PC Firmware: The Next Generation

A new interface promises to stabilize desktops and standardize operating system interaction.

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 its operating system. The new interface offers a standard method for loading an operating system, as well as running preboot 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 at 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."

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

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—the first UEFI specification, Version 2.0, was approved Jan. 31—populates new PCs. The new specification springs from the United EFI Forum, an industry working group backed by Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Microsoft, Dell and several BIOS makers. It builds on Intels Extensible Firmware Interface 1.1 specification.

"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 boot only 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, 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."

Dell, which 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.

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.

Phoenix Technologies, as well as American Megatrends and Insyde Technology—which 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.

To combat potential security 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, Wise said. A proposed UEFI 2.1 specification would add advanced cryptography, network authentication and IPv6 support.

Building a Biosphere

UEFI 2.0 specification features

  • Support for x86-64 or 64-bit chips
  • Support for SATA (Serial ATA) and SAS (serial-attached SCSI) drives
  • USB 2.0
  • Pre-operating-system graphics
  • Network specifications, including DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), TCP/IP, UDP (User Datagram Protocol), ARP (Address Resolution Protocol) and TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol)
  • Driver signing and hashing for security

Proposed UEFI 2.1 specification features

  • Addition of advanced cryptography, including signatures, encryption and key management
  • A user interface
  • Remote configuration management and network authentication
  • Support for the IPv6 network standard

Source: Phoenix Technologies