Freedom at the Lowest Levels
by Joshua Ginsberg, System Administrator
The GNU project has succeeded at developing a professional, free software operating system. Linux has succeeded at implementing a multiple architecture, enterprise-grade kernel. But what about a machine's BIOS?
The BIOS of a computer initializes and verifies critical system components during the first-stafe boot-up before deferring to a second-stage boot loader that prepates and launches the operating system. In the earlier days of microcomputers, operating systems relied on the BIOS to handle communication with hardware, however in more modern operating systems like GNU/Linux, the kernel manages more and more the hardware itself.
Modern BIOS implementations are stored on non-volatile flash memory on the moatherboard, and these implementations are reprogrammable. Board manufacturers often release "BIOS updates" that say little about what problems they fix or how they fix them. The Free Software Foundation considers this black-box BIOS a threat to the freedom of software and of computing, and so it has committed itself to supporting the development of a free software BIOS implementation.
Coincidentally, the same desire has emerged quite forcefully from the supercomputing sector. Funded by the Los Alamos Computer Science Institute (LACSI) - a collaboration of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Rice University and other partners - and the Department of Energy, the LinuxBIOS project has successfully implemented a working BIOS as GPL-licensed free software. Supercomputing users sought faster startup times and more scrupulous control over hardware resources. The United States' national laboratories sought more control and ssurance over their systems processig "classified" data. Private companies deploying supercomputing clusters sought to avoid buggy, troublesome non-free BIOS implementations.
The Free Software Foundaton took part in the LinuxBIOS summit at the LACSI Symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this October (2005). At the summit, AMD announced their dedication to the success of the LinuxBIOS project by committing software engineers to ensure AMD's line of processors is fully supported and providing detailed documentation about AMD processors to achieve this end. Other hardware manufacturers such as Tyan, a maker of motherboards, have been equally forthcoming in providing information to assist the project. The Foundation strongly encourages you to support these manufacturers by choosing their processors and motherboards when you make hardware purchases.
Conversations during the Summit highlighted the increasing need for free software BIOS availability for all computers. With increasing sophistication of non-free BIOS implementations being put forward by Intel and others, not only are more bugs being introduced into BIOS implementations but more freedoms may become restricted. In theory, a BIOS implementation could remain resident in memory long after the second-stage boot loader has launched the operating system. It could monitor hardware access to CD or DVD drives, enforcing DRM restrictions at the lowest possible level. It could "phone home" over the network reporting on the user's activities to private interests or to governments. All of this would be beyond the detection capabilities of the operating system; it would be the ultimate rootkit.
These possibilities highlight the continuing need for a strong free software movement. A living free-software BIOS implementation falls squarely within the Foundation's charter, and we will actively support the LinuxBIOS project as it matures.
manually from the print edition of the Free Software Foundation Bulletin , Issue 7, November 2005
Links: FSF-Campaign for Free BIOS
Next time you go hardware shopping: Motherboards that support LinuxBIOS
Free BIOS -> Linux BIOS -> coreboot
Free BIOS was renamed to Linux BIOS, then it was renamed again and is now coreboot.