Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Firmware Stack Opens Up 


A batch of new open source efforts will among other things seek to unlock and define a firmware stack that would operate across enterprise infrastructure, cloud datacenters on up to HPC implementations.

The Linux Foundation said this week its firmware initiative called OpenBMC (baseboard management controller) seeks to shed light on “often secretive” hardware design to expand access and control of BMC firmware. The group said IBM (NYSE: IBM) would provide its firmware code base. Other participants include Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Intel and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT).

BMCs are specialized controllers used to monitor the state of a computer or hardware. Typically installed on the main circuit board of a device, they enable monitoring and management of remotely deployed servers and other systems.

All five companies have been developing open versions as vendors run up against obstacles related to scaling and security. “One factor lending urgency to their work is that the scale of cloud deployment makes traditional BMC development impractical for a number of reasons,” Jim Zemlin, excecutive director of the Linux Foundation, noted in a blog post.

Among them is the difficulty of reproducing software bugs and quickly deploying fixes on cloud infrastructure. An open BMC stack would speed debugging, Zemlin said.

Open firmware implementations are also seen as a way of boosting security by allowing users to use their trusted security models rather than having to use older versions with known vulnerabilities. An open stack also would allow Linux users to leverage standard configuration and monitoring tools.

The initiative follows Intel’s (NASDAQ: INTC) announcement last week that it would take the wraps off portions of its firmware, beginning with audio as part of a new Linux project called Sound Open Firmware. The initiative includes the release of open source audio processing firmware along with a software development kit the includes tools for developing “audio firmware infrastructure.”

The audio firmware release, announced by Intel during last week’s Embedded Linux Conference, give developers access to the interface between hardware and operating system. Expanded access to Intel’s firmware could ease the integration of digital signal processors and software. That in turn would spur development of new features.

In January, the Linux Foundation launched another open firmware effort called LinuxBoot aimed at servers that replaces specific firmware functions with a Linux kernel and runtime. The idea is to automate tedious tasks like repeatedly implementing new drivers for firmware.

The “hardened” Linux drivers are designed to speed up system boots by removing unnecessary code, the group said.

The shift to open firmware also is being driven by the proliferation of connected devices that will require regular firmware updates to fix bugs and boost security.


About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).