Writing an OS in Rust (Second Edition)

Philipp Oppermann's blog

A Minimal Rust Kernel

In this post we create a minimal 64-bit Rust kernel for the x86 architecture. We built upon the freestanding Rust binary from the previous post to create a bootable disk image, that prints something to the screen.

This blog is openly developed on Github. If you have any problems or questions, please open an issue there. You can also leave comments at the bottom.

๐Ÿ”— The Boot Process

When you turn on a computer, it begins executing firmware code that is stored in motherboard ROM. This code performs a power-on self-test, detects available RAM, and pre-initializes the CPU and hardware. Afterwards it looks for a bootable disk and starts booting the operating system kernel.

On x86, there are two firmware standards: the โ€œBasic Input/Output Systemโ€œ (BIOS) and the newer โ€œUnified Extensible Firmware Interfaceโ€ (UEFI). The BIOS standard is old and outdated, but simple and well-supported on any x86 machine since the 1980s. UEFI, in contrast, is more modern and has much more features, but is more complex to set up (at least in my opinion).

Currently, we only provide BIOS support, but support for UEFI is planned, too. If you'd like to help us with this, check out the Github issue.

๐Ÿ”— BIOS Boot

Almost all x86 systems have support for BIOS booting, including newer UEFI-based machines that use an emulated BIOS. This is great, because you can use the same boot logic across all machines from the last centuries. But this wide compatibility is at the same time the biggest disadvantage of BIOS booting, because it means that the CPU is put into a 16-bit compatibility mode called real mode before booting so that archaic bootloaders from the 1980s would still work.

But let's start from the beginning:

When you turn on a computer, it loads the BIOS from some special flash memory located on the motherboard. The BIOS runs self test and initialization routines of the hardware, then it looks for bootable disks. If it finds one, the control is transferred to its bootloader, which is a 512-byte portion of executable code stored at the disk's beginning. Most bootloaders are larger than 512 bytes, so bootloaders are commonly split into a small first stage, which fits into 512 bytes, and a second stage, which is subsequently loaded by the first stage.

The bootloader has to determine the location of the kernel image on the disk and load it into memory. It also needs to switch the CPU from the 16-bit real mode first to the 32-bit protected mode, and then to the 64-bit long mode, where 64-bit registers and the complete main memory are available. Its third job is to query certain information (such as a memory map) from the BIOS and pass it to the OS kernel.

Writing a bootloader is a bit cumbersome as it requires assembly language and a lot of non insightful steps like โ€œwrite this magic value to this processor registerโ€. Therefore we don't cover bootloader creation in this post and instead provide a tool named bootimage that automatically appends a bootloader to your kernel.

If you are interested in building your own bootloader: Stay tuned, a set of posts on this topic is already planned!

๐Ÿ”— The Multiboot Standard

To avoid that every operating system implements its own bootloader, which is only compatible with a single OS, the Free Software Foundation created an open bootloader standard called Multiboot in 1995. The standard defines an interface between the bootloader and operating system, so that any Multiboot compliant bootloader can load any Multiboot compliant operating system. The reference implementation is GNU GRUB, which is the most popular bootloader for Linux systems.

To make a kernel Multiboot compliant, one just needs to insert a so-called Multiboot header at the beginning of the kernel file. This makes it very easy to boot an OS in GRUB. However, GRUB and the Multiboot standard have some problems too:

Because of these drawbacks we decided to not use GRUB or the Multiboot standard. However, we plan to add Multiboot support to our bootimage tool, so that it's possible to load your kernel on a GRUB system too. If you're interested in writing a Multiboot compliant kernel, check out the first edition of this blog series.


(We don't provide UEFI support at the moment, but we would love to! If you'd like to help, please tell us in the Github issue.)

๐Ÿ”— A Minimal Kernel

Now that we roughly know how a computer boots, it's time to create our own minimal kernel. Our goal is to create a disk image that prints a โ€œHello World!โ€ to the screen when booted. For that we build upon the freestanding Rust binary from the previous post.

As you may remember, we built the freestanding binary through cargo, but depending on the operating system we needed different entry point names and compile flags. That's because cargo builds for the host system by default, i.e. the system you're running on. This isn't something we want for our kernel, because a kernel that runs on top of e.g. Windows does not make much sense. Instead, we want to compile for a clearly defined target system.

๐Ÿ”— Target Specification

Cargo supports different target systems through the --target parameter. The target is described by a so-called target triple, which describes the CPU architecture, the vendor, the operating system, and the ABI. For example, the x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu target triple describes a system with a x86_64 CPU, no clear vendor and a Linux operating system with the GNU ABI. Rust supports many different target triples, including arm-linux-androideabi for Android or wasm32-unknown-unknown for WebAssembly.

For our target system, however, we require some special configuration parameters (e.g. no underlying OS), so none of the existing target triples fits. Fortunately, Rust allows us to define our own target through a JSON file. For example, a JSON file that describes the x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu target looks like this:

    "llvm-target": "x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu",
    "data-layout": "e-m:e-i64:64-f80:128-n8:16:32:64-S128",
    "arch": "x86_64",
    "target-endian": "little",
    "target-pointer-width": "64",
    "target-c-int-width": "32",
    "os": "linux",
    "executables": true,
    "linker-flavor": "gcc",
    "pre-link-args": ["-m64"],
    "morestack": false

Most fields are required by LLVM to generate code for that platform. For example, the data-layout field defines the size of various integer, floating point, and pointer types. Then there are fields that Rust uses for conditional compilation, such as target-pointer-width. The third kind of fields define how the crate should be built. For example, the pre-link-args field specifies arguments passed to the linker.

We also target x86_64 systems with our kernel, so our target specification will look very similar to the one above. Let's start by creating a x86_64-blog_os.json file (choose any name you like) with the common content:

    "llvm-target": "x86_64-unknown-none",
    "data-layout": "e-m:e-i64:64-f80:128-n8:16:32:64-S128",
    "arch": "x86_64",
    "target-endian": "little",
    "target-pointer-width": "64",
    "target-c-int-width": "32",
    "os": "none",
    "executables": true,

Note that we changed the OS in the llvm-target and the os field to none, because we will run on bare metal.

We add the following build-related entries:

"linker-flavor": "ld.lld",
"linker": "rust-lld",

Instead of using the platform's default linker (which might not support Linux targets), we use the cross platform LLD linker that is shipped with Rust for linking our kernel.

"panic-strategy": "abort",

This setting specifies that the target doesn't support stack unwinding on panic, so instead the program should abort directly. This has the same effect as the panic = "abort" option in our Cargo.toml, so we can remove it from there.

"disable-redzone": true,

We're writing a kernel, so we'll need to handle interrupts at some point. To do that safely, we have to disable a certain stack pointer optimization called the โ€œred zoneโ€, because it would cause stack corruptions otherwise. For more information, see our separate post about disabling the red zone.

"features": "-mmx,-sse,+soft-float",

The features field enables/disables target features. We disable the mmx and sse features by prefixing them with a minus and enable the soft-float feature by prefixing it with a plus.

The mmx and sse features determine support for Single Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD) instructions, which can often speed up programs significantly. However, the large SIMD registers lead to performance problems in OS kernels, because the kernel has to back them up on each hardware interrupt. To avoid this, we disable SIMD for our kernel (not for applications running on top!).

A problem with disabling SIMD is that floating point operations on x86_64 require SIMD registers by default. To solve this problem, we add the soft-float feature, which emulates all floating point operations through software functions based on normal integers.

For more information, see our post on disabling SIMD.

๐Ÿ”— Putting it Together

Our target specification file now looks like this:

  "llvm-target": "x86_64-unknown-none",
  "data-layout": "e-m:e-i64:64-f80:128-n8:16:32:64-S128",
  "arch": "x86_64",
  "target-endian": "little",
  "target-pointer-width": "64",
  "target-c-int-width": "32",
  "os": "none",
  "executables": true,
  "linker-flavor": "ld.lld",
  "linker": "rust-lld",
  "panic-strategy": "abort",
  "disable-redzone": true,
  "features": "-mmx,-sse,+soft-float"

๐Ÿ”— Building our Kernel

Compiling for our new target will use Linux conventions (I'm not quite sure why, I assume that it's just LLVM's default). This means that we need an entry point named _start as described in the previous post:

// src/main.rs

#![feature(panic_implementation)] // required for defining the panic handler
#![no_std] // don't link the Rust standard library
#![no_main] // disable all Rust-level entry points

use core::panic::PanicInfo;

/// This function is called on panic.
pub fn panic(_info: &PanicInfo) -> ! {
    loop {}

#[no_mangle] // don't mangle the name of this function
pub extern "C" fn _start() -> ! {
    // this function is the entry point, since the linker looks for a function
    // named `_start` by default
    loop {}

Note that the entry point needs to be called _start regardless of your host OS. The Windows and macOS entry points from the previous post should be deleted.

We can now build the kernel for our new target by passing the name of the JSON file as --target:

> cargo build --target x86_64-blog_os.json

error[E0463]: can't find crate for `core` OR
error[E0463]: can't find crate for `compiler_builtins`

It fails! The error tells us that the Rust compiler no longer finds the core or the compiler_builtins library. Both libraries are implicitly linked to all no_std crates. The core library contains basic Rust types such as Result, Option, and iterators, whereas the compiler_builtins library provides various lower level functions expected by LLVM, such as memcpy.

The problem is that the core library is distributed together with the Rust compiler as a precompiled library. So it is only valid for supported host triples (e.g., x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu) but not for our custom target. If we want to compile code for other targets, we need to recompile core for these targets first.

๐Ÿ”— Cargo xbuild

That's where cargo xbuild comes in. It is a wrapper for cargo build that automatically cross-compiles the built-in libraries. We can install it by executing:

cargo install cargo-xbuild

The command depends on the rust source code, which we can install with rustup component add rust-src.

We now can rerun the above command with xbuild instead of build:

> cargo xbuild --target x86_64-blog_os.json
   Compiling core v0.0.0 (file:///โ€ฆ/rust/src/libcore)
    Finished release [optimized] target(s) in 52.75 secs
   Compiling compiler_builtins v0.1.0 (file:///โ€ฆ/rust/src/libcompiler_builtins)
    Finished release [optimized] target(s) in 3.92 secs
   Compiling blog_os v0.1.0 (file:///โ€ฆ/blog_os)
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.29 secs

It worked! We see that cargo xbuild cross-compiled the core, compiler_builtin, and alloc libraries for our new custom target and then continued to compile our blog_os crate.

Now we are able to build our kernel for a bare metal target. However, our _start entry point, which will be called by the boot loader, is still empty. So let's output something to screen from it.

๐Ÿ”— Printing to Screen

The easiest way to print text to the screen at this stage is the VGA text buffer. It is a special memory area mapped to the VGA hardware that contains the contents displayed on screen. It normally consists of 25 lines that each contain 80 character cells. Each character cell displays an ASCII character with some foreground and background colors. The screen output looks like this:

screen output for common ASCII characters

We will discuss the exact layout of the VGA buffer in the next post, where we write a first small driver for it. For printing โ€œHello World!โ€, we just need to know that the buffer is located at address 0xb8000 and that each character cell consists of an ASCII byte and a color byte.

The implementation looks like this:

static HELLO: &[u8] = b"Hello World!";

pub extern "C" fn _start() -> ! {
    let vga_buffer = 0xb8000 as *mut u8;

    for (i, &byte) in HELLO.iter().enumerate() {
        unsafe {
            *vga_buffer.offset(i as isize * 2) = byte;
            *vga_buffer.offset(i as isize * 2 + 1) = 0xb;

    loop {}

First, we cast the integer 0xb8000 into a raw pointer. Then we iterate over the bytes of the static HELLO byte string. We use the enumerate method to additionally get a running variable i. In the body of the for loop, we use the offset method to write the string byte and the corresponding color byte (0xb is a light cyan).

Note that there's an unsafe block around all memory writes. The reason is that the Rust compiler can't prove that the raw pointers we create are valid. They could point anywhere and lead to data corruption. By putting them into an unsafe block we're basically telling the compiler that we are absolutely sure that the operations are valid. Note that an unsafe block does not turn off Rust's safety checks. It only allows you to do four additional things.

I want to emphasize that this is not the way we want to do things in Rust! It's very easy to mess up when working with raw pointers inside unsafe blocks, for example, we could easily write behind the buffer's end if we're not careful.

So we want to minimize the use of unsafe as much as possible. Rust gives us the ability to do this by creating safe abstractions. For example, we could create a VGA buffer type that encapsulates all unsafety and ensures that it is impossible to do anything wrong from the outside. This way, we would only need minimal amounts of unsafe and can be sure that we don't violate memory safety. We will create such a safe VGA buffer abstraction in the next post.

๐Ÿ”— Creating a Bootimage

Now that we have an executable that does something perceptible, it is time to turn it into a bootable disk image. As we learned in the section about booting, we need a bootloader for that, which initializes the CPU and loads our kernel.

To add a bootloader to our kernel we add a dependency on the bootloader_precompiled crate:

# in Cargo.toml

bootloader_precompiled = "0.2.0"
// in main.rs

extern crate bootloader_precompiled;

This crate is a precompiled version of the bootloader crate, an experimental bootloader written in Rust and assembly. We use the precompiled version because the bootloader has some linking issues on platforms other than Linux. We try our best to solve these issues and will update the post as soon as it works on all platforms.

Regardless of whether precompiled or not, adding the bootloader as dependency is not enough to actually create a bootable disk image. The problem is that we need to combine the bootloader with the kernel after it has been compiled, but cargo has no support for additional build steps after successful compilation (see this issue for more information).

To solve this problem, we created a tool named bootimage that first compiles the kernel and bootloader, and then combines them to create a bootable disk image. To install the tool, execute the following command in your terminal:

cargo install bootimage --version "^0.5.0"

The ^0.5.0 is a so-called caret requirement, which means "version 0.5.0 or a later compatible version". So if we find a bug and publish version 0.5.1 or 0.5.2, cargo would automatically use the latest version, as long as it is still a version 0.5.x. However, it wouldn't choose version 0.6.0, because it is not considered as compatible. Note that dependencies in your Cargo.toml are caret requirements by default, so the same rules are applied to our bootloader dependency.

After installing the bootimage tool, creating a bootable disk image is as easy as executing:

> bootimage build --target x86_64-blog_os.json

The tool also recompiles your kernel using cargo xbuild, so it will automatically pick up any changes you make.

After executing the command, you should see a file named bootimage.bin in your target/x86_64-blog_os/debug directory. This file is a bootable disk image. You can boot it in a virtual machine or copy it to an USB drive to boot it on real hardware. (Note that this is not a CD image, which have a different format, so burning it to a CD doesn't work).

๐Ÿ”— How does it work?

The bootimage tool performs the following steps behind the scenes:

When booted, the bootloader reads and parses the appended ELF file. It then maps the program segments to virtual addresses in the page tables, zeroes the .bss section, and sets up a stack. Finally, it reads the entry point address (our _start function) and jumps to it.

๐Ÿ”— Bootimage Configuration

The bootimage tool can be configured through a [package.metadata.bootimage] table in the Cargo.toml file. We can add a default-target option so that we no longer need to pass the --target argument:

# in Cargo.toml

default-target = "x86_64-blog_os.json"

Now we can omit the --target argument and just run bootimage build.

๐Ÿ”— Booting it!

We can now boot the disk image in a virtual machine. To boot it in QEMU, execute the following command:

> qemu-system-x86_64 -drive format=raw,file=bootimage.bin
warning: TCG doesn't support requested feature: CPUID.01H:ECX.vmx [bit 5]

QEMU showing "Hello World!"

Alternatively, you can invoke the run subcommand of the bootimage tool:

> bootimage run

By default it invokes the exact same QEMU command as above. Additional QEMU options can be passed after a --. For example, bootimage run -- --help will show the QEMU help. It's also possible to change the default command through an run-command key in the package.metadata.bootimage table in the Cargo.toml. For more information see the --help output or the Readme file.

๐Ÿ”— Real Machine

It is also possible to write it to an USB stick and boot it on a real machine:

> dd if=target/x86_64-blog_os/debug/bootimage.bin of=/dev/sdX && sync

Where sdX is the device name of your USB stick. Be careful to choose the correct device name, because everything on that device is overwritten.

๐Ÿ”— What's next?

In the next post, we will explore the VGA text buffer in more detail and write a safe interface for it. We will also add support for the println macro.