Always Preemptible and Always Interruptible
The goal of the preemptible, interruptible design of the operating system is to maximize system performance. Any thread can be preempted by a thread with a higher priority, and any driver's interrupt service routine (ISR) can be interrupted by a routine that runs at a higher interrupt request level (IRQL).
The kernel component determines when a code sequence runs, according to one of these prioritizing criteria:
The kernel-defined run-time priority scheme for threads.
Every thread in the system has an associated priority attribute. In general, most threads have variable priority attributes: they are always preemptible and are scheduled to run round-robin with all other threads that are currently at the same priority level. Some threads have real-time priority attributes: these time-critical threads run to completion unless they are preempted by a thread that has a higher real-time priority attribute. The Microsoft Windows architecture does not provide an inherently real-time system.
Whatever its priority attribute, any thread in the system can be preempted when hardware interrupts and certain types of software interrupts occur.
The kernel-defined interrupt request level (IRQL) to which a particular interrupt vector is assigned on a given platform.
The kernel prioritizes hardware and software interrupts so that some kernel-mode code, including most drivers, runs at higher IRQLs, thereby making it have a higher scheduling priority than other threads in the system. The particular IRQL at which a piece of kernel-mode driver code executes is determined by the hardware priority of its underlying device.
Kernel-mode code is always interruptible: an interrupt with a higher IRQL value can occur at any time, thereby causing another piece of kernel-mode code that has a higher system-assigned IRQL to be run immediately on that processor. However, when a piece of code runs at a given IRQL, the kernel masks all interrupt vectors with a lesser or equal IRQL value on the processor.
The lowest IRQL level is called PASSIVE_LEVEL. At this level, no interrupt vectors are masked. Threads generally run at IRQL=PASSIVE_LEVEL. The next higher IRQL levels are for software interrupts. These levels include APC_LEVEL, DISPATCH_LEVEL or, for kernel debugging, WAKE_LEVEL. Device interrupts have still higher IRQL values. The kernel reserves the highest IRQL values for system-critical interrupts, such as those from the system clock or bus errors.
Some system support routines run at IRQL=PASSIVE_LEVEL, either because they are implemented as pageable code or access pageable data, or because some kernel-mode components set up their own threads.
Similarly, some standard driver routines usually run at IRQL=PASSIVE_LEVEL. However, several standard driver routines run either at IRQL=DISPATCH_LEVEL or, for a lowest-level driver, at device IRQL (also called DIRQL). For more information about IRQLs, see Managing Hardware Priorities.
Every routine in a driver is interruptible. This includes any routine that is running at a higher IRQL than PASSIVE_LEVEL. Any routine that is running at a particular IRQL retains control of the processor only if no interrupt for a higher IRQL occurs while that routine is running.
Unlike the drivers in some older personal computer operating systems, a Microsoft Windows driver's ISR is never a large, complex routine that does most of the driver's I/O processing. This is because any driver's interrupt service routine (ISR) can be interrupted by another routine (for example, by another driver's ISR) that runs at a higher IRQL. Thus, the driver's ISR does not necessarily retain control of a CPU, uninterrupted, from the beginning of its execution path to the end.
In Windows drivers, an ISR typically saves hardware state information, queues a deferred procedure call (DPC), and then quickly exits. Later, the system dequeues the driver's DPC so that the driver can complete I/O operations at a lower IRQL (DISPATCH_LEVEL). For good overall system performance, all routines that run at high IRQLs must relinquish control of the CPU quickly.
In Windows, all threads have a thread context. This context consists of information that identifies the process that owns the thread, plus other characteristics such as the thread's access rights.
In general, only a highest-level driver is called in the context of the thread that is requesting the driver's current I/O operation. An intermediate-level or lowest-level driver can never assume that it is executing in the context of the thread that requested its current I/O operation.
Consequently, driver routines usually execute in an arbitrary thread context—the context of whatever thread is current when a standard driver routine is called. For performance reasons (to avoid context switches), very few drivers set up their own threads.