Intel’s Spectre and Meltdown headaches continue

Meltdowns, suspect share dealing and class-action suits, it’s been an interesting 2018 for Intel so far, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better quickly.

Intel share price has been dropping all week, though this is unlikely to bother CEO Brian Krzanich after he conveniently offloaded before the news broke, as the company continues to struggle to deal with the vulnerabilities. Intel has continually told users to update their systems when prompted, though these patches aren’t solving the problem.

Patches released for Broadwell and Haswell processors are causing both PCs and data centre systems to reboot, which should be seen as a problem. Navin Shenoy, GM of the Data Center Group, feels he needs to calm the ship, but even a soothing note couldn’t stop the downward share trend.

“We have received reports from a few customers of higher system reboots after applying firmware updates,” said Shenoy. “Specifically, these systems are running Intel Broadwell and Haswell CPUs for both client and data centre.

“We are working quickly with these customers to understand, diagnose and address this reboot issue. If this requires a revised firmware update from Intel, we will distribute that update through the normal channels. We are also working directly with data centre customers to discuss the issue.”

We get the impression this is not the last of the bad news from Intel. The lawsuits are continuing to stack up, and with the persistent problem in the data centres, there could be some serious repercussions for the world’s largest chipmaker.

Elsewhere in the worlds of flaws and bugs, AMD has admitted it is not perfect. Intel might be taking the flak for the vulnerability, but AMD has snuck in an announcement that the flaw is effecting its processors as well. AMD’s Ryzen and EPYC CPUs are vulnerable to Spectre, though this has been an expert lesson on crisis management. Its products are still flawed, but it has managed to navigate the choppy waters without collecting many bruises.

Intel hit with class action suit over CPU defects

Law firm Doyle APC has filed a class action lawsuit against Intel for the design defect found in all of Intel’s x86-64x CPUs.

2018 has not been a great year for Intel so far, as the last week or so has simply been a tsunami of bad news concerning security vulnerabilities in its x86-64x CPUs. Considering the extent of the Intel’s woes, it wasn’t going to be too long before a class action appeared, and here it is; Garcia, et al. vs. Intel Corp, Case No. 18-cv-00046, (ND Cal).

The case itself aims to represent any US purchaser of Intel CPUs containing the defect, or purchasers of a device containing one of these Intel processors. The defect is actually down to what Intel must have through was a clever bit of engineering. The kernel mode attempts to guess what the user will do next, known as ‘speculative execution’, having certain programmes on stand-by to increase speed and performance. This action potentially exposes kernel data, one of the most sensitive parts of a computer.

Since the vulnerability was initially exposed, Intel has been rushing to develop a patch, essentially closing the threat, though it is believed it will degrade performance at the same time. Intel claims 90% of processor products introduced within the past five years will be fixed by the end of this week, and for the average user, the impact on performance will be minimal. This has also been echoed by Intel’s customers:

Apple:

“Our testing with public benchmarks has shown that the changes in the December 2017 updates resulted in no measurable reduction in the performance of macOS and iOS as measured by the GeekBench 4 benchmark, or in common Web browsing benchmarks such as Speedometer, JetStream, and ARES-6.”

Microsoft:

“The majority of Azure customers should not see a noticeable performance impact with this update. We’ve worked to optimize the CPU and disk I/O path and are not seeing noticeable performance impact after the fix has been applied.”

Google:

“On most of our workloads, including our cloud infrastructure, we see negligible impact on performance.”

Amazon:

“We have not observed meaningful performance impact for the overwhelming majority of EC2 workloads.”

This has been disputed by some commentators as the ‘speculative execution’ feature is believed to be one of the primary drivers of increased performance. Only time will tell.

Doyle APC’s ambulance chaser impersonation should of course been expected, though Intel has been the main recipient of attention so far. AMD and ARM are two other suppliers who have also admitted to vulnerabilities, though neither has gotten anywhere near the same amount of consideration. The flaw may not impact these products as much as Intel, or the severity of AMD and ARM defects has not been truly uncovered just yet.

Qualcomm dominates smartphone applications processor market

The latest smartphone component data from Strategy Analytics reveals that, despite its legal challenges, Qualcomm remains dominant in the smartphone chip market.

Applications processors are essentially the CPUs of a smartphone and are represented at Qualcomm by the Snapdragon brand. Qualcomm’s main competitor in this area is Chinese chip maker Mediatek, but after a strong year for the latter in 2016, Qualcomm seems to be pulling away again.

“After a successful 2016, Qualcomm continued its momentum and gained market share with the help of a strengthened portfolio across the board from flagship to mid-range,” said Sravan Kundojjala of SA. “After missing the initial 14 nm FinFET AP wave, Qualcomm made sure it is one of the first companies with a commercial 10 nm smartphone AP.

“Qualcomm’s semi-custom 10 nm flagship 64-bit AP Snapdragon 835, which integrates a gigabit-class LTE modem, has seen greater success than its predecessor Snapdragon 820 / 821. Strategy Analytics believes that Qualcomm is poised for further share gains through 2017 with its strengthened Snapdragon 600-series of APs.”

“MediaTek hit a rough patch in 1H 2017, after registering a robust growth in 2016,” said SA’s Stuart Robinson. “MediaTek’s weak portfolio coupled with increased competition from Qualcomm contributed to its share losses in 1H 2017. MediaTek’s flagship Helio X series has not seen much success so far while the mid-range Helio P series of chips performed strongly.

“Understandably, MediaTek is set to de-emphasis Helio X in favor of Helio P to optimize its investment and to recover market share in 2H 2017. Strategy Analytics believes that MediaTek’s recovery will take time as its modem technology is still generations behind market leader Qualcomm.”

Here’s the SA market 1H 2017 applications processor chart. Apple makes its own APs, as many other vendors like Samsung and Huawei often do too, so Qualcomm has done well to keep such a lead. The legal disputes faced by Qualcomm are largely focused more on its modems, but the AP side of things could still be adversely affected if thing go against it.

SA AP chart