BIOS in part refers to the firmware code run by a PC when first powered on, which is a type of boot loader. The primary function of the BIOS is to identify and initialize system component hardware (such as the video display card, hard disk, and floppy disk) and some other hardware devices. This is to prepare the machine into a known low capability state, so other software programs stored on various media can be loaded, executed, and given control of the PC. This process is known as booting, or booting up, which is short for bootstrapping. Among other classes of computers, the generic terms boot monitor, boot loader or boot ROM were commonly used. Some Sun and Macintosh PowerPC computers used Open Firmware for this purpose. There are a few alternatives for Legacy BIOS in the x86 world: Extensible Firmware Interface, Open Firmware (used on the OLPC XO-1) and coreboot.
The BIOSes of IBM PC class machines can also be said to be a coded program embedded on a chip that recognizes and controls various devices that make up x86 personal computers, and provides a small library of basic Input/Output functions that can be called to operate and control the peripherals such as the keyboard, primitive (800 x 600) display functions and so forth. Computers designed to run Windows ME or Windows 2000, or later, supersede this basic monitor functionality by taking over direct control of the interrupt table and replacing the monitor routines with faster and more robust low-level modules that, unlike the BIOS function set, are re-entrant. Various BIOS functions in ROM were left in control in earlier Windows versions, and the BIOS only comes into play today in the alternate shell Cmd.exe, or if the machine is booted into a legacy DOS version.
The term first appeared in the CP/M operating system, describing the part of CP/M loaded during boot time that interfaced directly with the hardware (CP/M machines usually had a simple boot loader in ROM, and nothing else). Most versions of DOS have a file called "IBMBIO.COM" or "IO.SYS" that is analogous to the CP/M disk BIOS.
The term is incorrectly known as Binary Input/Output System, Basic Integrated Operating System and occasionally Built In Operating System.
Prior to the early 1990s, BIOSes were stored in ROM or PROM chips, which could not be altered by users. As its complexity and need for updates grew, and re-programmable parts became more available, BIOS firmware was most commonly stored on EEPROM or flash memory devices. According to Robert Braver, the president of the BIOS manufacturer Micro Firmware, Flash BIOS chips became common around 1995 because the electrically erasable PROM (EEPROM) chips are cheaper and easier to program than standard erasable PROM (EPROM) chips. PROM chips may be erased by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, which accessed the chip via the window. Chip manufacturers use PROM blasters to reprogram EPROM chips. EEPROM chips come with the additional feature of allowing a BIOS reprogramming via higher-than-normal amounts of voltage. BIOS versions are upgraded to take advantage of newer versions of hardware and to correct bugs in previous revisions of BIOSes.
The first flash chips attached to the ISA bus. Starting in 1997, the BIOS flash moved to the LPC bus, a functional replacement for ISA, following a new standard implementation known as "firmware hub" (FWH). Most BIOS revisions created in 1995 and nearly all BIOS revisions in 1997 supported the year 2000. In 2006, the first systems supporting a Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) appeared, and the BIOS flash moved again.
EEPROM chips are advantageous because they can be easily updated by the user; hardware manufacturers frequently issue BIOS updates to upgrade their products, improve compatibility and remove bugs. However, this advantage had the risk that an improperly executed or aborted BIOS update could render the computer or device unusable. To avoid these situations, more recent BIOSes use a "boot block"; a portion of the BIOS which runs first and must be updated separately. This code verifies if the rest of the BIOS is intact (using hash checksums or other methods) before transferring control to it. If the boot block detects any corruption in the main BIOS, it will typically warn the user that a recovery process must be initiated by booting from removable media (floppy, CD or USB memory) so the user can try flashing the BIOS again. Some motherboards have a backup BIOS (sometimes referred to as DualBIOS boards) to recover from BIOS corruptions. In 2007, Gigabyte began offering motherboards with a QuadBIOS recovery feature.
There was at least one virus named CIH (also known as "Chernobyl Virus") which was able to erase Flash ROM BIOS content, rendering computer systems unusable. Affected systems often can't be fixed on their own since they're no longer able to boot. In such scenario Flash ROM IC should be ejected from motherboard and reprogrammed somewhere else. Mass damage from CIH virus has been possible because of most motherboards in the ages of CIH "popularity" used same chip set, Intel TX and most common operating systems like Windows 95 allowed direct hardware access to all programs. Modern systems are not vulnerable to CIH because of numerous and different chip sets used (which are incompatible with Intel TX chip set), another Flash ROM IC types, there is also extra protections from accidental BIOS rewrites and either boot blocks which are protected from accidental overwrite even more or dual BIOS used so in case of crash, second BIOS getting used. Also all modern operating systems like Windows XP, Windows Vista, Linux just do not allow direct hardware access to usual non-privileged programs. So, as of year 2008 CIH became almost harmless and at very most just bothers users by infecting executable files without being able to cause any real harm and only toggling numerous virus alerts from antivirus software.
The size of the BIOS, and the capacities of the ROM, EEPROM and other media it may be stored on, has increased over time as new features have been added to the code; BIOS versions now exist with sizes up to 8 megabytes. Some modern motherboards are including even bigger NAND Flash ROM ICs on board which are capable of storing whole compact operating system distribution like some Linux distributions. For example, some recent ASUS motherboards including SplashTop Linux embedded into their NAND Flash ROM ICs.
In some devices that can be used by add-in adapters and actually directly integrated on the motherboard, the add-in ROM may also be stored as separate code on the main BIOS flash chip. It may then be possible to upgrade this "add-in" BIOS (sometimes called an option ROM) separately from the main BIOS code.
Add-in cards usually only require such an add-in BIOS if they:
PC operating systems such as DOS, including all DOS-based versions of MS Windows, as well as bootloaders, may continue to make use of the BIOS to handle input and output. However, other modern operating systems will interact with hardware devices directly by using their own device drivers to directly access the hardware. Occasionally these add-in BIOSs are still called by these operating systems, in order to carry out specific tasks such as preliminary device initialization.
To find these memory mapped expansion ROMs during the boot process, PC BIOS implementations scan real memory from
0xF0000 on 2 kibibyte boundaries looking for the ROM signature bytes of 55h followed by AAh (
0xAA55). For a valid expansion ROM, its signature is immediately followed by a single byte indicating the number of 512-byte blocks it occupies in real memory. The BIOS then jumps to the offset located immediately after this size byte; at which point the expansion ROM code takes over, using the BIOS services to register interrupt vectors for use by post-boot applications and provide a user configuration interface, or display diagnostic information.
There are many methods and utilities for dumping the contents of various motherboard BIOS and expansion ROMs. Under a Microsoft OS, DEBUG can be used to examine 64 KiB segments of memory and save the contents to a file. For UNIX systems the dd command can be used by a user with root privileges: "dd if=/dev/mem bs=1k skip=768 count=256 2>/dev/null | strings -n 8".
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 and thermal management. 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 has supported EFI via the elilo boot loader. 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 have followed suit with the MSI K9ND MS-9282 and MSI K9SD MS-9185 resp. the M57SLI-S4 models.