BIOS - Changing Role of The BIOS

Changing Role of The BIOS

Some operating systems, for example MS-DOS, rely on the BIOS to carry out most input/output tasks within the PC. Because the BIOS still relies on a legacy 16-bit real mode runtime interface, invoking the BIOS directly is inefficient for some recent operating systems (such as Linux and Microsoft Windows) that are written for CPUs with a word length of 32-bits or more. A number of larger, more powerful servers and workstations use a platform-independent Open Firmware (IEEE-1275) based on the Forth programming language; it is included with Sun's SPARC computers, IBM's RS/6000 line, and other PowerPC systems such as the CHRP motherboards. Later x86-based personal computer operating systems, like Windows NT, use their own, native drivers; this makes it much easier to extend support to new hardware.

There was a similar transition for the Apple Macintosh, where the system software originally relied heavily on the ToolBox—a set of drivers and other useful routines stored in ROM based on Motorola's 680x0 CPUs. These Apple ROMs were replaced by Open Firmware in the PowerPC Macintosh, then EFI in Intel Macintosh computers.

Later BIOS took on more complex functions, by way of interfaces such as ACPI; these functions include power management, hot swapping, thermal management. To quote Linus Torvalds, the task of BIOS is "just load the OS and get the hell out of there". However BIOS limitations (16-bit processor mode, only 1 MiB addressable space, PC AT hardware dependencies, etc.) were seen as clearly unacceptable for the newer computer platforms. Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) is a specification which replaces the runtime interface of the legacy BIOS. Initially written for the Itanium architecture, EFI is now available for x86 and x86-64 platforms; the specification development is driven by The Unified EFI Forum, an industry Special Interest Group.

Linux supports EFI booting natively (since kernel version 3.3) or via the elilo and GNU GRUB boot loaders. The open source community increased their effort to develop a replacement for proprietary BIOSes and their future incarnations with an open sourced counterpart through the coreboot and OpenBIOS/Open Firmware projects. AMD provided product specifications for some chipsets, and Google is sponsoring the project. Motherboard manufacturer Tyan offers coreboot next to the standard BIOS with their Opteron line of motherboards. MSI and Gigabyte Technology have followed suit with the MSI K9ND MS-9282 and MSI K9SD MS-9185 resp. the M57SLI-S4 models.

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