Intel had a bad week last week.
It was so bad that the chip maker has to be thrilled to have CES, the massive consumer technology show going on this week in Las Vegas, as a way to change the subject and focus on the other work they are doing.
For starters, CEO Brian Krzanich had to deal with the elephant in the room at the company keynote on Monday. Spectre and Meltdown patches were coming to 90 percent of the company’s affected chips by next week. That was good news for a company under siege for what my colleague Ingrid Lunden described without exaggeration, “…perhaps its biggest security scare in its history.”
In case you don’t know what that trouble was about, it began last week when The Register, a UK tech publication published an article blowing the lid off of an Intel kernel security problem in their CPU chips. This is not a small matter.
It has the potential to allow hackers unimpeded access to the chip’s kernel where information like your passwords and encryption keys are stored in a supposedly secure area of the chip architecture.
It later turned out there were actually two chip vulnerability problems, one that had an impact on just Intel chips called Meltdown and one called Spectre that affected Intel and other chips including AMD and ARM processors and even IBM’s Power chips. We also learned that another Intel rival, Nvidia also announced several of its chips have been affected. (If you were running a Raspberry Pi computer, you were spared.)
Mitigation efforts have been coming fast and furious from every corner: from chip vendors, from the OS vendors like Microsoft and Apple and from every nearly everyone else. There is concern that the mitigation solutions could in fact slow down computers substantially. While it’s still not widely known just how much that will affect individual computers and servers, Microsoft published a blog post this week outlining their benchmarks showing various degrees of performance degradation after implementing the Spectre and Meltdown mitigation solutions on machines running Windows. So did Intel, which found some performance hits and Google, which claimed it didn’t have any.