BIOS Gets Some New DNA

Officials at Phoenix Technology said the BIOS as we know it is dead.

The Milpitas, Calif.-based concern Monday announced a new core system software (CSS) that takes digital security, data recovery and network management out of the application space and into the hardware.

It’s a grand statement for a company whose sole reason for being is the little-seen and barely-understood “firmware” that runs between the hardware and the operating system. For the past couple years, however, the company has been working on a BIOS built around the network, not just the standalone PC.

Since the advent of the computer, the concept of the PC has changed. No longer is it the Apple IIe or Commodore 64 of yesterday or the Dell or HPs of today sitting in someone’s home or office. It’s also a machine that acts as a Web server, server blade or workstation PC. But the BIOS technology that runs underneath all those machines hasn’t changed in the past three decades.

Phoenix is the most-used and most-ignored software company in the world. It enjoys a Microsoft-ian position in the BIOS world — four out of five computers in the market today use the Phoenix BIOS. The firmware is also found in many of today’s automated teller machines, gas pumps and point-of-sale registers.

Tim Eades, Phoenix vice president and general manager of marketing and products, said the company has seen more and more of the PC core security and networking management moving outside the machine and onto the intranet or Internet.

“What we’re now seeing is that the PC is just the end-point on a network, and on the network you have to be compatible with the standard on the network,” he said.

The framework for Phoenix’s new network-centric firmware is the device-networked architecture (dNA), which officials say are modular software building blocks for PCs working on the network. It’s broken down into four areas: trust, manageability, connectivity and usability.

Phoenix expects the dNA to radically change the way network administrators think about the BIOS, or CSS as Phoenix is now calling it. Instead of storing public key infrastructure (PKI ) information at the application level, it can be embedded at the hardware level where crackers (or clumsy employees) can erase or corrupt critical system and authentication information.

To do this, Eades said the CSS puts “agents” into the application using its Embedded Crypto Engine, which cull digital certificates, encryption keys and the like into a reserved area on the physical hard drive where the application can’t access.

In order for this to work, of course, you have to have the consent of the software application you are taking the information from. In September, Phoenix penned a deal with Microsoft to tie the CSS into the Windows and .NET environment, and Eades expects to sign up with other OS developers in the future.

Officials expect CSS to provide a host of other improvements to the network-minded PCs of tomorrow to include data recovery, grid computing, authentication and remote management.

Phoenix has tapped the notebook as the first instrument of its new CSS technology, saying it’s the area of greatest growth in the workplace. OEMs won’t start shipping cME TrustedCore NB firmware in laptops until late next year, as they work the technology into the product lifecycle.

Phoenix’s maneuvers support an initiative by Intel to revamp the BIOS layer and simplify developing silicon support and tools for the “pre-boot” environment. Dubbed the Intel Platform Innovation Framework for EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface), the No. 1 chipmaker says the framework will help system administrators improve the way they manage and service systems including upgrades and data recovery.

Intel said 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.

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.

Phoenix will be jumping the gun and expects to ship its CSS to server and workstation vendors in January 2004, and to PC manufacturers later that year.

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