In October 2017, Ubuntu 17.10 was released but was pulled soon after from the Ubuntu downloads page because there were reports of Ubuntu corrupting the BIOS of Lenovo, Acer, HP and Dell computers.
In this article I will analyse what went wrong, what lessons can be learned and I will show you how not to get caught out by such issues in the future.
What Is The Ubuntu BIOS Bug?
The Ubuntu BIOS bug caused the BIOS on some models of computers to become read only which had the following adverse affects:
- Users could no longer boot from USB (and therefore not install any other operating system)
- Users could not amend or save the settings in the BIOS/UEFI
How Was The Bug Caused?
According to the bug report the issue was caused by a bug in the Intel SPI drivers in the kernel.
What this means is that the issue isn’t just a Ubuntu bug and indeed other users have reported issues in other distributions including Antergos.
Who Is To Blame?
It would be easy as this point to blame Canonical, the Ubuntu developers and the people who maintain the kernels. Comments on the bug report appear to justify this point as follows:
Actually, this MUST be a Ubuntu / Linux bug, as the current Ubuntu 17.10 rendered our Lenovo laptops useless in the long run, without any documentation or warning that the installation would affect the BIOS. This is a very serious issue, both legally and ethically and I think that we should demand an immediate fix. No OS should have anything to do with the modification of the BIOS without the consent of the owner. What will happen if we need to format our hard drives? How will we be able to install the OS that we want? i am not happy with any workaround. I want my computer to function as it did when I purchased it, in terms of its bios settings and booting from USB is an essential feature. What remains to be explained is the reason why it only affects Lenovo hardware and not any other brand. – Britgreek
I agree with you, Lenovo has nothing to do with this issue, however I think it’s Ubuntu devs responsability to take a look and try to fix this issue, since Ubuntu 17.10 has corrupted our bios. Our machines here (different models) reported this issue only after installing Ubuntu 17.10 and if you browse this forum, you would see that many others reported Ubuntu corrupting the BIOS, something that is extremely serious. – Toby Antoniolli
I think perhaps these two comments both hit and miss the point at exactly the same time. Yes, Ubuntu managed to corrupt the BIOS but surely it is up to the manufacturer to make sure that no software should be able to do this. I would therefore be more inclined to point the finger at the manufacturers than the Ubuntu developers.
Imagine this wasn’t Ubuntu causing this issue but a virus within a Windows installation which managed to achieve the same effect. If there is a bug that allows a BIOS to be rendered useless then surely there is something wrong with the BIOS itself.
Whilst we are on the subject of the BIOS the issue appears to only happen to a particular type of BIOS called Insyde. Hardware manufacturers might themselves decide that the blame lies at the feet of the BIOS developers. The manufacturers are responsible for putting all of the components together to make a machine. If they have chosen to use a particular BIOS from a developer and that BIOS is defective then surely the blame lies at the door of the BIOS developers.
It is human nature to want to blame someone for an issue especially if it leaves our prized possession as nothing more than an expensive plastic brick but then we could look to point the fingers at ourselves as well.
There is a Ubuntu LTS release which works perfectly well and it is supported for a number of years. It is our own curiosity, our own lust that makes us want to install the latest and greatest of each operating system.
I must admit I installed Ubuntu 17.10 straight onto my Dell Inspiron 15 2521 machine without considering that there might be an issue. I was lucky. How lucky? Well the Inspiron 15 3531 is affected by the issue. Would I have been annoyed if my machine was no longer useable and I couldn’t install any other operating system? Probably. I also own a Lenovo laptop and it was pure chance I chose the Dell over the Lenovo for running Ubuntu.
Whilst we are apportioning blame what about the magazines. Linux User & Developer shipped with a DVD containing Ubuntu 17.10 in November. They are still selling back issues on their website and the magazines remained in the shops long after the bug was reported. Linux Format’s December issue also contained a DVD containing Ubuntu 17.10.
To be honest blaming the magazines would be a little bit harsh because they wouldn’t have known about the bug before going to press but the fact that people were able to buy magazines with these discs on them would have caused the problem to spread to more users.
What about the doom and gloom merchants? Are they to blame? Some of the advice given to users after the bug was first raised was completely ridiculous. Some users were told they would need to replace their motherboards, others were told to remove the chip and flash a new BIOS onto it.
Need an example?
I’ve had the same problem. After trying different solutions, I had to remove the bios chip with hot air, read the content with a usb programmer, and flash a new chip. So now i can remove the secure boot and saving on exit…
I know this is an extreme solution, but I hope I can help someone find a simpler solution. – Toninetto
WOW, that was some effort this guy went to in order to fix his computer.
The truth of the matter is that whilst the BIOS could not be amended you could still use your computer. Ubuntu was still installed and working so the sensible option was to sit and wait and implement the solution that the Ubuntu developers were working on.
The final solution was as simple as installing a single package and rebooting your computer into Ubuntu with a later version of the kernel. Reboot, amend the BIOS and the problem is solved. No new motherboards, no soldering or using hot air to remove chips or any of that nonsense.
How To Protect Yourself In The Future
My advice is to not be the early adopter. Quite simply sticking with the LTS releases is the safest way to steer clear of these sort of issues.
When Ubuntu 18.04 LTS comes out in April you should not install it straight away. Give it a month or two to see how it settles down. If nothing is reported within a couple of months then and only then should you think about upgrading.
If you do happen to install a version of an operating system which causes a major issue then don’t jump at the first solution that appears in a comments section.
If the developers are aware of an issue then they are likely to be the ones to come up with the best solution. Beyond the developers you should look for well respected sites producing a list of instructions to solving issues. Most of the time the simplest solutions are the best.
So who is to blame for the corruption of the BIOS?
Ultimately I would put the majority of the blame at the door of the manufacturers and the BIOS developers. You simply should not be able to corrupt the BIOS and there should be a reset option which returns it to factory settings if all else fails. The Ubuntu developers were the unlucky people to instantiate the bug by including a defective driver within the Kernel.
Some of the blame has to go to the users as well. Maybe we need to be a bit smarter when installing operating systems and not necessarily jump at the latest thing.