Optimizing Firmware Updates: Dasharo Firmware Update Mode for NovaCustom Laptops


The word firmware comes from the fact that it sits somewhere in between software and hardware. This term refers to the fact that firmware provides an abstraction layer for hardware, so that software (e.g. OS) can make use of it in a more generic manner.

Firmware also sits between hardware and software in a different category, which is “how hard it is to modify”. While software is easy to modify and update, hardware is set in stone and cannot be fixed so easily (at least without recalling devices and replacing components). Firmware, again, sits somewhere in between those two.

While software typically resides on easily re-writable, fast, dense media, firmware is usually stored separately. On x86, the boot firmware resides in SPI flash chips, which is typically mapped by the chipset just below the first 4GB of memory, which is a legacy of early x86 processors.

Status quo

Right now, the recommended method of updating Dasharo is to use Dasharo Tools Suite, which is an embedded Linux distribution with tools for updating end-user firmware. DTS makes use of flashrom, writing to the BIOS flash memory by directly accessing the SPI flash controller. This has the benefit of removing unnecessary complexity from the firmware itself, and giving maximum control to the user. But this approach has one big drawback: it’s not secure. A malicious actor can simply overwrite firmware with malicious, unverified code and we wouldn’t be able to stop them - and because we don’t use Intel Boot Guard or other hardware based root of trust, we wouldn’t be able to detect such modifications.

How do we protect against this? Dasharo has several security features for this specifically:

  • Protected Range Registers: The firmware programs which ranges of SPI flash addresses are not allowed to be written to. This is typically set to the initial bootblock, which verifies the subsequent boot stages, and a recovery partition for when verification fails.

  • SMM_BWP: This feature only allows code running in System Management Mode to write to the BIOS flash. This code is responsible for EFI variables, which are stored in the BIOS flash. Whenever the OS attempts to enable writes to the SPI flash, an SMI is fired and a handler, installed by the firmware, checks if the write attempt was made in SMM. If it wasn’t, then the SMI handler disables writes to BIOS flash and returns control to OS.

  • UEFI Secure Boot: This feature verifies the OS’s bootloader using a cryptographic signature. The Linux kernel enables Lockdown mode when SB is enabled, which among other things disables direct access to /dev/mem, which prevents access to the SPI flash controller.

img Pictured: An accurate summary of SMM_BWP

All these features prevent a malicious actor from installing malicious firmware, but it also prevents the user from updating firmware. Up until this point, we have been recommending that users enable these locks for daily usage, but disable them whenever they want to update firmware. Recognizing that this can be an inconvenient, error prone process, we’ve added a new feature to make it easier: Firmware Update Mode.

Firmware Update Mode

Firmware Update Mode is an one-time boot mode that disables firmware protections for the duration of one boot, allowing the user to boot into a firmware update environment (Dasharo Tools Suite or OS of their own choice), update to the latest version and reboot, which automatically exits Firmware Update Mode.

Firmware Update Mode aims to address common pain points when updating firmware by being:

  • Easy to activate
  • Temporary, meaning security measures are restored automatically
  • User friendly
  • Automatic wherever possible, including shutdown after an update

Here is a demo of the new FW update flow on NovaCustom laptops, available starting with firmware v1.5.0 for TGL-U models and v1.7.0 for ADL-P models:

If you want to learn more, check out the Dasharo documentation page on Firmware Update Mode and head to the NovaCustom overview page to find all release notes and guides.

What’s next?

The “proper” way to do firmware updates in the UEFI world is to use UEFI Capsule Updates. In fact, it’s one of Microsoft’s requirements for PC vendors to be able to put Windows stickers and labels on their products.

UEFI Capsule Updates work by putting the firmware updates and relevant metadata into a single “capsule”, which is passed to the UEFI firmware. UEFI then verifies capsule’s digital signature and determines how to update the device. A capsule update may contain UEFI, FW for Embedded Controller, or for any other on-board peripherals.

Capsule Updates are also supported under Linux by the fwupd / LVFS project, as well as various BSD derivatives, support for which we helped develop in the past few years: fwupd for FreeBSD status update.

We aim to add support for UEFI Capsule Updates in upcoming releases of Dasharo. Firmware Update Mode provides some of the building blocks that will be useful for that purpose. A GitHub issue for tracking progress can be found here: link, and a plan for implementation can be found on Dasharo docs: link. You can expect that we will continue working on making the update process easier and more reliable in the future.


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Michał Kopeć
Junior Firmware Engineer at 3mdeb. Works on coreboot and EDKII based x86 firmware. Interested in all open-source things. Enjoys breaking computers in his spare time.