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06 January 2009, 10:47

The Open Source BIOS is Ten

An interview with the coreboot developers

Anton Borisov

The coreBoot logo
The coreBoot logo
The firmware used to start up the hardware and load the operating system, the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS), is fundamental to the operation of a PC. It can be one of the major contributors to boot time on a PC. Most PCs use a commercial, proprietary BIOS, but steadily, open source firmware is making a place for itself. coreboot, previously known as LinuxBIOS, is one of the leading BIOS projects and is celebrating its ten year anniversary. Anton Borisov, who has researched the economics of open source firmware, talked to the developers behind the coreboot BIOS; Ron Minnich, who deals with largest supercomputers in the world at Sandia National Labs in California, Stefan Reinauer - CEO of coreSystems and Eric Biederman from Linux Networx.

Anton Borisov: My first question is about the idea of LinuxBIOS. Who was the originator of it and why was LinuxBIOS created?

Ron Minnich: I came up with the idea in 1999. I had been building PC clusters since 1994 and workstation clusters before that. In every case, the BIOS was always a stumbling block, requiring provision of keyboard/video/mouse or a KVM switch for every node – or, in the case of some vendors even today, a network KVM adapter. What I wanted was a BIOS that would come up with the node in a network controlled state – i.e. a network console as the native console mode. We wanted to get a cluster that would boot in less than 5 minutes and not hang with "press F1 to continue" – this is still a problem today!

Because the PCI bus has self-identifying hardware, we felt the time was ripe for an open source BIOS. We also decided that we would load a Linux kernel in BIOS flash so that there would be no need to write drivers – the drivers would be Linux drivers.

Ron Minnich - "I believe the logic of open source BIOS makes the idea unstoppable"
Zoom Ron Minnich - "I believe the logic of open source BIOS makes the idea unstoppable"
All of these decisions – open source, Linux in the flash, fast boot, no keyboard needed – were controversial, and in many circles still are, but I still believe they are the right decisions. AMD, VIA, and others have come around to open source BIOSes. Intel is now pushing RapidBoot, which embeds a Linux kernel in the BIOS flash part – displacing Intels' own EFI BIOS, as it happens. It has taken 9 years to get to this point, but I think in just a few years the idea of an open source BIOS for x86 platforms will be taken for granted, just as is taken for granted in the ARM/PPC world, where so many platforms run U-Boot.

Next: The beginnings of coreboot

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