Upgrading And Repairing PCs 21st Edition: Processor Specifications

IA-32 Mode: 32-Bit And Virtual Real

IA-32 (32-Bit)

Then came the 386, which was the PC industry’s first 32-bit processor. This chip could run an entirely new 32-bit instruction set. To take full advantage of the 32-bit instruction set, a 32-bit OS and a 32-bit application were required. This new 32-bit mode was referred to as protected mode, which alludes to the fact that software programs running in that mode are protected from overwriting one another in memory. Such protection makes the system much more crash-proof because an errant program can’t easily damage other programs or the OS. In addition, a crashed program can be terminated while the rest of the system continues to run unaffected.

Knowing that new OSs and applications—which take advantage of the 32-bit protected mode—would take some time to develop, Intel wisely built a backward-compatible real mode into the 386. That enabled it to run unmodified 16-bit OSs and applications. It ran them quite well—much more quickly than any previous chip. For most people, that was enough. They did not necessarily want new 32-bit software; they just wanted their existing 16-bit software to run more quickly. Unfortunately, that meant the chip was never running in the 32-bit protected mode, and all the features of that capability were being ignored.

When a 386 or later processor is running DOS (real mode), it acts like a “Turbo 8088,” which means the processor has the advantage of speed in running any 16-bit programs; it otherwise can use only the 16-bit instructions and access memory within the same 1 MB memory map of the original 8088. Therefore, if you have a system with a current 32-bit or 64-bit processor running Windows 3.x or DOS, you are effectively using only the first megabyte of memory, leaving all the other RAM largely unused!

New OSs and applications that ran in the 32-bit protected mode of the modern processors were needed. Being stubborn, we as users resisted all the initial attempts at being switched over to a 32-bit environment. People are resistant to change and are sometimes more content with running older software more quickly than with adopting new software with new features. I’ll be the first one to admit that I was (and still am) one of those stubborn users myself!

Because of this resistance, true 32-bit OSs took quite a while before getting a mainstream share in the PC marketplace. Windows XP was the first true 32-bit OS that became a true mainstream product, and that is primarily because Microsoft coerced us in that direction with Windows 9x/Me (which are mixed 16-bit/32-bit systems). Windows 3.x was the last 16-bit OS, which some did not really consider a complete OS because it ran on top of DOS.

IA-32 Virtual Real Mode

The key to the backward compatibility of the Windows 32-bit environment is the third mode in the processor: virtual real mode. Virtual real is essentially a virtual real mode 16-bit environment that runs inside 32-bit protected mode. When you run a DOS prompt window inside Windows, you have created a virtual real mode session. Because protected mode enables true multitasking, you can actually have several real mode sessions running, each with its own software running on a virtual PC. These can all run simultaneously, even while other 32-bit applications are running.

Note that any program running in a virtual real mode window can access up to only 1MB of memory, which that program will believe is the first and only megabyte of memory in the system. In other words, if you run a DOS application in a virtual real window, it will have a 640 KB limitation on memory usage. That is because there is only 1 MB of total RAM in a 16-bit environment, and the upper 384KB is reserved for system use. The virtual real window fully emulates an 8088 environment, so that aside from speed, the software runs as if it were on an original real mode–only PC. Each virtual machine gets its own 1 MB address space, an image of the real hardware basic input/output system (BIOS) routines, and emulation of all other registers and features found in real mode.

Virtual real mode is used when you use a DOS window to run a DOS or Windows 3.x 16-bit program. When you start a DOS application, Windows creates a virtual DOS machine under which it can run.

One interesting thing to note is that all Intel and Intel-compatible (such as AMD and VIA/Cyrix) processors power up in real mode. If you load a 32-bit OS, it automatically switches the processor into 32-bit mode and takes control from there.

It’s also important to note that some 16-bit (DOS and Windows 3.x) applications misbehave in a 32-bit environment, which means they do things that even virtual real mode does not support. Diagnostics software is a perfect example of this. Such software does not run properly in a real mode (virtual real) window under Windows. In that case, you can still run your modern system in the original no-frills real mode by booting to a DOS or Windows 9x/Me startup floppy or by using a self-booting CD or DVD that contains the diagnostic software.

Although 16-bit DOS and “standard” DOS applications use real mode, special programs are available that “extend” DOS and allow access to extended memory (over 1 MB). These are sometimes called DOS extenders and usually are included as part of any DOS or Windows 3.x software that uses them. The protocol that describes how to make DOS work in protected mode is called DOS protected mode interface (DPMI).

Windows 3.x used DPMI to access extended memory for use with Windows 3.x applications. It allowed these programs to use more memory even though they were still 16-bit programs. DOS extenders are especially popular in DOS games because they enable them to access much more of the system memory than the standard 1 MB that most real mode programs can address. These DOS extenders work by switching the processor in and out of real mode. In the case of those that run under Windows, they use the DPMI interface built into Windows, enabling them to share a portion of the system’s extended memory.

Another exception in real mode is that the first 64 KB of extended memory is actually accessible to the PC in real mode, despite the fact that it’s not supposed to be possible. This is the result of a bug in the original IBM AT with respect to the 21st memory address line, known as A20 (A0 is the first address line). By manipulating the A20 line, real mode software can gain access to the first 64 KB of extended memory—the first 64 KB of memory past the first megabyte. This area of memory is called the high memory area (HMA).

  • xkm1948
    Really nice intro article!
  • DelightfulDucklings
    Very interesting article, I quite enjoyed the part about Cache memory
  • kindiana
    nice article
  • burnley14
    One of the most interesting and informative articles I've ever read on the site. Great job!
  • aredflyingbird
    Agreed, excellent article.
  • palladin9479
    Really good article, actually was spot on with how caching works.
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    "Forward From The Editor"
    Shouldn't that be "Foreword?"
  • iam2thecrowe
    I need more cache in my kitchen.
  • LalitMotagi
    Great Article.
  • Rex Romero
    Andrew. It's so advanced so it's forward. lol