When the PC powers on, the processor's registers are set to some predefined values. One of the registers is the instruction pointer register, and its value after a power on is well defined: it is a 32-bit value of 0xfffffff0. The instruction pointer register points to code to be executed by the processor. One of the registers is the cr1 32-bit control register, and its value just after the reboot is 0. One of the cr1's bits, the bit PE (Protected Enabled) indicates whether the processor is running in protected or real mode. Since at boot time this bit is cleared, the processor boots in real mode. Real mode means, among other things, that linear and physical addresses are identical.

The value of 0xfffffff0 is slightly less then 4Gb, so unless the machine has 4Gb physical memory, it cannot point to a valid memory address. The computer's hardware translates this address so that it points to a BIOS memory block.

BIOS stands for Basic Input Output System, and it is a chip on the motherboard that has a relatively small amount of read-only memory (ROM). This memory contains various low-level routines that are specific to the hardware supplied with the motherboard. So, the processor will first jump to the address 0xfffffff0, which really resides in the BIOS's memory. Usually this address contains a jump instruction to the BIOS's POST routines.

POST stands for Power On Self Test. This is a set of routines including the memory check, system bus check and other low-level stuff so that the CPU can initialize the computer properly. The important step on this stage is determining the boot device. All modern BIOS's allow the boot device to be set manually, so you can boot from a floppy, CD-ROM, harddisk etc.

The very last thing in the POST is the INT 0x19 instruction. That instruction reads 512 bytes from the first sector of boot device into the memory at address 0x7c00. The term first sector originates from harddrive architecture, where the magnetic plate is divided to a number of cylindrical tracks. Tracks are numbered, and every track is divided by a number (usually 64) sectors. Track number 0 is the outermost on the magnetic plate, and sector 1, the first sector (tracks, or, cylinders, are numbered starting from 0, but sectors - starting from 1), has a special meaning. It is also called Master Boot Record, or MBR. The remaining sectors on the first track are never used [1].



Some utilities such as disklabel(8) may store the information in this area, mostly in the second sector.

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