, it will be blocked. When the process is in the Blocked State, it is eligible for swapping to disk, but this is transparent in a virtual memory system, where blocks of memory values may be really on disk and not in main memory at any time. Note that even unused portions of active processes/tasks (executing programs) are eligible for swapping to disk. All parts of an executing program and its data do not have to be in physical memory for the associated process to be active.


*Tasks and processes refer essentially to the same entity. And, although they have somewhat different terminological histories, they have come to be used as synonyms. Today, the term process is generally preferred over task, except when referring to 'multitasking', since the alternative term, 'multiprocessing', is too easy to confuse with multiprocessor (which is a computer with two or more CPUs).

Process states

The various process states, displayed in a state diagram, with arrows indicating possible transitions between states.

An operating system kernel that allows multi-tasking needs processes to have certain states. Names for these states are not standardised, but they have similar functionality.[1]

  • While the process is "waiting" it waits for the scheduler to do a so-called context switch and load the process into the processor. The process state then becomes "running", and the processor executes the process instructions.
  • If a process needs to wait for a resource (wait for user input or file to open ...), it is assigned the "blocked" state. The process state is changed back to "waiting" when the process no longer needs to wait.
  • Once the process finishes execution, or is terminated by the operating system, it is no longer needed. The process is removed instantly or is moved to the "terminated" state. When removed, it just waits to be removed from main memory.[1][4]

Inter-process communication

When processes communicate with each other it is called "Inter-process communication" (IPC). Processes frequently need to communicate, for instance in a shell pipeline, the output of the first process need to pass to the second one, and so on to the other process.It is preferred in a well-structured way not using interrupts.

It is even possible for the two processes to be running on different machines. The operating system (OS) may differ from one process to the other, therefore some mediator(s) (called protocols) are needed.


By the early 60s computer control software had evolved from Monitor control software, e.g., IBSYS, to Executive control software. Computers got "faster" and computer time was still neither "cheap" nor fully used. It made multiprogramming possible and necessary.

Multiprogramming means that several programs run "at the same time" (concurrently). At first they ran on a single processor (i.e., uniprocessor) and shared scarce resources. Multiprogramming is also basic form of multiprocessing, a much broader term.

Programs consist of sequence of instruction for processor. A single processor can run only one instruction at a time. Therefore it is impossible to run more programs at the same time. Program might need some resource (input ...) which has "big" delay. Program might start some slow operation (output to printer ...). This all leads to processor being "idle" (unused). To use processor at all time the execution of such program was halted. At that point, a second (or nth) program was started or restarted. User perceived that programs run "at the same time" (hence the term, concurrent).

Shortly thereafter, the notion of a 'program' was expanded to the notion of an 'executing program and its context'. The concept of a process was born.

This became necessary with the invention of re-entrant code.

Threads came somewhat later. However, with the advent of time-sharing; computer networks; multiple-CPU, shared memory computers; etc., the old "multiprogramming" gave way to true multitasking, multiprocessing and, later, multithreading.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d SILBERSCHATZ, Abraham; CAGNE, Greg, GALVIN, Peter Baer (2004). "Chapter 4 - Processes". Operating system concepts with Java (Sixth Edition ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. ISBN 0-471-48905-0. 
  2. ^ Vahalia, Uresh (1996). "2 - The Process and the Kernel". UNIX Internals - The New Frontiers. Prentice-Hall Inc.. ISBN 0131019082. 
  3. ^ Some modern CPUs combine two or more independent processors and can execute several processes simultaneously - see Multi-core for more information. Another technique called simultaneous multithreading (used in Intel's Hyper-threading technology) can simulate simultaneous execution of multiple processes or threads.
  4. ^ Stallings, William (2005). Operating Systems: internals and design principles (5th edition). Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-127837-1. 
    Particularly chapter 3, section 3.2, "process states", including figure 3.9 "process state transition with suspend states"


External links

Simple English

In computing, a process is an instance of a computer program that is being sequentially executed[1] by a computer system that has the ability to run several computer programs concurrently.

A computer program itself is just a passive collection of instructions, while a process is the actual execution of those instructions.

Several processes may be associated with the same program; for example, opening up several windows of the same program often means more than one process is being executed. In the computing world, processes are formally defined by the operating systems (OS) running them and so may differ in detail from one OS to another; for example in Microsoft Windows environment each instance of the same application is called a task.

Other pages


  1. Knott 1974, p.8

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