UPDATE 1 - 8:15pm
Just before the closing bell on Wednesday, Intel released a statement responding to the security issues brought up in this story. While acknowledging that these new security concerns do exist, the company went out of its way to insinuate that AMD, Arm Holdings, and others were at risk. Intel also states that performance impact on patched machines “should not be significant and will be mitigated over time.”
Intel’s statement is at least mostly accurate though the released report from the Google Project Zero group responsible for finding the security vulnerability goes into much more detail. The security issue concerns a feature called “speculative execution” in which a computer tries to predict work that will be needed beforehand to speed up processing tasks. The paper details three variants of this particular vulnerability, the first of which applies to Intel, AMD, Arm, any nearly every other modern processor architecture. This variant is easily patched and should have near-zero effect on performance.
The second variant is deeply architecture specific, meaning attackers would need a unique code for each different Intel or AMD processor. This example should be exceedingly rare in the wild, and AMD goes as far as to call it a “near-zero” risk for systems.
The third is where things are more complex and where the claim that AMD processors are not susceptible is confirmed. This one is the source of the leaks and information that filtered out and was the target of the information for the story below. In its statement, AMD makes clear that due to architectural design differences on its products, past and modern processors from its family are not at risk.
The final outlook from this story looks very similar to how it did early on Wednesday though with a couple of added wrinkles. The security report released by Project Zero indicates that most modern hardware is at risk though to different degrees based on the design of the chips themselves. Intel is not alone in this instance, but it does have additional vulnerabilities that other processor designs do not incur. To insinuate otherwise in its public statement is incorrect.
As for performance impact, most of the initial testing and speculation is likely exaggerating how it will change the landscape, if at all. Neither Intel nor AMD see a “doomsday” scenario of regressing computing performance because of this security patch.
At the end of 2017, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said his company would be going through changes in the New Year, becoming more aggressive, and taking the fight to its competitors in new and existing markets. It seems that BK will have his first opportunity to prove out this new corporate strategy with a looming security issue that affects nearly 10 years of processors.
A recently revealed hardware bug in Intel processors is coming to light as operating system vendors like Microsoft and the Linux community scramble to update platforms to avoid potential security concerns. This bug has been rumored for some time, with updates to core Linux software packages indicating that a severe vulnerability was being fixed, but with comments redacted when published. Security flaws are often kept secret to avoid being exploited by attackers until software patches are available to correct them.
This hardware-level vulnerability allows user-mode applications, those run by general consumers or businesses, to potentially gain access to kernel-level memory space, an area that is handled by the operating system exclusively and can contain sensitive information like passwords, biometrics, and more. An attacker could use this flaw to potentially access other user-mode application data, compromising entire systems with bypass around integrated operating system firewalls.
At a time when Intel is being pressured from many different angles and markets, this vulnerability and hardware bug comes at an incredibly inopportune time. AMD spent its 2017 releasing competitive products in the consumer space with Ryzen and the enterprise space with EPYC. The enterprise markets in particular are at risk for Intel. The EPYC processors already offered performance and pricing advantages and now AMD can showcase security as none of its processor are affected by the same vulnerability that Intel is saddled with. Though the enterprise space works in cycles, and AMD won’t see an immediate uptick in sales, I would be surprised if this did not push more cloud providers and large scale server deployments to look at the AMD offerings.
At this point, only the Linux community has publicly discussed the fixes taking place, with initial patches going out earlier this week. Much of the enterprise and cloud ecosystem runs on Linux-based platforms and securing these systems against attack is a crucial step. Microsoft has yet to comment publicly on what its software updates will look like, when they will be delivered, and what impact they have might on consumer systems.
While hardware and software vulnerabilities are common in today’s connected world, there are two key points that make this situation more significant. First, this is a hardware bug, meaning that it cannot be fixed or addressed completely without Intel making changes to its hardware design, a process that can take months or years to complete. As far as we can tell, this bug will affect ALL Intel processors released in the last decade or more, including enterprise Xeon processors and consumer Core and Pentium offerings. And as Intel has been the dominate market leader in both the enterprise and consumer spaces, there are potentially hundreds of millions of affected systems in the field.
The second differentiating point for this issue is that the software fix could impact the performance of systems. Initial numbers have been claiming as much as a 30% reduction in performance, but those results are likely worst case scenarios. Some early testing of the updated Linux platforms indicate performance could decrease from 6-20% depending on the application. Other testing of consumer workloads including gaming show almost no performance impact. Linux founder and active developer Linus Torvalds claims performance impact would range from nothing to “double-digit slowdowns.”
Even though the true nature of this vulnerability is still tied behind non-disclosure agreements, it is unlikely that there will be a double-digit performance reduction on servers at a mass scale when these updates are pushed out. Intel is aware of this vulnerability and has been for some time, and financially it would need to plan for any kind of product replacement or reimbursement campaign it might undertake with partners and customers.