Change to 'Bios' will make for PCs that boot in seconds

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

image captionThe Bios in modern computers dates from the earliest IBM PCs

New PCs could start in just seconds, thanks to an update to one of the oldest parts of desktop computers.

The upgrade will spell the end for the 25-year-old PC start-up software known as Bios that initialises a machine so its operating system can get going.

The code was not intended to live nearly this long, and adapting it to modern PCs is one reason they take as long as they do to warm up.

Bios' replacement, known as UEFI, will predominate in new PCs by 2011.

The acronym stands for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface and is designed to be more flexible than its venerable predecessor.

"Conventional Bios is up there with some of the physical pieces of the chip set that have been kicking around the PC since 1979," said Mark Doran, head of the UEFI Forum, which is overseeing development of the technology.

Mr Doran said the creators of the original Bios only expected it to have a lifetime of about 250,000 machines - a figure that has long been surpassed.

"They are as amazed as anyone else that now it is still alive and well in a lot of systems," he said. "It was never really designed to be extensible over time."

AMI is a firm that develops Bios software. Brian Richardson, of AMI's technical marketing team, said the age of the Bios was starting to hamper development as 64-bit computing became more common and machines mutated beyond basic desktops and laptops.

image captionThe Bios tells the computer what input and output devices are installed

"Drive size limits that were inherent to the original PC design - two terabytes - are going to become an issue pretty soon for those that use their PC a lot for pictures and video," he said.

Similarly, he said, as tablet computers and other smaller devices became more popular, having to get them working with a PC control system was going to cause problems.

The problem emerges, he said, because Bios expects the machine it is getting going to have the same basic internal set-up as the first PCs.

As a result, adding extra peripherals - such as keyboards that connect via USB rather than the AT or PS/2 ports of yesteryear - has been technically far from straightforward.

Similarly, the Bios forces USB drives to be identified to a PC as either a hard drive or a floppy drive.

This, said Mr Richardson, could cause problems when those thumb drives are used to get a system working while installing or re-installing an operating system.

UEFI frees any computer from being based around the blueprint and specifications of the original PCs. For instance, it does not specify that a keyboard will only connect via a specific port.

"All it says is that somewhere in the machine there's a device that can produce keyboard-type information," said Mr Doran.

Under UEFI, it will be much easier for that input to come from a soft keyboard, gestures on a touchscreen or any future input device.

image captionUEFI is proving a boon to those managing lots of computers in data centres

"The extensible part of the name is important because we are going to have to live with this for a long time," said Mr Doran.

He added that UEFI started life as an Intel-only specification known as EFI. It morphed into a general standard when the need to replace Bios industry-wide became more widely recognised.

Alternatives to UEFI, such as Open Firmware and Coreboot, do exist and are typically used on computers that do not run chips based on Intel's x86 architecture.

The first to see the benefits of swapping old-fashioned Bios for UEFI have been system administrators who have to oversee hundreds or thousands of PCs in data centres or in offices around the world.

Before now, said Mr Doran, getting those machines working has been "pretty painful" because of the limited capabilities of Bios.

By contrast, he said, UEFI has much better support for basic net protocols - which should mean that remote management is easier from the "bare metal" upwards.

For consumers, said Mr Doran, the biggest obvious benefit of a machine running UEFI will be the speed with which it starts up.

"At the moment it can be 25-30 seconds of boot time before you see the first bit of OS sign-on," he said. "With UEFI we're getting it under a handful of seconds."

"In terms of boot speed, we're not at instant-on yet but it is already a lot better than conventional Bios can manage," he said "and we're getting closer to that every day."

Some PC and laptop makers are already using UEFI as are many firms that make embedded computers. More, said Mr Richardson, will result as motherboard makers complete the shift to using it.

He said that 2011 would be the year that sales of UEFI machines start to dominate.

"I would say we are at the edge of the tipping point right now," he said.

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