Boostrapping from the BIOS

The BIOS is the first code running on a computer at start-up, it performs several operations on hardware such as initializations or tests, before the loading of the operating system. In this article we will see how the commutation between BIOS and the operating system occurs.

Rough Steps


Once the BIOS has finished its operations, it looks for a list of devices to boot on : hard drive, floppy, CD-ROM, … This list depends on your BIOS' configuration, and can be changed.

Is the device bootable?

On each of these devices, the bios will try to load the first 512 bytes from the device if the media is ready to be read. Then the BIOS will look at the offset 510 (decimal), to see if the magic number 00AA55 (16 bits) is present, if so, the media is considered to be bootable.


Here is an assembly implementation that prints a cup of coffee at startup:

;; A bootstrapper that prints a cup of coffee
org     0
jmp     07C0h:start
logo:   db      10,13,10,
"       ~"      ,13,10,
"     _----_"   ,13,10,
"    |-____-|"  ,13,10,
"    |      |"  ,13,10,
"    |      |"  ,13,10,
"    \______/"  ,10,13,10,
"         Niiahhh coffee." ,13,10,0
 push   cs
 pop    ds
 mov    ecx, logo
 mov    ah, 0x0e        ; print a char
 mov    al, BYTE [ecx]  ; the char
 int    10h
 inc    ecx
 cmp    BYTE [ecx], 0
 jne    loop

        jmp     hang    ; Infinite loop
;; Filling up to 510 bytes with 0
times   510-($-$$) db 0

;; The magic number
dw      0AA55h

As performing real stuff in 512 bytes is a hard work, most operating systems use this sequence to load another bootstrapper.

Let’s Boot!

We just need to create an image and put it on a device, here a floppy.

$ nasm bootstrap.s -o bootstrap.bin
$ dd if=bootstrap.bin of=path_to_floppy
1+0 records in
1+0 records out
512 bytes (512 B) copied, 6.6279e-05 s, 7.7 MB/s

Now you can reboot with the floppy and the BIOS configured to use the floppy device first.

More about this can be found by reading OpenBSD’s bootstrap.