The Changes Are Coming!

This blog covers a wide range of topics. Some of which may interest a technical or sometimes a non-technical person. Today I hope to explain a somewhat complex topic which I think every computer user will need to have a basic understanding.

Technology hasn’t stood still and as far as I can tell that’s a good thing. Obviously when it gets misused or broken it’s not the fault of the tech, it’s either component failure or the user, designer or planner.

What’s changing are two things among many; first — how newer computers will start and second—how they will communicate to each other. If at any time you get lost in the weeds with what I’m saying take the word or group of words that confuse and Google them to get a more clear definition.

Those of us familiar with the evolution of the personal computer and how an Operating System allows us to type, display, retrieve data, send messages and plug in a variety of devices such as disk drives, printers, scanners or flash drives, recognize that ease of use and presentation have been the prime target of computer advancement right behind speed and capacity. We have seen Apple go from Apple DOS to MacIntosh, CPM, MS-DOS to Windows 3.1 ~ soon Windows 8. Many of us, myself included, prefer using Linux. Whatever your preference of brand and hardware manufacturer, all of them require some rudimentary launch program to enable all of the hardware to begin communicating with the Operating System of choice.

The average user may not care to think about what goes on behind the scenes to allow them to use their computer, they want to turn it on and hopefully wait a minimal amount of time in order to start using the computer. Same goes if they use an intelligent phone or touch pad. I hear you say just get the darn thing started so I can use it. Well how it gets going is about to change and it does affect you.

UEFI block diagram - UEFI replaces BIOSIn some ways it will hardly be noticeable, for others it will be a major event. The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), is what’s new and it will replace what most PC’s call BIOS, Basic Input Output System. Why the change and what are the benefits, you might ask?

BIOS was designed to launch your Windows or Linux Operating System, connecting the hardware to the software run by your computer. It’s a broken down worn out technology that has been stretched to do things no one ever imagined when it first was employed. Disk drives have expanded into Giga byte capacity. Soon we will see Tera byte disk drives and BIOS isn’t able to boot from anything larger than 2.1 Tbyte. When BIOS was introduced our personal computers had memory of 1 M byte or less, disk drives were 10 or 20 M byte and considered huge. Now we can’t save our pictures or connect to our friends through Facebook with this small of capacity.

No one imagined we would have so many things to connect to our PC. Disk-drives, keyboards scanners, cameras, printers, surround sound, joysticks, paddles, the list goes on and BIOS is supposed to initially recognize each new device and hand it over to the Operating System so it can be used. This was supposed to all take place within a K byte or two of system flash. The burden has grown since these devices all take time to start from a serial system BIOS, the platform by which all PC’s struggle to begin their day. BIOS has exceeded its original design spec by several orders of magnitude.

Intel started EFI in 2003 with the Itanium’s IA64 architecture under the title Boot Initiative. The concept was handed over to the Unified EFI Forum, which managed and promoted the new standard for the entire industry. All the big names are on the committee to standardize UEFI. Acer. AMD, AMI, Apple, Bull, Dell, HP, IBM, Insyde, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, Phoenix and many more are behind this new standard.

Here are the benefits of UEFI.

Faster boot and resume times UEFI communicates with devices and launches within seconds.

Enterprise management UEFI is like an OS and allows remote access without having to boot an entire Operating System. I can tell you from my perspective, this is almost like having a miracle performed by IT support. If the system is dead but powers up and can boot the EFI, remote access becomes available because all devices including Ethernet communication is available. If the OS blue screens there is still a good chance the computer can be fixed remotely.

Pre-OS and network security Even before the OS gets started, your PC is secure because of the built in software mechanisms that require signatures for each hardware device and immediate rejection of malware. Microsoft has pushed this to be part of their new features available with Windows 8. They want to be able to promote a secure platform from the moment power is applied.

Support for HDD’s with more than 2.1 T bytes OK, I can hear you saying, ‘who cares‘, but most can recall when a G byte of disk space or memory was a big deal. Not anymore, and as computer capability increases so will storage capacity.

Specialized UEFI applications Without the need to boot into an OS, you can have quick access to important features – providing the manufacture or your IT department implements these features. You might want to can quickly glance at your e-mail or calendar without booting up the notebook. UEFI and its applications are on-screen within seconds.

The negatives You knew there must be a down side so here it is in a nutshell

UEFI is still a framework and isn’t readily available. It’s basically a resource investment on the OEM side and it will take time before manufactures are ready to sell it. They realize their BIOS investments are now short-term, but they are generally an easy to produce product until all the explosion of new devices. Meanwhile a few manufactures such as Apple, IBM, and HP are rolling out product with UEFI embedded into Pads, printers, scanners, network and storage, also workstations and servers will include it.

You cannot upgrade your current PC investment to UEFI. There is no feasible way to upgrade the BIOS chip on motherboards. It’s a completely different software. Future IT equipment decisions should include a strategy to convert. Keep in mind Microsoft is only going to provide this support with 64 bit versions of Windows 7, Vista with SP1, Windows 8 and Server 2008 R2. All 32 bit versions won’t support UEFI without a special BIOS compatibility layer, and I can’t see that being a popular or wise strategy to invest in.

Microsoft being the Elephant in the room has pushed this technology hard and does so while trumpeting the secure layer features which require driver signed, hash-based authentication. Microsoft of course provides these certificates which make it more difficult for Open Source Operating Systems such as Linux to be loaded on a computer with UEFI installed. It is left up to the OEM’s to come up with their own customized certificates. Meanwhile Red Hat has decided to work with Microsoft and purchase these trusted keys.

See the Red Hat announcement by following this underlined link.

To summarize, changes are coming to future personal computer, printers, scanners, pen pads, etc. These changes will include the adoption of a new software layer embedded in the equipment to launch the graphical Operating System provided. Combined with this new standard is an agreed upon method to a secure boot mechanism pairing of trusted keys with low-level operating system software (boot-loaders) signed with a respective key. If an attempt is made by clever malicious malware to modify this boot process, as can be done now, then the mechanism or device will be rejected.

Coming up changes to how networked devices will talk to each other and how this may affect you.

Additional references
Say Goodbye To Your BIOS: Hello, UEFI!
The 30-year-long Reign of BIOS is Over: Why UEFI Will Rock Your IT
Making UEFI Secure Boot Work With Open Platforms
Protecting the pre-OS environment with UEFI
Demystifying UEFI, the long-overdue BIOS replacement
Why UEFI secure boot is difficult for Linux
Ubuntu provides UEFI bootable CD images for their 64-bit (X64) releases