back to article Intel updates mysterious 'software-defined silicon' code in the Linux kernel

Intel has updated the code it says allows the implementation of "software-defined silicon" (SDSi). Chipzilla dropped some code for SDSi into the Linux Kernel in September 2021, describing it as tech that allows users to activate dormant features in silicon. The code outlined a process for enabling new features by verifying …

  1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Trust free zone

    That's how this comes over to me. I can think of several ways this could be abused - and I know virtually nothing about chip design.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Trust free zone

      From the article: allows users to activate dormant features in silicon

      Malware authors aren't "users". And they (probably) already thought of at least 9 of those ways you mentioned...

  2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    The plan is obvious

    Intel will sell CPUs that operate in a crippled mode. For some extra money you can buy a crypto key to uncripple one feature of one specific CPU.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: The plan is obvious

      Will? They've been doing this for decades.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: The plan is obvious

        Or if you're a three-letter agency...

        1. Zanzibar Rastapopulous

          Re: The plan is obvious

          The World Wildlife Fund?

          1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: The plan is obvious

            (I think you mean the World Wide Fund for Nature)

        2. msobkow Silver badge

          Re: The plan is obvious

          I expect one of those "optional hardware features" is a three letter agency "snoop mode". :(

        3. EvaQ

          Re: The plan is obvious

          Or a three-letter computer company. AFAIK they sold licenses that doubled the speed of your mainframe.

      2. G.Y.

        Re: The plan is obvious

        That's what the SX chips are for

    2. Zippy´s Sausage Factory
      Unhappy

      Re: The plan is obvious

      The more I read about Intel, the more I want to buy AMD processors...

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: The plan is obvious

        You think AMD are any different...?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Zippy´s Sausage Factory - Re: The plan is obvious

        AMD will follow the money and go there too. Don't worry! (Be happy!)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Zippy´s Sausage Factory - The plan is obvious

          TBH, sounds like a waste of waste of time and money.

          There are already numerous versions of each chip released so price differentials already exist.

          The competition is hot so maximizing performance always is required to stay competitive.

          And then there is the cost of enforcement. They might be able to work something out with Windows or IOS, whose every customer is under telemetry surveillance 24/7. Maybe impossible with Linux.

          Cellphones of course use that strategy - e.g., deliberately crippling embedded AM/FM radio in the US, perhaps to force music seekers to use online music options instead. Notably, the switch is hardware set by region, not a software switch. After some fatalities in CA fires, there was some talk of requiring radio to be enabled in the US so the radio can be used to get emergency info about what roads are open, etc, in disaster situations where the cellphones towers are down and a raging inferno is headed for town, but of course that plan never went anywhere.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            @AC - Re: @Zippy´s Sausage Factory - The plan is obvious

            Why bother manufacturing several versions of each chip instead of making a single, high-end one then cripple it with software locks ? Doing this has the advantage of forcing the customer into pay (constantly) to play.

            As for enforcement on Linux, don't count on that. Intel will simply withhold technical specifications and APIs from open source developers, like Nvidia does with their graphic cards. There will be no open source software for high-end features.

            1. Wormy

              Re: @AC - @Zippy´s Sausage Factory - The plan is obvious

              It's not quite that simple... a lot of the lower-end chips are the higher-end chips that didn't make the cut due to manufacturing issues, and so had some of their cores disabled, or were down-clocked because they couldn't handle the higher frequencies in testing. This is called 'binning' where the CPUs are manufactured, and then sorted into 'bins' based on their capabilities.

              So, Intel isn't going to only sell high-end CPUs that have to be unlocked, because they would have to just throw out a lot of their lower-end CPUs if that were the case, and they'd lose money.

              More likely, this is for things like enabling VROC via software instead of requiring a hardware dongle. Hardware dongles suck, they take up space on the system board, some OEMs won't add the socket for them and simply won't enable the feature, etc. If Intel can unlock such features via signed licenses, it saves on hardware cost AND becomes much easier for both the OEMs and the customers (imagine having to open 500 servers to install VROC dongles, vs. applying a software license via API).

            2. richdin

              Re: @AC - @Zippy´s Sausage Factory - The plan is obvious

              You mean like buying a VAX 750 with 4K of memory, and when you want to upgrade [after shelling out $$$], the fiend (field) engineer, opens the panel, and moves a single DIP switch - presto, 16K.

              This has been standard practice for decades.

      3. Wormy

        Re: The plan is obvious

        Hah... going to install it in a Dell server? The newest ones can be 'fused' to the OEM on install, so after once installing it in a Dell server, you will only EVER be able to install it in a Dell server. Put it in a SMC or HPE server and it will simply refuse to boot.

        Intel and AMD both make a good product, and they both do some things that really piss me off.

    3. nematoad Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: The plan is obvious

      "VSEC stands for “Vendor-Specific Extended Capability,”

      More like; "VSEC stands for “Vendor lock-in,”

      Start using some of the "secret sauce" in these chips and you're stuffed.

  3. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    Some things never change

    You know, this sounds suspiciously like what IBM, Amdahl and some of the larger mini-computer manufacturers were doing in the '60s, '70s and '80s with microcoded processor extensions.

    Pay a fortune, have an engineer turn up with a super secret floppy disk, and get a whole load of new instructions added to your processor.

    The only difference now is that we have the Internet, so they have to protect this code with cryptography, to prevent it leaking.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Some things never change

      "The only difference now is that we have the Internet, so they have to protect this code with cryptography, to prevent it leaking."

      more like delay the leaking a few days in reality.

    2. Jim Mitchell
      Boffin

      Re: Some things never change

      Customers also benefited from the "golden screwdriver". They could buy the machine for less, and then later, if and when they needed the additional capacity, pay extra to enable it. Its not like this was done against their will.

      1. 93s

        Re: Some things never change

        "Customers also lost value as the 'golden screwdriver' enhanced vendors' ability to price discriminate. Customer purchased the machine at the market cost, and then later, if and when they needed the additional capacity, they paid more money for the same hardware. Pure revenue to the vendor with no cost-based justification."

        FTFY.

        The consumer doesn't benefit, unless you believe that vendors would forgo profitable sales so they could maintain higher standardized pricing. And you shouldn't believe that because vendors that try such a forgoing-sales strategy will lose to competitors who will trade volume for margin. That's of course what ultimately happened with commodity PCs.

    3. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Some things never change

      IBM did this even on the relay controlled 402 accounting machine.

      Pull out one specific relay, it ran twice as fast (and if IBM caught you doing it, you'd get billed at a higher rate for rental)

      1. swm Silver badge

        Re: Some things never change

        We had a 407 accounting machine at college for listing cards. I noticed it was missing every 3rd cycle and I noticed the S1 and S2 relays counting the cycles. It was the S1 or S2 relay which I pulled and the machine ran full speed. The IBM rep said, "Don't do that." So I didn't.

    4. J. Cook Silver badge

      Re: Some things never change

      ... You mean still do. IIRC, IBM does it for the iSeries running on modern Power S8xx boxes.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Re: Some things never change

        I'm pretty certain this is capacity. You can (or at least could, not sure now) buy, at a discount from the full price, servers with inactive processors and memory, and later buy the licenses to use this extra capacity, and add them without even having an engineer visit. This was called Capacity Upgrade on Demand CUoD)

        IBM also provide 'time limited' licenses, which were there so you could license and use the additional resources for a short period, presumably to get you over humps in the workload. This was confusingly called the very similar Capacity on Demand (CoD).

        Interestingly, for the Power 7 775 supercomputer clusters, IBM over-delivered on purchased capacity, in a system they called "Fail in Place". The idea was that the customer could use the extra capacity, but then when devices failed (CPU or Torrent hub chip), the failures would be counted against the 'extra' capacity, and not repaired.

        Simple failures like memory or adapters would be replaced, but more complex failures would be left, so long as the capacity did not drop below the purchased capacity. At various points in the life of the system, the remaining capacity would be evaluated, and if it was deemed insufficient for the remaining life of the system, repair actions would be initiated.

        This worked close to the theory, but it was found that when certain "Fail in Place" components failed, like the Torrent chip or the optical links, because of the complicated mesh network topology, it could affect communication speeds between adjacent octants (hardware partitions within single drawers).

        This is a problem with step-locked HPC tasks, and any jobs including any node in the same compute drawer in the cluster could be slowed down. This meant that they ended up fixing things that they thought they didn't have to when the systems were designed.

  4. Kurgan
    FAIL

    DRM shit

    More and more DRM shit, laced with bugs and voluntary or involuntary backdoors.

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    If this is against future H/W how can it be satisfactorily tested now? If they need it for internal development purposes then they can build their own kernel with it in.

  6. ForthIsNotDead

    Keep going Intel

    Making users pay to unlock features that are already in the chip is just going to push folk towards open-source silicon. Your days are numbered.

    1. James Hughes 1

      Re: Keep going Intel

      But someone has to pay for the development costs of that extra silicon. Should you charge everyone for it from the first release, even if most people don't need it? Or should you allow people to only buy what they need? A scheme like this means cheaper silicon for the basic users, and people who want better performance simply pay more for it.

      Isn't this a pretty standard thing in a lot of industries? Cars? Software?

      1. NullDev

        Re: Keep going Intel

        Software, yes. Cars, not so much. It isn't unusual to be given a code to unlock additional software features as those features are typically already installed and just need to be enabled.

        However, I cannot recall the last time I was given a code to unlock 2 additional cylinders or enable LED headlamps. Car model trim prices increase because additional items have been physically added to the car.

        I have a feeling Intel is looking for a way to get on the yearly licensing income gravy train without having to ship anything.

        1. Gene Cash Silver badge

          Re: Keep going Intel

          BMW is bringing it to cars.

          https://www.thedrive.com/news/34547/bmw-is-planning-to-sell-heated-seats-and-more-as-a-subscription-no-really

          1. 2+2=5 Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: Keep going Intel

            > BMW is bringing it to cars.

            Does it work the other way around? Can BMW owners get a refund on the indicators?

          2. Sandtitz Silver badge

            Re: Keep going Intel

            "BMW is bringing it to cars."

            They're late to the party. Tesla has been heated back seats and steering wheel, but you need to activate them with your app. ($$$)

      2. martinusher Silver badge

        Re: Keep going Intel

        >Isn't this a pretty standard thing in a lot of industries? Cars? Software?

        I was reading just yesterday about car manufacturers seeing a bright future with software subscriptions as a significant income stream.

        https://jalopnik.com/a-carmaker-s-23-billion-plan-to-keep-you-paying-long-a-1848172449

        This sort of article is useful because we're looking for a replacement car and this gives us a hint about what manufacturers to avoid. I don't see this as "buying what you need" but rather a seductive profit option that sidelines product development in favour of putting effort secure paywalls of existing product. The result is stagnation (we're seeing this with entertainment media at the moment).

  7. Omnipresent

    First person to do it rules the world.

    All these tech billionaires, and not one has had the balls or brains to throw their capacity into developing a third party machine/OS that gives the power back to consumers.

    Says everything.

    1. Paul Smith

      Re: First person to do it rules the world.

      They didn't become billionaires by giving power to consumers, why should they start now?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Omnipresent - Re: First person to do it rules the world.

      An empowered user is much more difficult to monetize. Those billionaires are smarter than you might think.

  8. FatGerman

    Hardware as a service

    Your processor subscription has expired. Your computer is now emulating a BBC Micro until you pay up, scum.

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Hardware as a service

      Emulating a BBC Micro would be fun, plenty of old games to play.

      But if it reverting to 486 speeds with Windows 11 running on it, that wouldn't fun.

    2. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Hardware as a service

      >Your computer is now emulating a BBC Micro until you pay up, scum.

      That is going to be interesting, what with online payments and exchange of certificates etc, I suspect that (paying up) is going to take a few days and that's if the web page and payments processing work in BBC Micro mode (complete with dial-up Internet?)...

      1. druck Silver badge

        Re: Hardware as a service

        Acoustic couplers at the ready!

  9. Mike 16 Silver badge

    Unlocking optional features

    Sparked a memory of the cost-reduced IBM 407 accounting machines that rented at a lower price but ran at 2/3 speed.

    Many universities had them (for listing ones card decks before submitting a job, among other tasks).

    It seems that if a small piece of card stock accidentally managed to find its way between a certain set of contacts,

    the machine would run faster.

    But I'm sure this sort of thing was not done at my school's computer center (other than maybe maybe between 2300 and 0500)

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Unlocking optional features

      Greetings, fellow accounting machine hacker :-)

      Data General used microcoded processors. Different microcode PROMs would give you different processor capabilities. They had to epoxy the PROMs to the PCB, because customers were doing their own upgrades.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We've heard similar stuff before.......

    https://www.zdnet.com/article/minix-intels-hidden-in-chip-operating-system/

    *

    ....an OS below the OS you thought was running on your computer.......

    *

    ....self-modifying code out of the control of the user.....

    *

    "TRUST"......yes, I've heard of it!

  11. steelpillow Silver badge

    No harm then

    in pulling this proprietary functionality from the kernel. I mean, if there is no plan and it may never be used, what concern to Intel could that possibly cause?

    But if Greg, Emperor and all are rash enough to let it stay, then how long it will be before the magic keys are hacked, made publicly available, and regenerated on-the-fly by the kernel whenever it needs them. ISTR something like this happening once in the past, but brain fade gets us all in the end.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No harm then

      Evil Will Always Triumph, Because Good Is Dumb - Dark Helmet, Spaceballs

      1. steelpillow Silver badge

        Re: No harm then

        Dumb + Evil = RIP, no longer around to be counted. You hear me, Intel?

        Life is an endlessly teetering balance between opposing forces. At least, that's what Darwinian evolution teaches us.

  12. NickTheGeek

    Dystopian thoughts...Who can beat me (with ideas, I mean...)?

    "Your car is in rescue mode due to your recent posts in anti-Oceania Government chat rooms abroad. You can only follow one of the preset paths to one of the nearest police stations for an informative chat."

    "Your car runs in rescue mode due to your Vaccine Pass expiration. The nearest vaccination point is 0.6 km from your actual position (6 min on feet, based on your walking speed profiled data). Follow the map that was sent to your mobile phone."

    "The number you dialed is associated with an expired Vaccine Pass. Please try again later."

    "Sorry, Winston. Your mobile phone hasn't been authorized to film the police officers' actions during this protest".

    ...etc...

  13. JBowler

    Eh? Where?

    El Reg are adequately enhanced to actually point us to a GIT revision for the change in question, but in absence of that information IN THE DAMED ARTICLE I'm just going to ignore this.

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