Upgrade your mobo BIOS without Windows or DOS.

Sometimes you find a nifty piece of hardware that you just can't let go into disuse. This time around it was a Tualatin Pentium 3-S 1266MHz CPU new-old stock, new-in-box. I got it some time ago to upgrade a PC for family that it turns out just upgraded the whole system instead. Thus it sat around in the box until I ran across a mobo to drop it in. Recently I found a system at my favorite shopping destination (Surplus Exchange) that had a Tualatin capable mobo; the DFI CM33-TL just so happens to max out a the 1.26Ghz P3-S I already had. Even nicer is that it is the Rev C board which with the newer BIOS updates can boot from USB and can do 48-bit ATA addressing. Alas, no AGP slot. So why all the love for an old P3 server chip? The later P3-S could outperform the early P4 chips and use half the wattage! So what do we do when all that we have to boot the system with is a non-Microsoft OS and most BIOS update utilities run in Windows, or use disk creation software the runs in Windows/DOS? Luckily it seems that is is possible to update some mobos without having to resort to using an unwanted OS. DFI has made the CM33-TL able to boot from a floppy or run a program under Windows to flash the BIOS - or enter an update mode that simply reads the flash utility and BIOS file from a floppy. It turns out that it is a good thing they enabled all three. Under a fairly standard Ubuntu Linux install I was able create a floppy the the DFI board could update from by combining the BIOS update features in a way DFI didn't document.

Several steps that worked for me:
1. Nab the BIOS update of choice for your mobo & revision. Be sure your file is correct - close doesn't cut it with a BIOS. It's either an exact match or something won't work right. In my case I could nab the smaller download intended for a Windows-based update utility.
2. Extract the .zip file containing the utility and BIOS image. Many of the .exe files manufacturers supply are programs meant to run under DOS or a DOS shell to create a disk image. By having the .zip we can get around that.
3. Copy the extracted files to a freshly formatted and tested floppy (basic FAT12/MS-DOS format is fine). Having a good floppy is very key to a successful flash. GIGO is an important point to consider when doing something that can brick a system.
4. Reboot the system and be ready to press the BIOS flash key(s) when prompted. On the CM33-TL you press Alt-F2 just after the RAM test and floppy seek.
5. The BIOS will then enter the flash update mode and read the floppy. If it determines the BIOS image is compatible it will begin to flash it to the BIOS chip.
6. Once it's done enter the BIOS setup and "Load Safe Defaults". This will let the BIOS set any settings that might cause the system to fail to boot. Go though the menus and set things as you need.
7. Test boot to be sure it works as before. Test boot again using the new features and marvel at the sudden uses that have opened up.

I had been concerned about having to make a bootable floppy for the update but the BIOS option to enter the update mode does not need a fully bootable floppy to operate.

With a system like this it is possible to operate a NAS system with large drives on a chip that boots from a USB thumb drive, operate on older, cheap RAM and uses little power. Having a system that boots from USB allows you to configure the server to spin down drives that are idle and save more power; an OS on a USB device will not need to spin up the main/RAID drives to write logs, etc. Smart choices of hardware can make a cobbled together server operate more efficiently.

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