Intel will roll out silicon-based fixes for Meltdown and Spectre this year
Intel today reported better-than-expected fourth quarter earnings in its quarterly earnings call, where it also reassured investors jittery about the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities in its chips.
More importantly, the chipmaker announced “silicon-based” changes to upcoming chips that will directly address the vulnerabilities. CEO Brian Krzanich also stressed that security remained a top priority for Intel, saying:
Our near-term focus is on delivering high-quality mitigations to protect our customers’ infrastructure from these exploits. We’re working to create silicon-based changes to future products that will directly address the Spectre and Meltdown threats in hardware. And those products will begin appearing later this year.
The hardware-based fixes are significant because of Intel’s failed attempts at rolling out a successful microcode patch. The update it released introduced reboot issues, among others, that plagued Haswell and Broadwell processors, and eventually resulted in the company revising its update recommendations and major system OEMs recalling their BIOS patches.
Newer processors released after Broadwell support a Post-Context Identifier (PCID) that help mitigate the performance impact of the patches on newer hardware, but an in-silicon fix that removes the issue entirely is of course the ideal solution.
However, while Krzanich said the silicon fixes would address both Meltdown and Spectre, it's not clear how this will pan out in practice. That's because Meltdown is technically the easier flaw to fix, as Spectre is better characterized as an entire class of vulnerabilities than a single bug and will require a more fundamental redesign.
What’s more, Meltdown is more specific to Intel chips, because of the aggressive way they handle speculative execution. On the other hand, Spectre affects chips from Intel, AMD, and ARM.
But despite the company’s problems and the uncertainty around the issue, Krzanich says the vulnerabilities won’t have an effect on future sales.
It seems like the built-in silicon fixes may arrive on Intel’s upcoming 10nm products, although the chipmaker also said it expects to continue developing 14nm in 2018, which points to yet another generation of 14nm chips.