The kernel is the heart of a Linux system. The kernel is a program, but it's a very special program: It serves as an interface between other programs and hardware, allocates CPU time, parcels out RAM, manages filesystems, and otherwise controls the computer as a whole. These tasks are quite basic and extremely important, so proper configuration of the kernel is critical.

Note Technically, Linux is the kernel. Everything else on a Linux system—shells, servers, the X Window System, printing software, and so on—is available for other OSs, such as FreeBSD and often even Windows. For this reason, some people object to the use of the word Linux to refer to the entire OS. Some of these people refer to the OS as a whole as GNU/Linux, because many of these nonkernel components are derived from the GNU's Not Unix (GNU) project.

Because Linux is an open source OS, you as a system administrator can customize the kernel. You can include or omit specific drivers or filesystems, change compilation options for particular kernel components, and even optimize the kernel for your particular CPU. Knowing how to do these things will enable you to improve your system's performance. This chapter covers these topics, beginning with information on how to obtain a kernel. The chapter then looks at the tools you use to modify the kernel's configuration. Next up is a broad look at the available kernel options, followed by a more in-depth examination of certain critical performance-enhancing options. Finally, this chapter looks at how to compile and install a kernel once you've configured it.

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