If you plan to start working on a new operating system kernel things get hard fast—there is a ton of low-level hardware details you have to understand and a number of design decisions you have to make (after all, why would you build yet another kernel—you have to invent something new, right?). Complexity is intimidating. Nevertheless, if you take it step by step, the basics are simple. And it’s worth trying. We’re sure you’ll venture into your own kernel story—multicore-scalability, security, safety, fast device access,

This post provides a minimal set of steps needed to print “Hello world!” on the screen.

Qemu: the Fastest Way to Start

The fastest way to get started on a new kernel is to use a virtual machine like Qemu. Note, we like Qemu the most because it is open source (if things go wrong, you can actually debug what is going on), and good support on Linux servers (we carry most of our development remotely in a baremetal datacenter, and Qemu just works out of the box). Compared to running on real hardware (which has a long reboot cycle, and limited debugging mechanisms), development under a virtual machine, e.g., Qemu has a much quicker cycle and gives a ton of debugging opportunities (e.g., attaching GDB, dumping page tables, understanding triple faults, etc.). Moreover, for serious kernel development, the Qemu+KVM bundle provides performance that is nearly identical to bare metal for most workloads, i.e., a nested page table slows you down by a couple of percents on workloads that touch a lot of memory, e.g., a hash table, but overall by running on Qemu+KVM you get a fair estimate of your system’s performance.

Qemu can boot a multiboot-compatible kernel with the (-kernel) option. Multiboot is a general specification. This is convenient, it can be booted by any multiboot-compatible boot loader, e.g., GRUB—this makes it convenient the moment you are ready to test your kernel on real hardware you can boot it with GRUB (see below).

The Multiboot specification requires that the kernel binary starts with a special header. We will make this header in two steps: 1) we will use assembly to create specific header constants (it’s possible to make the header in C, but what if you program your kernel in Rust?) and 2) we will use a linker script to make sure that the header is placed exactly at the beginning of the kernel binary.

Multiboot Header

A multiboot header is easy (the code is adapted from “Writing kernels that boot with Qemu and Grub” tutorial by Herbert Boss and it uses the Intel assembly):

; Multiboot v1 - Compliant Header for QEMU 
; We use multiboot v1 since Qemu "-kernel" doesn't support 
; multiboot v2

; This part MUST be 4-byte aligned, so we solve that issue using 'ALIGN 4'
section .multiboot_header
    ; Multiboot macros to make a few lines later more readable
    MULTIBOOT_MEMORY_INFO	equ 1<<1                                         
    MULTIBOOT_HEADER_MAGIC	equ 0x1BADB002                                   ; magic number 
                                ; (magic number + checksum + flags should equal 0)

    ; This is the GRUB Multiboot header. A boot signature

Here we first define several constants, e.g., MULTIBOOT_PAGE_ALIGN, MULTIBOOT_MEMORY_INFO, MULTIBOOT_HEADER_MAGIC, combine them into MULTIBOOT_HEADER_FLAGS and MULTIBOOT_CHECKSUM, and then define the header as three 4 byte values in the last three lines.

While this looks criptic in practice it’s rather simple. Go ahead and read the Multiboot Specification, Section 3.1.1 to see which fields are put inside the header.

We can compile this with nasm like

nasm -felf32 multiboot_header.asm -o multiboot_header.o

Linker Script

Now we need to compile a kernel binary in such a way that the multiboot header appears as the first section in the ELF file. For this we will use a linker scripts that instructs the linker to copy sections from multiple files in a specific order:


    . = 0x100000; /* Tells GRUB to load the kernel starting at the 1MB */

    .boot :
        /* Ensure that the multiboot header is at the beginning */

    .text :


Here we specify that the kernel entry point will be the start label. The bootloader that understand ELF format will load the kernel in memory (by the way, we ask to load the kernel at address 0x100000) and will jump to the entry point specified in the ELF header. The linker will arrange that the ELF entry point points to the start label in the code. The multiboot_header will be copied by the linked to be above the rest of the ELF file, e.g., text section.

Building Hello world

Now we’re ready to actually implement the code that prints “Hello world!” on the screen (this is adapted from intermezzOS).

global start

section .text
bits 32    ; By default, GRUB loads the kernel in 32-bit mode
    ; Print `Hello world!` on the screen by placing ASCII 
    ; characters in the VGA screen buffer that starts at 0xb8000
    mov word [0xb8000], 0x0248 ; H
    mov word [0xb8002], 0x0265 ; e
    mov word [0xb8004], 0x026c ; l
    mov word [0xb8006], 0x026c ; l
    mov word [0xb8008], 0x026f ; o
    mov word [0xb800a], 0x0220 ;
    mov word [0xb800c], 0x0277 ; w
    mov word [0xb800e], 0x026f ; o
    mov word [0xb8010], 0x0272 ; r
    mov word [0xb8012], 0x026c ; l
    mov word [0xb8014], 0x0264 ; d
    mov word [0xb8016], 0x0221 ; !

    hlt ; Halt CPU 

The code moves ASCII characters H, e, l, etc., into the VGA frame buffer and then halts the CPU with the hlt instruction.

Now we’re ready to build and run this simple kernel. First, we compile the multiboot header:

nasm -felf32 multiboot_header.asm -o multiboot_header.o

Then compile the hello code (let’s put it into the boot.asmfile):

nasm -felf32 boot.asm -o boot.o

Then invoke a linker to build a final kernel ELF binary:

ld -m elf_i386 -n -T linker.ld -o kernel.bin boot.o multiboot_header.o

And now you’re ready to boot with Qemu:

qemu-system-x86_64 -kernel kernel.bin

Debugging with GDB

Now lets see how we can debug our kernel with GDB. In the same folder where you work on your kernel create a simple .gdbinit file

target remote localhost:1234
symbol-file kernel.bin

This file instructs GDB to connect to the localhost:1234 and load the symbol file for kernel.bin. Now we’re ready to start our debugging session. In one terminal start Qemu

qemu-system-x86_64 -kernel kernel.bin -S -s

In another terminal simply start gdb and the .gdbinit will connect it to the Qemu instance running your OS


Inside GDB you can set a breakpoint on the start label, e.g.

(gdb) b start
Breakpoint 1 at 0x100010

Now switch layout to regs or asm and hit c for continue. Note, you don’t get to immediately see your “Hello world” code as Qemu will executes BIOS.

(gdb) layout regs
(gdb) c

You can see your assembly sequence and can single step through it with si

(gdb) si

Debugging tips

You can always check if your multiboot header is correct by running

grub-file --is-x86-multiboot kernel.bin

The grub-file is quiet but return 0 if it finds a header, and 1 otherwise. You can check for the return code with

echo $?

You can change --is-x86-multiboot to --is-x86-multiboot2 for checking the multiboot2 specification.

Automation with Make

It’s much more convenient to assemble all build commands in a simple Makefile

kernel := kernel.bin

linker_script := linker.ld
assembly_source_files := $(wildcard *.asm)
assembly_object_files := $(patsubst %.asm, build/%.o, $(assembly_source_files))

.PHONY: all clean kernel qemu qemu-gdb

all: $(kernel)

	- @rm -fr build *.o $(kernel)
	- @rm -f serial.log

qemu: $(kernel)
	qemu-system-x86_64 -vga std -s -serial file:serial.log -kernel $(kernel)

qemu-gdb: $(kernel)
	qemu-system-x86_64 -vga std -s -serial file:serial.log -S -kernel $(kernel)

$(kernel): $(assembly_object_files) $(linker_script)
	ld -m elf_i386 -n -T $(linker_script) -o $(kernel) $(assembly_object_files)

# compile assembly files
build/%.o: %.asm
	@mkdir -p $(shell dirname $@)
	nasm -felf32 $< -o $@

Qemu: Booting a 64bit Kernel

Remember, Qemu supports only the mutiboot v1 specification, and will only boot a 32bit ELF binary. Since most likely you will be building a 64bit kernel the -kernel flag to Qemu is a somewhat limited option. An alternative way to boot is to really go through the full boot protocol with a real boot loader that can boot our kernel from some kind of a storage device. The simplest way is to create a CD-ROM image that contains the GRUB loader and your kernel. Qemu will run the BIOS and the BIOS will follow the boot protocol loading GRUB the CD-ROM device. Then GRUB that supports both Multiboot v1 and v2 will load our 64bit kernel.

To create a bootable ISO, we’re going to use the grub2-mkrescue program that generates a GRUB rescue image. We first create a folder layout that will contain our kernel on disk, and then use grub2-mkrescue to create a rescue image.

mkdir -p build/isofiles/boot/grub

The -p flag to mkdir will make the directory we specify, as well as any directories missing in the path (-p stands for “parent” as in parent directories). In other words, this will make the build directory with the isofiles directory inside that has boot inside, and finally the grub directory inside of that.

In other words we are creating the following layout:

├── build
│   ├── boot.o
│   ├── hello.iso
│   ├── isofiles
│   │   └── boot
│   │       ├── grub
│   │       │   └── grub.cfg
│   │       └── kernel.bin

Next, we create grub.cfg, a GRUB configuration file inside of that build/isofiles/boot/grub directory. The GRUB config file will instruct GRUB how to boot our kernel:

set timeout=0
set default=0

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

Note that we set the default GRUB entry to 0 (that’s the only entry we have), and configure the timeout to be 0 seconds (after all we just want to boot immediately).

One additional detial here is that we switch from Multiboot v1 to v2, so we use a slightly different multiboot_header.asm file:

; Multiboot 2 - Compliant Header
; https://www.gnu.org/software/grub/manual/multiboot2/multiboot.html (Section 3.1.1)
section .multiboot_header
    ; Multiboot macros to make a few lines later more readable
    MULTIBOOT_HEADER_ARCH       equ 0         ; 32-bit (protected) mode of i386
    MULTIBOOT_HEADER_MAGIC	equ 0xe85250d6          ; magic number
    MULTIBOOT_CHECKSUM	equ - (MULTIBOOT_HEADER_MAGIC + (header_end - header_start))  ; checksum
                                                        ; (magic number + checksum + flags should equal 0)


    ; This is the GRUB Multiboot header. A boot signature
    dd header_end - header_start ; Size of the Header

    ; Required end tag

Again, don’t be shy to check the Multiboot Specification v2, Section 3.1.1 to see the exact meaning of all fields that we use above.

Now don’t have to bother about compiling the 32bit kernel, and instead use normal 64bit ELF file.

nasm -felf64 boot.asm -o build/boot.o
nasm -felf64 multiboot_header.asm -o build/multiboot_header.o
ld -n -T linker.ld -o build/kernel.bin  build/boot.o  build/multiboot_header.o

Here we ask the linker to put the kernel.bin file inside boot.

We can use grub2-mkrescue to generate a bootable ISO image:

$ grub2-mkrescue -o build/hello.iso build/isofiles

The -o flag controls the output filename, which we choose to be build/hello.iso. And then we pass it the directory to make the ISO out of, which is the build/isofiles directory we just set up.

This will produce an build/hello.iso file with our kernel inside. Now we can pass this ISO file to QEMU

$ qemu-system-x86_64 -cdrom build/hello.iso

Booting off a USB stick

Copy the ISO disk image to the USB stick (make sure to use correct device for the USB drive, otherwise you can overwrite your hard disk). You can use lsblk on Ubuntu to list block devices


For me it’s /dev/sda or /dev/sdb but my laptop runs off an NVMe device, so for you /dev/sda may very well be your root device, not a USB!

sudo dd if=build/hello.iso of=/dev/<your_usb_drive> bs=1MB

Boot on baremetal from a Linux partition

sudo cp build/kernel.bin /boot/

Add the following entry to the grub menu list. On a Linux machine this can be done by adding this to the /etc/grub.d/40_custom. You might adjust the root=‘hd0,2’ to reflect where your Linux root is on disk, e.g., maybe it’s on root=‘hd0,1’

set timeout=30
menuentry "Hello World" {
    insmod ext2
    set root='hd0,1'
    set kernel='/boot/kernel.bin'
    echo "Loading ${kernel}..."
    multiboot2 ${kernel} ${kernel}

Update grub

  sudo sudo update-grub2

Reboot and choose the “Hello World” entry. Make sure that you can see the grub menu list by editing /etc/default/grub making sure that GRUB_HIDDEN_TIMEOUT_QUIET is set to “false”.


Source code

The source code for this post can be found at hello-os master and qemu-kernel branches.