Minimal x86 Kernel Practice (Basic)

The post is to present basic knowledge of the minimal x86 kernel. The project is hosted on GitHub. This work follows @phil-opp‘s blog post “A minimal x86 kernel”.


When the computer is turned on, BIOS will be loaded into the reserved part of memory from some special flash memory. Then BIOS runs some self-tests and initialization routines of the hardware. After that, BIOS searches bootable devices. If it successfully finds one, then the control is transferred to its bootloader.

The bootloader is a small portion of executable code stored at the beginning of the device. It determines the location of the kernel image on the device and load it into memory. It also needs to switch the CPU to “protected mode“, because x86 CPUs start in the very limited real mode by default (to be compatible to programs from 1978).


Writing a bootloader may be a complex project. Here we use one of the well-tested bootloaders, GRUB 2 bootloader. But in future, a simple bootloader may be written to replace GRUB 2 in this part.


GRUB 2 follows Multiboot Specification, which describes how a bootloader can load an x86 operating system kernel. Here we will use Multiboot 2 Specification.

The kernel we write need indicate that it supports Multiboot and every Multiboot-compliant bootloader can boot it. To this end, referencing to the Section 3.1.2 in Multiboot 2 Specification, our kernel must start with a Multiboot Header, which has the following format:

Field Type Value
magic number u32 Identifies the header, which must be 0xE85250D6
architecture u32 0 for 32-bit (protected) mode of i386, 4 for 32-bit MIPS
header length u32 Total header size in bytes, including tags and magic fields
checksum u32 -(magic + architecture + header_length), sum must be zero
tags variable Kinds of (type, flags, size)
end tag (u16, u16, u32) (0, 0, 8)

For an x86 machine, the following bootloader header works:

section .multiboot_header
    dd 0xE85250D6               ;magic number
    dd 0                        ;protected mode of i386
    dd header_end-header_start  ;header length
    dd 0x100000000-(0xE85250D6+0+(header_end-header_start))

    ;optional multiboot tags
    ;none here

    ;end tag
    dw 0                        ;type
    dw 0                        ;flags
    dd 8                        ;size

Some basic knowledge of assembly language is required:

  • section
  • label (which marks a memory location)
  • dd: define double (32-bit), dw: define word (16-bit); they just
  • output the specific constants

Notice that the formula of the checksum is a negetive integer (checksum+header_length should be zero) which cannot fit into 32-bit. By subtracting it from 0x100000000, we keep the value positive without changing its truncated value.

Then assemble this file using nasm, and look at the hex value of it:

$ nasm multiboot_header.asm
$ hexdump -x multiboot_header
0000000    50d6    e852    0000    0000    0018    0000    af12    17ad
0000010    0000    0000    0008    0000

Boot the kernel

The bootloader then needs to boot the kernel. We put a short code in the .text section which contains the executable codes. The file is named as boot_simple.asm:

global start

section .text
bits 32         ;32-bit instructions in protected mode
                ;64-bit in long mode

    ;print `Hello, World!` to screen
    mov dword [0xB8000], 0x2F652F48
    mov dword [0xB8004], 0x2F6C2F6C
    mov dword [0xB8008], 0x2F2C2F6F
    mov dword [0xB800C], 0x2F572F20
    mov dword [0xB8010], 0x2F722F6F
    mov dword [0xB8010], 0x2F642F6C
    mov dword [0xB8014], 0x2F202F21
    hlt         ;halt the CPU

The global exports the label start. At address 0xB8000 begins VGA text buffer. We move the characters Hello, World! to it. A characters are represented as a combination of an 8-bit color code and an 8-bit ASCII code. 0x2F means grey (0x2) background and white (0x0F) font color. 0x48 is H, 0x65 is e, and so on.

$ nasm boot_simple.asm
$ hexdump -x boot_simple
0000000    05c7    8000    000b    2f48    2f65    05c7    8004    000b
0000010    2f6c    2f6c    05c7    8008    000b    2f6f    2f2c    05c7
0000020    800c    000b    2f20    2f57    05c7    8010    000b    2f6f
0000030    2f72    05c7    8010    000b    2f6c    2f64    05c7    8014
0000040    000b    2f21    2f20    00f4

By the way, we can diassemble the hex file by:

$ ndisasm -b 32 boot_simple
00000000  C70500800B00482F  mov dword [dword 0xb8000],0x2f652f48
0000000A  C70504800B006C2F  mov dword [dword 0xb8004],0x2f6c2f6c
00000014  C70508800B006F2F  mov dword [dword 0xb8008],0x2f2c2f6f
0000001E  C7050C800B00202F  mov dword [dword 0xb800c],0x2f572f20
00000028  C70510800B006F2F  mov dword [dword 0xb8010],0x2f722f6f
00000032  C70510800B006C2F  mov dword [dword 0xb8010],0x2f642f6c
0000003C  C70514800B00212F  mov dword [dword 0xb8014],0x2f202f21
00000046  F4                hlt

ELF Object File

The executable should be ELF executable if we want to boot it through GRUB. So that we need to create an ELF objects and link them together using a linker script. The linker script linker.ld looks like this:

ENTRY(start)    /* entry point after loading the kernel */

    . = 1M;     /* the load address of 1st section */

    .boot :
        *(.multiboot_header)    /* must at the beginning */

    .text :

We set the load address of the first section to 0x100000 so that it will not overlap with the reserved memory of e.g. VGA text buffer.

The ELF objects can be generated by:

$ nasm -f elf64 multiboot_header.asm
$ nasm -f elf64 boot_simple.asm
$ ld -n -o kernel.bin -T linker.ld multiboot_header.o boot_simple.o
$ objdump -h kernel.bin

kernel.bin:     file format elf64-x86-64

Idx Name          Size      VMA               LMA               File off  Algn
  0 .boot         00000018  0000000000100000  0000000000100000  00000080  2**0
  1 .text         00000047  0000000000100020  0000000000100020  000000a0  2**4

-n flag is passed to linker to disable the automatic section alignment in the executable. With automatic alignment, the linker may page align the .boot section so that it may not be at the beginning of the executable. You may need x86_64‑elf‑ldand x86_64‑elf‑objdump instead of ld and objdump if not working on an x86_64 platform.

Create ISO

To create an bootable ISO image, we need the following directory structure:

└── boot
    ├── grub
    │   └── grub.cfg
    └── kernel.bin

The grub.cfg is a simple GRUB configuration file:

set timeout = 0
set default = 0

menuentry "MinOS" {
    multiboot2 /boot/kernel.bin

Make sure that the version of your xorriso is newer than 1.2.9. Then create the image by:

grub-mkrescue -o min-os.iso isofiles

All steps can be done within a Makefile.


As shown in Makefile, we can boot our little kernel by:

qemu-system-x86_64 -cdrom min-os.iso

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