PC Industry Looks to Transform Firmware

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-01-31

PC Industry Looks to Transform Firmware

PC firmware, a murky world of interwoven software code that dates back to the original IBM PC and its clones, is about to be modernized.

In a move that experts say promises to lead to fewer headaches for IT staff by creating more stable and manageable desktops and notebooks, the PC industry has begun transitioning to the United Extensible Firmware Interface. Dubbed UEFI, the interface offers a standardized way for a PCs firmware, the underlying software that controls its hardware, to interact with the operating system. The new interface offers a standard method for loading an operating system, as well as running pre-boot applications.

The action of standardizing those operations promises to cut software conflicts, which affect system stability, and to open doors for new types of management and security software, all of which could make life easier for corporate IT departments, UEFI backers say.

"This is the biggest thing that has happened to BIOS in 25 years," said Dick Holmberg, a manager inside Dells Enterprise BIOS Group in Round Rock, Texas. "Its a pretty huge change for an area of the computing industry that definitely doesnt get a lot of attention."

Indeed, PC firmware doesnt get the fanfare that comes with the arrival of new processors or operating systems.

The arrival of UEFI, which takes over much of the work done by todays BIOS software, marks the first time since its inception that the PC industry is reconsidering how it writes its firmware.

UEFI "is going to start as a trickle. Itll probably start so slowly that it wont be noticed," Holmberg predicted.

However, what will begin as a trickle of machines in the second half of this year is expected to pick up steam in 2007 as UEFI-specification firmware (a UEFI 2.0 specification is due imminently) populates new PCs. The new specification springs from the United EFI Forum, an industry working group backed by Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Microsoft, PC makers such as Dell, and several BIOS makers. It builds upon Intels Extensible Firmware Interface specification 1.1.

"We believe most of the transition is going to start this summer," said Robert Wise, vice president of product marketing at Phoenix Technologies, a United EFI Forum member, in Milpitas, Calif. The company expects most of its clients to adopt UEFI over the next two to three years.

Microsofts forthcoming Windows Vista operating system is expected to lead that charge. Vista was designed to work with either EFI- or BIOS-based firmware, Microsoft has indicated.

During the transition, there are likely to be several firmware combinations at first, including BIOS-based PCs, EFI 1.1-based machines—which can use a BIOS-compatibility module to run Windows XP or Linux—in addition to UEFI 2.0 machines. However, the UEFI 2.0 specification is expected to be the long-term choice.

Given that UEFI 2.0 firmware is said to only boot 64-bit EFI operating systems, the move there isnt expected to gain momentum until 2007, when Windows Vista and 64-bit hardware come together, said Mike Richmond, manager for platform software infrastructure for Intels Software and Solutions Group, in Hillsboro, Ore.

"When vendors look at Longhorn [Server], 64 bits and UEFI, theyre going to say, OK, thats the place to start pushing this change. Because youve got a cluster of things together that makes sense," Richmond said. "I think youre going to see a huge wave [of EFI PCs] in the transition from [Windows] XP to Longhorn [and from 32-bits] to 64-bits."

Dell, the largest PC maker that creates its PC firmware in-house, intends to make the switch to UEFI, according to Holmberg. The standardized approach of UEFI appeals to Dell, which has traditionally favored standardized hardware, he said. However, he declined to detail the companys transition plans.

Next Page: Standard approach to handling firmware.

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UEFIs promised stability comes from taking a standard approach to handling firmware, experts say.

Under UEFI, each piece of hardware used in a PC is expected to be provided with its own driverlike software, allowing changes related to that bit to be made while the remainder of the firmware goes unchanged. Minimizing changes helps to cut down on potential software conflicts that cause PC instability, experts say.

"This has been one of the dirty little secrets of the PC industry for 20-plus years," Wise said. "The PC industry, which grew up as a clone industry … has had to invent interfaces in fits and starts. Even now, 20 years later, a lot of these are not documented. UEFI fixes that, because its very clear exactly what you have to do."

Phoenix Technologies, as well as American Megatrends and Insyde Technology—who were early backers of Intels EFI work before it became UEFI—will pick up and run with many of UEFIs new features.

The EFI and UEFI interfaces provide for a boot manager, normally a third-party application, which will make it easier for PCs to toggle between operating systems or boot from numerous devices, such as SANs (storage area networks), in addition to their on-board drives. A network stack included in the interface also will allow PCs to access a network before loading their operating systems. The ability to boot from an alternate source and to tap a network before loading an operating system makes possible new ways for management software to diagnose hardware problems, UEFI backers say.

Phoenix Technologies, for one, intends to offer pre-boot authentication for logging on to a system and a network, as well as systems management and recovery applications, Wise said.

Yet, because it exerts a large amount of control over a PC and will be well-documented, the UEFI interface could become a target for malicious software.

"If your motivation is to take down an enterprise, this could potentially create havoc," Wise said.

To combat potential threats, the UEFI 2.0 specification adds driver signing in an effort to ensure that only the proper hardware drivers get installed on a computer, he said. A proposed UEFI 2.1 specification would add advanced cryptography, network authentication and IPv6 support.

As stated by Phoenix Technologies, UEFI software makers can add their own security bits on top of the specification as well. So, despite the fact that Windows and Linux will undoubtedly carry BIOS interface capabilities for years into the future, many believe that move to UEFI is now inevitable.

"Theres an underlying theme in all of this that EFI brings a lot of capabilities that are done in nonstandard, ad hoc ways now into an industry-standard architecture or environment, which is always good," Holmberg said.

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