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Briefly, a boot loader is the first software program that runs when a computer starts. It is responsible for loading and transferring control to an operating system kernel software (such as Linux or GNU Mach). The kernel, in turn, initializes the rest of the operating system (e.g. a GNU system).
GNU GRUB is a very powerful boot loader, which can load a wide variety of free operating systems, as well as proprietary operating systems with chain-loading1. GRUB is designed to address the complexity of booting a personal computer; both the program and this manual are tightly bound to that computer platform, although porting to other platforms may be addressed in the future.
One of the important features in GRUB is flexibility; GRUB understands filesystems and kernel executable formats, so you can load an arbitrary operating system the way you like, without recording the physical position of your kernel on the disk. Thus you can load the kernel just by specifying its file name and the drive and partition where the kernel resides.
When booting with GRUB, you can use either a command-line interface (see Command-line interface), or a menu interface (see Menu interface). Using the command-line interface, you type the drive specification and file name of the kernel manually. In the menu interface, you just select an OS using the arrow keys. The menu is based on a configuration file which you prepare beforehand (see Configuration). While in the menu, you can switch to the command-line mode, and vice-versa. You can even edit menu entries before using them.
In the following chapters, you will learn how to specify a drive, a partition, and a file name (see Naming convention) to GRUB, how to install GRUB on your drive (see Installation), and how to boot your OSes (see Booting), step by step.
Besides the GRUB boot loader itself, there is a grub shell grub (see Invoking the grub shell) which can be run when you are in your operating system. It emulates the boot loader and can be used for installing the boot loader.
 chain-load is the mechanism for loading unsupported operating systems by loading another boot loader. It is typically used for loading DOS or Windows.