The program systemd is the process with process ID 1. It is responsible for initializing the system in the required way. systemd is started directly by the kernel and resists signal 9, which normally terminates processes. All other programs are either started directly by systemd or by one of its child processes.
Systemd is a replacement for the System V init daemon. systemd is fully compatible with System V init (by supporting init scripts). One of the main advantages of systemd is that it considerably speeds up boot time by aggressively paralleling service starts. Furthermore, systemd only starts a service when it is really needed. Daemons are not started unconditionally at boot time, but rather when being required for the first time. systemd also supports Kernel Control Groups (cgroups), snapshotting and restoring the system state and more. See http://www.freedesktop.org/wiki/Software/systemd/ for details.