Say Bye, Bye to the BIOS Layer

SAN JOSE, Calif. — It’s 23 years old. It’s the last major legacy component of a system. It contains all the code required to control the keyboard, display screen, disk drives, serial communications, and a number of miscellaneous functions. And Intel says it’s about time somebody did something to improve it.

We’re talking about the BIOS (basic input/output system)… that built-in software that determines what a computer can do without accessing programs from a disk.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant Wednesday unveiled its plan to revamp the technology and simplify developing silicon support and tools for this so-called “pre-boot” environment. Once known as “Tiano” and now dubbed the “Intel Platform Innovation Framework for EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface)”, the company says the framework will help system administrators improve the way they manage and service systems including upgrades and data recovery.

Intel Platform Software manager Mike Richmond says the software enables address space for OptionROMs in servers; remote firmware management; enabling headless servers without extra hardware; blade and cluster provisioning without having to press “F1” for setup; problem isolation between boards, disk and operating system; and changing the configuration for a PC before the OS boot.

“Some 70 percent of managers we’ve surveyed said systems they service comeback with ‘no fault found,'” said Richmond during a briefing at the Intel Developers Forum here. “Most users can’t tell the difference between broken hardware, software or a bad hard drive. EFI could help speed up the diagnostic process.”

Many modern PCs have a flash BIOS, which means that the BIOS has been recorded on a flash memory chip, which can be updated if necessary. The PC BIOS is fairly standardized, so all PCs are similar at this level (although there are different BIOS versions). Additional DOS functions are usually added through software modules. This means you can upgrade to a newer version of DOS without changing the BIOS.

Intel’s approach is to get BIOS vendors to add hardware-specific modules for any vendor’s silicon and a compatibility support module implementation for backward compatibility.

The company said the Framework operates by isolating dependencies between the silicon and the platform into separately compiled modules. The spec and its pre-boot driver model are then supported. Intel said the technology then supports current operating systems and option ROMs through a BIOS vendor specific Compatibility Support Module.

The EFI can even be configured for mobile support. During Wednesday’s keynote, Richmond demonstrated the Framework in action using a wireless-enabled PDA to interface with the server stack.

The idea is even garnering support from Microsoft , which previously balked at the concept of Intel’s EFI. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant only began heralding the changes to the BIOS layer after Intel said it would form a special interest group.

Intel said it is already working with Gateway to have the computer maker include the EFI in its PCs and other devices.

Going forward, Intel said it expects other OEMs to do a SKU next year and should have a its own reference boards on the framework in the next two to three years. The company said it predicts the EFI to be the primary means of BIOS silicon enabling by 2007.

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