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Context Switching in OS

Context Switching in OS is a process of switching from one task to another task. It is an essential component of multitasking, a feature that allows multiple processes to run on a single processor. Context switching plays a critical role in modern computer systems, where multiple programs run simultaneously, and resources such as CPU time and memory must be shared efficiently. This article covers what is Context Switching in OS, the steps involved in Context Switching in OS, an example of Context Switching, and the advantages and drawbacks of Context Switching in OS. This article does not go into detail about how to perform Context Switching in practice.

What is Context Switching in OS?

Context switching in OS is a mechanism used to allow multiple processes to run concurrently on a single CPU. The basic idea behind context switching is that the OS temporarily suspends the execution of one process and saves its current state (i.e., the values of all its registers and program counter) so that it can resume execution later. It then loads the saved state of another process and begins executing it.

Context switching in OS is required because modern CPUs can only execute one instruction at a time, but most operating systems need to support multiple processes running at the same time. When a process needs to wait for some input or output operation, the OS can switch to another process that is ready to run and continue to do so until the first process becomes ready to run again.

Context switching in OS has some overhead associated with it, as there is a need to save and restore the state of the processes. However, it is necessary for efficient multitasking, as it allows the CPU to be used more efficiently and enables multiple processes to run concurrently.

Steps Involved in Context Switching in OS

The steps that occur during switching between processes P1 and P2 are as follows:

  • Step – 1 The data in the register and program counter will be saved in the PCB of process P1, let’s call it PCB1, and the state in PCB1 will be changed.
  • Step – 2 Process P1 will be moved to the appropriate queue, which could be ready, I/O, or waiting.
  • Step – 3 The next process, say P2, will be chosen from the ready queue.
  • Step – 4 The process P2’s state will be changed to running, and if P2 was previously executed by the CPU, it will restart execution from where it was put on hold.
  • Step – 5 If we need to execute process P1, we must complete all of the tasks stated in steps 1 to 4.

Context Switching Triggers

The following are the main triggers in Context Switching in OS:

  • Multitasking: Context switching is necessary for a multitasking environment where multiple processes or threads are running concurrently. The operating system allocates CPU time to different processes or threads, and the CPU switches between them as needed. Context switching occurs when the CPU saves the current context of one process or thread, and loads the context of another process or thread.
  • Interrupt handling: Context switching is also required when an interrupt occurs. When an interrupt is generated, the CPU needs to switch to the interrupt handler to handle the interrupt. The interrupt handler saves the context of the currently running process or thread and loads the context of the interrupt handler to handle the interrupt.
  • User and Kernel mode switching: Context switching may also occur when switching between user mode and kernel mode. When a process needs to perform a privileged operation, such as accessing hardware or system resources, it needs to switch to kernel mode. This requires a context switch to ensure that the correct memory space and privileges are available for the kernel mode code to execute. Similarly, when the kernel mode code has completed its task, it needs to switch back to user mode, requiring another context switch.

Example of Context Switching in OS

Suppose there is a process in the system that is being executed by the CPU, and the ready queue is empty. One new process is now generated and added to the ready queue. The system provides a technique for allocating the CPU to the process with the highest priority number. So, when the newly generated process is put in the ready queue, its priority number will be compared to the priority number of the older process. The higher priority number requires more attention than the lower priority number.

If the new process’s priority number is lower than that of the older process, the older process’s execution continues. Context Switching will be triggered if the priority number of the new process is greater than the priority number of the older process. During a context switch, the Process Control Block stores the data from registers, the program counter, and the process state. The older process is placed in the waiting queue, while the newly generated process is prepared to run.

Once the newly generated process has completed its execution, the older process in the waiting queue will be retrieved and begin execution from where it was put on hold.

Advantage of Context Switching in OS

Here are some advantages of context switching in OS:

  • Multitasking: Allows multiple processes to be executed concurrently, increasing overall system efficiency.
  • Fairness: Ensures that all processes get a fair share of CPU time, preventing any one process from monopolizing resources.
  • Responsiveness: Enables the system to quickly respond to user inputs and events, improving the user experience.
  • Resource sharing: Enables multiple processes to share system resources, such as memory, I/O devices, and network connections.
  • Protection: Isolates processes from each other, preventing them from accessing each other’s memory or interfering with each other’s execution.
  • Fault tolerance: Allows the system to recover from errors or crashes in one process without affecting other processes.
  • Flexibility: Enables the system to adapt to changing workloads and priorities by dynamically allocating CPU time to different processes.

Disadvantages of Context Switching in OS

Here are some disadvantages of context switching in OS:

  • Time Overhead: Context switching requires time to save and restore the context of a process, which can be significant, especially for processes with large amounts of data.
  • Memory Overhead: Each process requires its own memory space, and frequent context switching can lead to a large amount of memory overhead.
  • Cache Misses: When a process is switched out and then switched back in, there is a possibility that the CPU cache may need to be refilled, resulting in cache misses and slower performance.
  • Synchronization Overhead: Context switching in OS can lead to synchronization overhead, as the operating system must ensure that shared resources are properly synchronized between processes.
  • Interrupt Latency: When a process is interrupted and switched out, there is a latency involved in processing the interrupt and switching to the new process, which can impact real-time applications.

In conclusion, context switching in OS is a crucial mechanism that allows for the efficient sharing of resources among multiple processes or threads. Through context switching, the operating system can save and restore the state of a process, allowing it to temporarily suspend its execution and later resume from where it left off. Understanding how context switching in OS works is important for system administrators, and software developers. By optimizing context switching, we can ensure that computer systems run efficiently and smoothly, even when handling multiple tasks simultaneously.


Here are some frequently asked questions related to Context Switching in OS.

Q1: How does context switching affect system performance?
Ans: Context switching can have a negative impact on system performance if it occurs frequently, as it incurs a significant overhead due to the need to save and restore process states.

Q2: What is the difference between voluntary and involuntary context switching in OS?
Ans: A voluntary context switch occurs when a process explicitly yields the CPU, while an involuntary context switch occurs when the operating system forcibly preempts a running process.

Q3: Can context switching occur between processes on different CPUs?
Ans: Yes, context switching can occur between processes on different CPUs in a multiprocessing system.

Q4: What is the impact of virtual memory on context switching?
Ans: Virtual memory can increase the time required for a context switch, as the operating system must perform additional work to map memory pages between processes.

Q5: How can a process be prevented from being preempted during a context switch?
Ans: A process can be prevented from being preempted by disabling interrupts or setting a higher priority level for the process.

Q6: Can context switching in OS be avoided altogether?
Ans: Context switching cannot be avoided entirely in a multitasking operating system, but it can be minimized through careful process scheduling and system design.

Q7: What is the impact of I/O operations on context switching in OS?
Ans: I/O operations can trigger context switches if a process is blocked while waiting for I/O to complete, leading to additional overhead.

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