It is hard to believe that it has been more than 30 years since the Basic Input Output System or BIOS has been with our PCs, but the old girl is getting tired. If you are thinking about a major PC refresh or bulk purchase, you might want to consider its replacement, which goes under the unwieldy Unified Extensible Firmware Interface or UEFI. Why should you care? Several reasons, including better 64-bit support, handling larger hard drives, and faster boot times.
BIOS has been a necessary evil in all PCs: it is the first thing you see on the screen when you power up a computer. It handles the pre-boot instructions to the various peripherals and makes sure everything is in place and configured correctly, then proceeds to load your PC's operating system.
Many of us who grew up in the early PC era learned to respect its ways, particularly when we were faced with non-booting computers that required reloading it to get things working again. Those early PCs didn't have auto-sensing setups, so we would have to manually adjust hard drive parameters and other items to get things running. But BIOS is cumbersome when it comes to re-imaging machines, or making major upgrades across the enterprise, or handling machines remotely across the Internet. Vendors such as Symantec Altiris and Dell Kace have specialized tools to handle multiple BIOS updates.
But BIOS' days are numbered. It won't work with any hard drive over 2 TB and while that seems like a large amount of storage there are computers increasingly being built with larger drives these days. It has a miniscule amount of storage for its instructions and is tied to the old Intel x86 16bit chip sets. Intel began shipping an early version of UEFI several years ago in its Itanium server line and since then a group of vendors have gotten together to form a UEFI specification. Now about a third to a half of all PCs being sold now come with it included, and more and more vendors have begun to include the new firmware in their motherboard chip sets.
Earlier this month these vendors met at Intel's offices outside of Seattle for a "plugfest" where they tested their interoperability of their implementations, including drivers, operating system interfaces, and tools. The next plugfest will be in the fall.
When Tom's Hardware wrote about UEFI back at the end of 2009, they didn't see much support for the standard yet, and had problems creating larger than 2 TB partitions on a test Intel motherboard even after UEFI was installed. Tom's site, by the way, has an excellent discussion forums where you can search and find out how to resolve UEFI issues, should you be experimenting with these systems now.
There is hope, and if you don't have any UEFI systems in hand, you might want to start taking a closer look and make sure you use a 64-bit OS too (they will work with older OS's but you might as well start here). This article on HP's Input-Output site by Sandro Villinger is a great starting place. He goes into more detail about the history of UEFI and what OS's will and won't work with the new standard. And the Wikipedia entry on EFI has a somewhat outdated listing of PCs that have the interface.
It is looking more certain that in a few years' time, all of our corporate computers will have this interface and we can finally put the venerable BIOS to rest.