The Complete Magazine on Open Source

CodeSport (September 2010)

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Question bank

Welcome to CodeSport. This month, we feature a medley of questions about operating systems, computer architecture and algorithms.

Last month’s column featured three questions on mutual exclusion, the memory consistency model and synchronisation. Since none of the replies I received were entirely correct, we will keep the questions open this month too. Since there were requests from readers for another set of interview questions, we decided to postpone our discussion of memory fences to next month, and instead feature a medley of questions regarding operating systems, computer architecture and algorithms.

OS-related questions

  1. We know that the set of memory locations that a process is allowed to access is called the address space of the process. Consider a program that reads an array of 1,000,000 integers. Can this program be executed as a process on a machine whose physical memory is only 400,000 bytes?
  2. We know that operating systems are typically multi-programmed — which means that multiple processes can be active at the same time. Can there be multiple kernels executing at the same time?
  3. Is it possible to support multiple processes without support for virtual memory?
  4. Consider the following code snippet. What signal gets delivered to the process when this code segment is executed?
    int main(void)
        int* array = (int*) malloc(10);
       *array = 120000;
        printf("value is %d\n", *array);
  5. Consider the following code snippet, which shows how a process invokes the fork() and exec() system calls. Will it output the line “execve succeeded”? If not, why?
    int result = fork();
    if (result == 0) /* child code */
         if (execve("my new program", …) < 0)
               printf("execve failed\n");
               printf("execve succeeded\n");
  6. If a process is multi-threaded, and one of the threads invokes the fork() system call, what happens?
  7. If a process is multi-threaded, and one of the threads invokes the exec() system call, what happens?
  8. What is “copy on write”, and how is it used to reduce the fork-exec overhead?
  9. Assume that a process detects and handles stack overflow by protecting its stack region boundary with a write-protected page. Hence, any write to this page due to stack overflow will result in a SIGSEGV being generated. Since the process stack has already overflowed, how can the signal handler for the SIGSEGV be executed?
  10. Should threads be supported at the user level, the kernel level, or both? Justify your answer.

Computer architecture questions

  1. What is a write-through cache, and what is a write-back cache? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of associative caches over direct-mapped caches?
  3. Why is the first-level cache in a processor typically direct-mapped, whereas the second and third levels are set-associative?
  4. What is the difference between a little-endian architecture and a big-endian architecture?
  5. What is the difference between a symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) system and a chip multiprocessor system?
  6. What is the difference between write-allocate and write-no-allocate cache?
  7. What is a victim cache?
  8. What is the difference between simultaneous multi-threading, and switch-on-event multi-threading? What kind of threading is employed in Nehalem processors, and what is employed in Itanium processors?
  9. Assume that you are a chip designer, and that you are given the choice of deciding on the number of registers the processor should have. If you are allowed to increase the number of registers, would you go on doing so indefinitely? Other than the increase in die space, what would be the impact of increasing the number of registers?
  10. What is the difference between in-order and out-of-order processors? What kind of processor is Nehalem? What kind of processor is the Power 7 processor?

Algorithmic questions

  1. If you are given the choice to select between a greedy programming solution and a dynamic programming solution to a problem, which would you select? Justify your choice.
  2. What is the lower bound on the complexity of any sorting algorithm that uses only comparisons to make its decisions? Can this be improved by using additional knowledge on the kind of inputs that are processed?
  3. Given a directed graph which contains negative cycles, is it possible to find the shortest paths between any two pairs of vertices? Justify your answer.
  4. You are given an array of N integers. Consider this array as a set of N integers (there are no duplicates in the array). Consider the subsets of this set whose cardinality is (N-1). How many such subsets are there? There are (N-1) such subsets. For each such subset, your program should output the product of the elements present in it. For instance, if you are given the array containing 10, 20, 30, 40, we have the 3 subsets, {10,20,30}, {20,30,40}, and {30,40,10}. The algorithm should output the 3 values 6000, 24000 and 12000. Can you come up with an O(N) algorithm for the same?
  5. Given the problem of finding out whether a vertex with the specified label is present in a given sparse undirected graph, which grows progressively fat as the depth from the root increases, which one of the two graph-traversal algorithms (namely, breadth-first search or depth-first search) would you use? Justify your answer.

My ‘must read book’ for this month

This month’s book suggestion comes from Vivek K Rajan. His recommendation is The Algorithm Design Manual by Steve Skiena. While this book is not meant as a first course in algorithms (I would recommend that you read Introduction to Algorithms by Cormen first), it is a great find for those trying to sharpen their skills in algorithm design. It also contains “war stories”, which describe the author’s practical experience in trying to come up with an algorithm to solve a real problem. The insights one can obtain from reading these war stories go a long way in helping to understand the programming and design choices that each programmer needs to make in solving a given problem. Do make time to read this book.

If you have a favourite programming book that you think is a “must-read book for every programmer”, please do send me a note about your recommendation, along with a short description on why you think it is useful. I will feature your choice in this column. This would help many readers who want to improve their coding skills.

Please do send me your answers to this month’s questions. If you have any favourite programming puzzles you would like to discuss on this forum, please send them to me, along with your solutions and feedback, at sandyasm_AT_yahoo_DOT_com. Till we meet again next month, happy programming, and here’s wishing you the very best!

Feature image courtesy: the.sprouts. Reused under the terms of CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 License.