The Intel® Firmware Support Package was introduced in early 2013 as the “new way” of implementing hardware initialization on Intel® platforms. Replacing monolithic BIOS and earlier Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) and the Intel® Boot Loader Development Kit (Intel® BLDK) packages, Intel Firmware Support Package gives computer board suppliers a common, flexible, and rapid method of creating system initialization firmware for BIOS-based PCs, open source platforms, real-time OSs (RTOS), or custom-designed platforms. For this task the Intel Firmware Support Package is a pretty useful tool, but it has some surprising benefits for the military systems integrator that might not be immediately obvious.
I spoke with Jeff Porter, Director of Marketing at Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) about how they use Intel Firmware Support Package in their latest Intel-based products. Jeff told me that while they used the Intel Firmware Support Package for its intended task of generating a boot loader for their latest Intel-based products such as the 4th generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor-based XPedite7570 and XCalibur4530. They realized that it could also be a useful tool for their MilAero customers. “MilAero customers have struggled with the limitations of BIOS-based boot loaders such as long boot times, expensive security reviews, and the inability to easily customize the boot process. Intel Firmware Support Package with open-source boot loaders help to change that”.
The BIOS or boot loader firmware is typically the first code that runs when a computer is powered on. It performs system initialization and loads the operating system in preparation for running the application. In a combat situation seconds count, so for embedded military systems there is a strong desire to minimize the time between power-on and an operating system. Intel Firmware Support Package gives the system integrator the power to tailor their boot firmware by including only those initialization functions that are absolutely necessary for their application, and thus minimizing boot times.
Figure 1: Intel® Firmware Support Package enables the rapid and easy generation of custom boot firmware. This enables MilAero system integrators to customize their boot firmware for fastboot and increased security.
Military system integrators naturally have strong security requirements. Of all the various layers of software in a system, the BIOS, boot loader, and other firmware tend to generate the most concern. Normally the source codes for these lower-level softwares are difficult and expensive for the integrator to acquire and are of uncertain pedigree with respect to their development. The only option for the integrator has been to enter into extended contracts with the BIOS vendors to gain access to the firmware source files and performing a detailed code review (a very expensive and time-consuming exercise).
With the availability of Intel Firmware Support Package and open source projects such as the coreboot boot loader and the U-Boot or SeaBIOS packages, the embedded military system integrator can now easily spin their own boot firmware. They have complete access to the CPU, memory controller, and chipset functions initialization source files, as well as the coreboot sources. A security review of the source codes is still needed, but now they are only reviewing those functions that they intend to integrate into their system. This results in better code traceability, lower costs to the integrator, and removes the hassle of having to enter into an extended support contract with the BIOS vendor. It also has the benefit of working with either Linux or VxWorks – both of which are very common OS platforms for MilAero systems.
Jeff Porter says that they already have customers who are benefiting from using Intel Firmware Support Package to generate their own boot firmware. Only time will tell how much of a benefit this will be to the MilAero system integrator. Suffice to say that Intel Firmware Support Package is an important new tool in the system integrators arsenal.
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Roving Reporter, Intel® Internet of Things Solutions Alliance