When you power on a computer, it goes through a “boot up” process– a term that comes from the word “bootstrap.” Here’s what’s happening in the background—whether you’re using a Windows PC, Mac, or Linux system.
The Hardware Powers On
When you press the power button, the computer supplies power to its components—the motherboard, CPU, hard disks, solid state drives, graphics processors, and everything else in the computer.
The piece of hardware that supplies power is known as the “power supply.” Inside a typical desktop PC, it looks like a box at the corner of the case (the yellow thing in the picture above), and it’s where you connect the AC power cord.
The CPU Loads the UEFI or BIOS
Now that it has electricity, the CPU initializes itself and looks for a small program that is typically stored in a chip on the motherboard.
In the past, the PC loaded something called a BIOS (Basic Input/Output System.) On modern PCs, the CPU loads UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) firmware instead. This is a modern replacement for the old-style BIOS. But, to make it extra confusing, some PC manufacturers still call their UEFI software “BIOS” anyway.
The UEFI or BIOS Tests and Initializes Hardware
The BIOS or UEFI firmware loads configuration settings from a special place on the motherboard—traditionally, this was in memory backed up by a CMOS battery. If you change some low-level settings in your BIOS or UEFI settings screen, this is where your custom settings are stored.
The CPU runs the UEFI or BIOS, which tests and initializes your system’s hardware—including the CPU itself. For example, if your computer doesn’t have any RAM, it will beep and show you an error, stopping the boot process. This is known as the POST (Power On Self Test) process.
You may see the PC manufacturer’s logo appear on your screen during this process, and you can often press a button to access your BIOS or UEFI settings screen from here. However, many modern PCs fly through this process so fast that they don’t bother displaying a logo and require accessing their UEFI setting screen from the Windows Boot Options menu.
UEFI can do a lot more than just initialize hardware; it’s really a tiny operating system. For example, Intel CPUs have the Intel Management Engine. This provides a variety of features, including powering Intel’s Active Management Technology, which allows for remote management of business PCs.
The UEFI or BIOS Hands Off to a Boot Device
After it’s done testing and initializing your hardware, the UEFI or BIOS will hand off responsibility for booting your PC to your operating system’s boot loader.
The UEFI or BIOS looks for a “boot device” to boot your operating system from. This is usually your computer’s hard disk or solid-state drive, but may also be a CD, DVD, USB drive, or network location. The boot device is configurable from within the UEFI or BIOS setup screen. If you have multiple boot devices, the UEFI or BIOS attempts to hand off the startup process to them in the order they’re listed. So, for example, if you have a bootable DVD in your optical drive, the system might try starting from that before it tries starting from your hard drive.
Traditionally, a BIOS looked at the MBR (master boot record), a special boot sector at the beginning of a disk. The MBR contains code that loads the rest of the operating system, known as a “bootloader.” The BIOS executes the bootloader, which takes it from there and begins booting the actual operating system—Windows or Linux, for example.
Computers with UEFI can still use this old-style MBR boot method to boot an operating system, but they normally use something called an EFI executable instead. These don’t have to be stored at the beginning of a disk. Instead, they’re stored on something called an “EFI system partition.”
Either way, the principle is the same—the BIOS or UEFI examines a storage device on your system to look for a small program, either in the MBR or on an EFI system partition, and runs it. If there’s no bootable boot device, the bootup process fails, and you’ll see an error message saying so on your display.
On modern PCs, the UEFI firmware is generally configured for “Secure Boot.” This ensures the operating system that it starts hasn’t been tampered with and won’t load low-level malware. If Secure Boot is enabled, the UEFI checks whether the bootloader is properly signed before starting it.
The Bootloader Loads the Full OS
The bootloader is a small program that has the large task of booting the rest of the operating system. Windows uses a bootloader named Windows Boot Manager (Bootmgr.exe), most Linux systems use GRUB, and Macs use something called boot.efi.
If there’s a problem with the bootloader—for example, if its files are corrupted on disk—you’ll see a bootloader error message, and the boot process will stop.
The bootloader is just one small program, and it doesn’t handle the boot process on its own. On Windows, the Windows Boot Manager finds and starts the Windows OS Loader. The OS loader loads essential hardware drivers that are required to run the kernel—the core part of the Windows operating system—and then launches the kernel. The kernel then loads the system Registry into memory and also loads any additional hardware drivers that are marked with “BOOT_START,” which means they should be loaded at boot. The Windows kernel then launches the session manager process (Smss.exe), which starts the system session and loads additional drivers. This process continues, and Windows loads background services as well as the welcome screen, which lets you sign in.
On Linux, the GRUB boot loader loads the Linux kernel. The kernel also starts the init system—that’s systemd on most modern Linux distributions. The init system handles starting services and other user processes that lead all the way to a login prompt.
This involved process is just a way of making everything load correctly by doing things in the correct order.
By the way, so-called “startup programs” actually load when you sign into your user account, not when the system boots. But some background services (on Windows) or daemons (on Linux and macOS) are started in the background when your system boots.
The shutdown process is pretty involved, too. Here’s exactly what happens when you shut down or sign out of a Windows PC.
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