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Ben Hardwidge at THINQ recently wrote an “exclusive” article stating that MSI’s upcoming shift to UEFI means “BIOS could soon be on its deathbed”. I appreciate the attention Ben’s article has brought to UEFI and BIOS. It’s just too bad that most of the article is … well … wrong.


If only there was someone you could talk to about BIOS … oh wait, there is. Hi, my name is Brian and I’ll be your blogger today.


The way the THINQ article describes UEFI is a bit misleading …


"UEFI (universal extensible firmware interface) is a continuation of Intel's original EFI project, which was designed to replace the BIOS with a user-friendly point-and-click interface, as well as addressing many other troublesome areas of the PC's legacy."


UEFI actually stands for “Unified Extensible Firmware Interface.” The term “Unified” was added in 2005 when the EFI spec was transferred from Intel to a non-profit trade organization. I’ll let the UEFI home page explain it a little better …


"The UEFI specification defines a new model for the interface between personal-computer operating systems and platform firmware. The interface consists of data tables that contain platform-related information, plus boot and runtime service calls that are available to the operating system and its loader. Together, these provide a standard environment for booting an operating system and running pre-boot applications."


It’s not hard to get confused over BIOS and UEFI. These technologies are behind-the-scenes in the industry and not well understood. I don’t want to spend this entire article describing why UEFI was developed, or what limitations exist in the legacy BIOS model (I did that last month). However I do want to correct some problems with the article, and address a few points brought up in the comments.


None of the UEFI specification deals with a “user-friendly point-and-click interface.” UEFI does define the Graphics Output Protocol (GOP), a great replacement for the troublesome VESA BIOS interface, but it doesn’t force anybody to use it. AMI has some pretty cool GUI options for Aptio, but they’re options that UEFI makes easier to implement. Many BIOS customers prefer the text interface: it’s well understood by technicians, lightweight and easily redirected to a console for remote management (serial port or serial-over-LAN). Yes kids, the VT100-style 80x25 interface is still a “feature” in the embedded market, so having a text-mode BIOS isn’t a disadvantage.


UEFI is an evolution of the BIOS model, backed by major players in the computer industry. Claiming UEFI is going to kill BIOS is like saying lizards killed off the dinosaurs, or the Intel® Core®™ i5 wants to take a tire iron to the Intel® Core2™ Duo. It’s something we all agreed was necessary (the evolution, not the tire iron), and over a hundred companies continue to participate in the development of the spec.


FYI: I use the term “we” because I was one of the first members of the UEFI board of directors.


The article’s anonymous source states that MSI is making the shift to UEFI as the default firmware on their platforms over the next three years. But that’s not an “exclusive” … it’s old news (same as the need for GPT on drives over 2.2TB). The entire PC industry is making the shift to UEFI, and some are already there. You might already be using UEFI and just don’t know it.


Look at MSI’s Wind series of netbooks … they use Aptio, which is AMI’s implementation of UEFI (complete with that “clunky” text interface).  The news for MSI is that they’re moving their motherboard products to UEFI (which I suspect is a larger part of their business). Even embedded computing, which is considered to be more conservative in adopting new technologies, has adopted UEFI over the past two years.


What the article’s anonymous source says about using UEFI on all motherboards is true, sort of. However, it has nothing to do with the UEFI specification …


"UEFI doesn't support every board; you have to use certain code with certain motherboards."


Translation for the BIOS-impaired: the BIOS on a motherboard is made for that motherboard. A UEFI-based BIOS for a new motherboard won’t work on a different model motherboard, but that’s the same for “classic” BIOS.


So UEFI is already here and in use on a lot of today’s computers … why does it still sound like “news” to people? We still call it “BIOS” whether it’s based on 16-bit legacy interfaces or UEFI because it does the same fundamental thing. We had this discussion at a UEFI meeting years ago, and we could come up with a better term (UEFIOS? BIOEFI?).


General Motors wants people to stop using the term “Chevy” in place of “Chevrolet” but it’s still a car and people still call it “Chevy” out of habit. After decades of personal computers, I don’t think it’s a big deal to keep the acronym.


Also keep in mind this transition from legacy BIOS to UEFI is deliberate. There’s a lot of infrastructure that has to change, from OS loaders to test utilities. Companies like MSI are making the shift to UEFI in a way that doesn’t disrupt their development cycle … and companies like AMI design their UEFI products to ease this transition.


There’s so much more I could talk about regarding UEFI and what it does to improve BIOS, but then I would have anything to say in the next article. A commenter using the handle ‘172pilot’ made this observation …


"EFI is coming, but this article misses the fundamental point, and implies that it's for the nice shiny wrapper. Nothing could be further from the truth."


I think that sums it up nicely.


Brian Richardson
Senior Technical Marketing Engineer
American Megatrends, Inc.


American Megatrends, Inc. (AMI) is an Affiliate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.


Got a question about BIOS or UEFI? … then it’s time to Ask a BIOS Guy! Find Brian on Twitter (@askabiosguy) or leave your question in the comments. Your BIOS question may be featured in an upcoming ‘Ask a BIOS Guy’ article.

The wonderful thing about being stuck on the tarmac for three hours on a flight with “unforeseen technical difficulties” is that you have a lot of time to catch up on your reading. So you can thank airline-related mechanical failure for this week’s article on the BIOS and OS portability.


Scanning a pile of unread links in Google Reader lead me to this Slashdot article – “Installing Linux On ARM-Based Netbooks?”  The anonymous submitter is asking why it’s difficult to change the operating system on low-cost netbooks (from Microsoft Windows CE to Linux, or from one Linux distribution to another). Even the article says “ARM” in the title these cheaper computers run a variety of processor architectures (ARM or MIPS based).


Most of these low-end netbooks load the OS from flash memory instead of a hard disk or solid-state drive (SSD). This means the computer is hard-coded to launch the primary operating system (in most cases, an older version of Microsoft Windows CE). A normal PC user would just put a different OS on a USB thumb drive and change the BIOS settings … but these platforms don’t have a BIOS.


Since the platform designer assumed the end user won’t change the OS, they use a simple bootloader to bootstrap the OS image in flash memory. The good news: the system is cheaper. The bad news: upgrading the system or changing the OS requires a soldering iron, “1337 skillz” or whatever computer they use in the movies that hacks into high-security networks in under sixty seconds (I checked Fry’s already, they’re out of stock).


I do want to point out this is not a knock against ARM or MIPS. I know, I’m writing an article for an Intel website, but the lack of OS portability has more to do with firmware than hardware (bootloader versus BIOS). The PC’s inherent configurability made it very easy for operating systems like Linux and FreeBSD to gain traction on Intel Architecture platforms, and using something like a bootloader to latch one specific OS to the platform takes away from that flexibility.


A good example is the MeeGo project, which recently released a downloadable image for version 1.0. It’s pretty easy to test it on a netbook with the right hardware requirements … download the image file, write it to a USB key and boot to the USB key. With a few hours of its release I had MeeGo v1.0 installed on my Intel Atom-based netbook. It’s the same experience as booting to a Microsoft Windows or Linux install DVD.


On Intel Architecture platforms, MeeGo uses the same boot process as any other Linux-based OS:

  • BIOS initializes the hardware at power-on
  • BIOS builds a set of runtime interfaces for the OS
  • BIOS bootstraps the OS loader
  • OS kernel uses information from the BIOS to determine how to configure the system

MeeGo is portable to non-Intel platforms like the ARM-based Nokia N900, but that OS image is ported to one specific system. Getting it to boot on a different platform is probably non-trivial, because there isn’t a BIOS to handle the OS-to-hardware interface.


So what does this have to do with embedded computing? These inexpensive netbooks are prime examples of how embedded systems were traditionally designed … the hardware and software get tied together in a way that makes it difficult to separate them. In today’s embedded computing market, this model is starting to go away.


With more COTS hardware available for extreme temperature ranges and low-power consumption applications, embedded developers have to consider application portability. Embedded platform designers can address this need by making it easy for their end customer to swap operating systems, which is a key feature of BIOS in the Intel Architecture ecosystem. Keep this in mind the next time you’re designing an embedded solution.


Brian Richardson
Senior Technical Marketing Engineer
American Megatrends, Inc.


American Megatrends, Inc. (AMI) is an Affiliate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.


Got a question about BIOS? … then it’s time to Ask a BIOS Guy! Find Brian on Twitter (@askabiosguy) or leave your question in the comments. Your BIOS question may be featured in an upcoming ‘Ask a BIOS Guy’ article.

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