Understanding Collapse OS
Collapse OS is designed for maximum "grokkability", that is, the
possibility for a single person to understand the system in its
To this end, it helps that there is so little code. It is as-
tounding to realize that there's a whole self-hosting system in
those few thousand lines! Surely you can simply read them and
grok it all, no?
This code is extremely dense and can't be easily understood by
only looking at the code casually like you would with another
project. This reading has to be guided. This is, I hope, the
After following this guide, you should normally be able to read
any part of the code and understand its place in the whole.
1. The core dictionary
The first step you have to take is to know all the words from
the core dictionary (doc/dict). After having gone through
doc/usage, take the time to understand every word from that
dictionary. Those words are used everywhere.
Toy with them, try them out. Master them.
Code from applications (VE, ME etc.) are the easiest to grok.
The pattern is always the same: small words from which bigger
things are made.
For applications, it's often better to begin from the end. The
last defined word (for example, "VE" in VE) is often the main
loop. Because you have an idea of what the app is supposed to
do, you can estimate the behavior from reading the main loop
alone. You don't have understanding, but you can begin guessing.
From there, I suggest drilling down each word of the main loop
until you hit "rock bottom" (words from the core dictionary).
That will make you go through all words of the app. Once you're
finished, you understand the app. doc/code/intro might help.
Don't be hasty. Forth code reads slower than code from other
languages. When you drill down, accept partial understanding
until you hit "rock bottom". Only then can you begin perfectly
understanding words. From there, you go back up, with solid
Gaining ability to understand application code will put your
mind in the right mood. You're already well set for greater
The next step is mastering assemblers. You must begin, of
course, by knowing your CPU. It is assumed here that you
familiarized yourself with its documentation and know its
opcodes well. Then, continue with doc/asm.
Play with assemblers, create your own native words. Crash your
machine. Try creating macros. Be well aware of register roles
for your target CPU (doc/code/).
4. Cross compilation
Cross compilation is seriously mind bending. Take the time to
understand it, understand what the tooling does. See doc/cross.
Begin with trying to cross compile native code. This is easier
to understand because all we have to think about is XORG. Maybe
try to compile a dummy bootloader. That will make you practice
5. Boot code
You can now begin looking at your arch's boot code, which is
covered by doc/bootstrap as well as the corresponding page in
Because it's native code, it's relatively straightforward to
read. The part that gains by being read slowly and carefully is
the first part, before words begin. It's initialization and core
You don't get more fundamental than this. This is the heart of
the whole thing. Take your time, it's one, maybe two blocks at
most, so there's not a lot to read.
Its important that this code is as fast as possible so all
tricks in the books (well, those that I know of!) are used,
hindering readability. You have to take your time.
Then come native words, which are more straightforward. It's
still worth it to read them to train yourself to understand
native code that is sometimes complex (/MOD * = FIND).
6. Core words
Core words are mostly written in regular Forth, so most of it
is grokkable easily. But not all of it.
To understand core words, and thus the kernel, as a whole, you
need to understand XCOMPC (covered in doc/bootstrap) which is
dark magic. It's so twisted that even though I master it, my
mind still treats it as a black box and only "opens" the box
when there's a problem with it.
Fortunately, it's only five blocks, so its not so bad. Give it
a look, read doc/bootstrap.
If you're looking at a way to properly understand its purpose,
I would suggest writing a new set of core words yourself, from
scratch, using XCOMPC and your boot words. From boot words,
you can go quite quckly to some kind of prompt, so it could be
a fun exercise and will let you experience XCOMPC in a minimal
Quick tip: begin with BOOT. That's all you really need to have
(with lblboot set). Your first step could be to simply (emit)
and BYE. Then, you grow from there.
7. Driver code
At this point, you can consider that you know Collapse OS
already. However, because it needs to run on some kind of
machine at some point, you'll also want to understand your
Driver code has to be the hardest to read. It is often deeply
tied to the way hardware is organized. For compactness reasons,
we keep comments terse, and on top of that, we can't have
complete hardware specifications in Collapse OS itself. There-
fore, it is highly recommended to have technical specifications
handy when trying to read this code.
In the hardware documentation ("hw" folder), we try to document
hardware specs directly related to driver code, but this kind
of documentation is always going to be incomplete.
So, hum, what can I say. Begin with the tech spec of your
hardware. Everthing flows from that. Once you know it, the code
should become clear.
That's it! You should now be able to look at any part of
Collapse OS and understand where it fits, how to improve it, how
to make it your own. Congratulations!
This page generated at 2023-12-05 21:05:04 from documentation in CollapseOS snapshot 20230427.