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  1. Intel will soon bake anti-malware defenses directly into its CPUs Control-Flow Enforcement Technology will debut in Tiger Lake microarchitecture. Enlarge / A mobile PC processor code-named Tiger Lake. It will be the first CPU to offer a security capability known as Control-Flow Enforcement Technology. Intel 78 with 53 posters participating The history of hacking has largely been a back-and-forth game, with attackers devising a technique to breach a system, defenders constructing a countermeasure that prevents the technique, and hackers devising a new way to bypass system security. On Monday, Intel is announcing its plans to bake a new parry directly into its CPUs that’s designed to thwart software exploits that execute malicious code on vulnerable computers. Control-Flow Enforcement Technology, or CET, represents a fundamental change in the way processors execute instructions from applications such as Web browsers, email clients, or PDF readers. Jointly developed by Intel and Microsoft, CET is designed to thwart a technique known as return-oriented programming, which hackers use to bypass anti-exploit measures software developers introduced about a decade ago. While Intel first published its implementation of CET in 2016, the company on Monday is saying that its Tiger Lake CPU microarchitecture will be the first to include it. ROP, as return-oriented programming is usually called, was software exploiters’ response to protections such as Executable Space Protection and address space layout randomization, which made their way into Windows, macOS, and Linux a little less than two decades ago. These defenses were designed to significantly lessen the damage software exploits could inflict by introducing changes to system memory that prevented the execution of malicious code. Even when successfully targeting a buffer overflow or other vulnerability, the exploit resulted only in a system or application crash, rather than a fatal system compromise. ROP allowed attackers to regain the high ground. Rather than using malicious code written by the attacker, ROP attacks repurpose functions that benign applications or OS routines have already placed into a region of memory known as the stack. The “return” in ROP refers to use of the RET instruction that’s central to reordering the code flow. Very effective Alex Ionescu, a veteran Windows security expert and VP of engineering at security firm CrowdStrike, likes to say that if a benign program is like a building made of Lego bricks that were built in a specific sequence, ROP uses the same Lego pieces but in a different order. In so doing, ROP converts the building into a spaceship. The technique is able to bypass the anti-malware defenses because it uses memory-resident code that’s already permitted to be executed. CET introduces changes in the CPU that create a new stack called the control stack. This stack can’t be modified by attackers and doesn’t store any data. It stores the return addresses of the Lego bricks that are already in the stack. Because of this, even if an attacker has corrupted a return address in the data stack, the control stack retains the correct return address. The processor can detect this and halt execution. “Because there is no effective software mitigation against ROP, CET will be very effective at detecting and stopping this class of vulnerability,” Ionescu told me. “Previously, operating systems and security solutions had to guess or infer that ROP had happened, or perform forensic analysis, or detect the second stage payloads/effect of the exploit.” Not that CET is limited to defenses against ROP. CET provides a host of additional protections, some of which thwart exploitation techniques known as jump-oriented programming and call-oriented programming, to name just two. ROP, however, is among the most interesting aspects of CET. Those who do not remember the past Intel has built other security functions into its CPUs with less-than-stellar results. One is Intel’s SGX, short for Software Guard eXtension, which is supposed to carve out impenetrable chunks of protected memory for security-sensitive functions such as the creation of cryptographic keys. Another security add-on from Intel is known as the Converged Security and Management Engine, or simply the Management Engine. It’s a subsystem inside Intel CPUs and chipsets that implements a host of sensitive functions, among them the firmware-based Trusted Platform Module used for silicon-based encryption, authentication of UEFI BIOS firmware, and the Microsoft System Guard and BitLocker. A steady stream of security flaws discovered in both CPU-resident features, however, has made them vulnerable to a variety of attacks over the years. The most recent SGX vulnerabilities were disclosed just last week. It’s tempting to think that CET will be similarly easy to defeat, or worse, will expose users to hacks that wouldn’t be possible if the protection hadn’t been added. But Joseph Fitzpatrick, a hardware hacker and a researcher at SecuringHardware.com, says he’s optimistic CET will perform better. He explained: One distinct difference that makes me less skeptical of this type of feature versus something like SGX or ME is that both of those are “adding on” security features, as opposed to hardening existing features. ME basically added a management layer outside the operating system. SGX adds operating modes that theoretically shouldn't be able to be manipulated by a malicious or compromised operating system. CET merely adds mechanisms to prevent normal operation—returning to addresses off the stack and jumping in and out of the wrong places in code—from completing successfully. Failure of CET to do its job only allows normal operation. It doesn't grant the attacker access to more capabilities. Once CET-capable CPUs are available, the protection will work only when the processor is running an operating system with the necessary support. Windows 10 Version 2004 released last month provides that support. Intel still isn’t saying when Tiger Lake CPUs will be released. While the protection could give defenders an important new tool, Ionescu and fellow researcher Yarden Shafir have already devised bypasses for it. Expect them to end up in real-world attacks within the decade. Intel will soon bake anti-malware defenses directly into its CPUs
  2. Nvidia unveils Grace ARM-based CPU for giant-scale AI and HPC apps Nvidia's Grace CPU for datacenters. Image Credit: Nvidia Nvidia unveiled its Grace processor today. It’s an ARM-based central processing unit (CPU) for giant-scale artificial intelligence and high-performance computing applications. It’s Nvidia’s first datacenter CPU, purpose-built for applications that are operating on a giant scale, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang said in a keynote speech at Nvidia’s GTC 2021 event. Grace delivers 10 times the performance leap for systems training giant AI models, using energy-efficient ARM cores. And Nvidia said the Swiss Supercomputing Center and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory will be the first to use Grace, which is named for Grace Hopper, who pioneered computer programming in the 1950s. The CPU is expected to be available in early 2023. “Grace is a breakthrough CPU. It’s purpose-built for accelerated computing applications of giant scale for AI and HPC,” said Paresh Kharya, senior director of product management and marketing at Nvidia, in a press briefing. Huang said, “It’s the world’s first CPU designed for terabyte scale computing.” Above: Grace is the result of 10,000 engineering years of work. Image Credit: Nvidia The CPU is the result of more than 10,000 engineering years of work. Nvidia said the chip will address the computing requirements for the world’s most advanced applications — including natural language processing, recommender systems, and AI supercomputing — that analyze enormous datasets requiring both ultra-fast compute performance and massive memory. Grace combines energy-efficient ARM CPU cores with an innovative low-power memory subsystem to deliver high performance with great efficiency. The chip will use a future ARM core dubbed Neoverse. “Leading-edge AI and data science are pushing today’s computer architecture beyond its limits — processing unthinkable amounts of data,” Huang said in his speech. “Using licensed ARM IP, Nvidia has designed Grace as a CPU specifically for giant-scale AI and HPC. Coupled with the GPU and DPU, Grace gives us the third foundational technology for computing and the ability to re-architect the datacenter to advance AI. Nvidia is now a three-chip company.” Grace is a highly specialized processor targeting workloads such as training next-generation NLP models that have more than 1 trillion parameters. When tightly coupled with Nvidia GPUs, a Grace-based system will deliver 10 times faster performance than today’s Nvidia DGX-based systems, which run on x86 CPUs. In a press briefing, someone asked if Nvidia will compete with x86 chips from Intel and AMD. Kharya said, “We are not competing with x86 … we continue to work very well with x86 CPUs.” Above: The Alps supercomputer will use Grace CPUs from Nvidia. Image Credit: Nvidia Grace is designed for AI and HPC applications, but Nvidia isn’t disclosing additional information about where Grace will be used today. Nvidia also declined to disclose the number of transistors in the Grace chip. Nvidia is introducing Grace as the volume of data and size of AI models grow exponentially. Today’s largest AI models include billions of parameters and are doubling every two and a half months. Training them requires a new CPU that can be tightly coupled with a GPU to eliminate system bottlenecks. “The biggest announcement of GTC 21 was Grace, a tightly integrated CPU for over a trillion parameter AI models,” said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategies. “It’s hard to address those with classic x86 CPUs and GPUs connected over PCIe. Grace is focused on IO and memory bandwidth, shares main memory with the GPU and shouldn’t be confused with general purpose datacenter CPUs from AMD or Intel.” Underlying Grace’s performance is 4th-gen Nvidia NVLink interconnect technology, which provides 900 gigabyte-per-second connections between Grace and Nvidia graphics processing units (GPUs) to enable 30 times higher aggregate bandwidth compared to today’s leading servers. Grace will also utilize an innovative LPDDR5x memory subsystem that will deliver twice the bandwidth and 10 times better energy efficiency compared with DDR4 memory. In addition, the new architecture provides unified cache coherence with a single memory address space, combining system and HBM GPU memory to simplify programmability. “The Grace platform and its Arm CPU is a big new step for Nvidia,” said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at Tirias Research, in an email. “The new design of one custom CPU attached to the GPU with coherent NVlinks is Nvidia’s new design to scale to ultra-large AI models that now take days to run. The key to Grace is that using the custom Arm CPU, it will be possible to scale to large LPDDR5 DRAM arrays far larger than possible with high-bandwidth memory directly attached to the GPUs.” Above: The Los Alamos National Laboratory will use Grace CPUs. Image Credit: Nvidia Grace will power the world’s fastest supercomputer for the Swiss organization. Dubbed Alps, the machine will feature 20 exaflops of AI processing. (This refers to the amount of computing available for AI applications.) That’s about 7 times more computation than is available with the 2.8-exaflop Nvidia Seline supercomputer, the leading AI supercomputer today. HP Enterprise will be building the Alps system. Alps will work on problems in areas ranging from climate and weather to materials sciences, astrophysics, computational fluid dynamics, life sciences, molecular dynamics, quantum chemistry, and particle physics, as well as domains like economics and social sciences, and will come online in 2023. Alps will do quantum chemistry and physics calculations for the Hadron collider, as well as weather models. Above: Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, at GTC 21. Image Credit: Nvidia “This is a very balanced architecture with Grace and a future Nvidia GPU, which we have not announced yet, to enable breakthrough research on a wide range of fields,” Kharya said. Meanwhile, Nvidia also said that it would make its graphics chips available with Amazon Web Services’ Graviton2 ARM-based CPU for datacenters for cloud computing. With Grace, Nvidia will embark on a mult-year pattern of creating graphics processing units, CPUs, and data processing units (CPUs), and it will alternate between Arm and x86 architecture designs, Huang said. Source: Nvidia unveils Grace ARM-based CPU for giant-scale AI and HPC apps
  3. 3D V-Cache enables "15% more gaming performance" than Ryzen 9 5900X. The 5800X3D is Zen 3 with extra cache. AMD AMD will release its latest experiment in CPU packaging to the general public next month. The Ryzen 7 5800X3D, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, is an eight-core Zen 3 processor that uses unique memory-stacking technology to triple the amount of L3 cache in the standard Ryzen 7 5800X—96MB of L3 cache instead of 32MB. The result is a chip that ought to run games 15 percent faster than a Ryzen 9 5900X, according to AMD’s figures. The company also says the chip will run games faster than Intel’s flagship Core i9-12900K, though it didn’t say by how much. The processor goes on sale for $449 starting on April 20th. The 5800X3D and the half-dozen low-end Zen 2 and Zen 3 processors AMD announced today are likely the last hurrah for Socket AM4, the physical socket that AMD has been using since just before the introduction of the first Ryzen chips back in 2017. The years since have seen AMD regain its competitive footing against Intel thanks to several strong iterations on the original Zen architecture and use of TSMC's 7 nm manufacturing process. For a true next-generation CPU from AMD, you'll need to wait until the Ryzen 7000 series launches later this year. But that move could be pricey—the Zen 4 architecture will require a brand-new Socket AM5 motherboard and possibly an upgrade from DDR4 to DDR5 RAM, though AMD may support both DDR4 and DDR5 memory with the new chips as Intel has done with its 12th-generation Core CPUs. AMD Ryzen 5800X3D promises 15% faster game performance, launches for $449
  4. In a first, researchers extract secret key used to encrypt Intel CPU code Hackers can now reverse engineer updates or write their own custom firmware. Enlarge Intel 78 with 60 posters participating Researchers have extracted the secret key that encrypts updates to an assortment of Intel CPUs, a feat that could have wide-ranging consequences for the way the chips are used and, possibly, the way they’re secured. The key makes it possible to decrypt the microcode updates Intel provides to fix security vulnerabilities and other types of bugs. Having a decrypted copy of an update may allow hackers to reverse engineer it and learn precisely how to exploit the hole it’s patching. The key may also allow parties other than Intel—say a malicious hacker or a hobbyist—to update chips with their own microcode, although that customized version wouldn’t survive a reboot. “At the moment, it is quite difficult to assess the security impact,” independent researcher Maxim Goryachy said in a direct message. “But in any case, this is the first time in the history of Intel processors when you can execute your microcode inside and analyze the updates.” Goryachy and two other researchers—Dmitry Sklyarov and Mark Ermolov, both with security firm Positive Technologies—worked jointly on the project. The key can be extracted for any chip—be it a Celeron, Pentium, or Atom—that’s based on Intel’s Goldmont architecture. Tumbling down the rabbit hole The genesis for the discovery came three years ago when Goryachy and Ermolov found a critical vulnerability, indexed as Intel SA-00086, that allowed them to execute code of their choice inside the independent core of chips that included a subsystem known as the Intel Management Engine. Intel fixed the bug and released a patch, but because chips can always be rolled back to an earlier firmware version and then exploited, there’s no way to effectively eliminate the vulnerability. The Chip Red Pill logo. Sklyarov et al. Five months ago, the trio was able to use the vulnerability to access “Red Unlock,” a service mode (see page 6 here) embedded into Intel chips. Company engineers use this mode to debug microcode before chips are publicly released. In a nod to The Matrix movie, the researchers named their tool for accessing this previously undocumented debugger Chip Red Pill, because it allows researchers to experience a chip’s inner workings that are usually off-limits. The technique works using a USB cable or special Intel adapter that pipes data to a vulnerable CPU. Accessing a Goldmont-based CPU in Red Unlock mode allowed the researchers to extract a special ROM area known as the MSROM, short for microcode sequencer ROM. From there, they embarked on the painstaking process of reverse engineering the microcode. After months of analysis, it revealed the update process and the RC4 key it uses. The analysis, however, didn’t reveal the signing key Intel uses to cryptographically prove the authenticity of an update. In a statement, Intel officials wrote: The issue described does not represent security exposure to customers, and we do not rely on obfuscation of information behind red unlock as a security measure. In addition to the INTEL-SA-00086 mitigation, OEMs following Intel’s manufacturing guidance have mitigated the OEM specific unlock capabilities required for this research. The private key used to authenticate microcode does not reside in the silicon, and an attacker cannot load an unauthenticated patch on a remote system. Impossible until now What this means is that attackers can’t use Chip Red Pill and the decryption key it exposes to remotely hack vulnerable CPUs, at least not without chaining it to other vulnerabilities that are currently unknown. Similarly, attackers can’t use these techniques to infect the supply chain of Goldmont-based devices. But the technique does open possibilities for hackers who have physical access to a computer running one of these CPUs. “There’s a common misconception that modern CPUs are mostly fixed in place from the factory, and occasionally they will get narrowly scoped microcode updates for especially egregious bugs,” Kenn White, product security principal at MongoDB, told me. “But to the extent that’s true (and it largely isn’t), there are very few practical limits on what an engineer could do with the keys to the kingdom for that silicon.” One possibility might be hobbyists who want to root their CPU in much the way people have jailbroken or rooted iPhones and Android devices or hacked Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. In theory, it might also be possible to use Chip Red Pill in an evil maid attack, in which someone with fleeting access to a device hacks it. But in either of these cases, the hack would be tethered, meaning it would last only as long as the device was turned on. Once restarted, the chip would return to its normal state. In some cases, the ability to execute arbitrary microcode inside the CPU may also be useful for attacks on cryptography keys, such as those used in trusted platform modules. “For now, there's only one but very important consequence: independent analysis of a microcode patch that was impossible until now,” Positive Technologies researcher Mark Ermolov said. “Now, researchers can see how Intel fixes one or another bug/vulnerability. And this is great. The encryption of microcode patches is a kind of security through obscurity.” In a first, researchers extract secret key used to encrypt Intel CPU code
  5. Activist hedge fund advises Intel to outsource CPU manufacturing Third Point fund, led by Daniel Loeb, demands strategy shake up Andrew Cunningham Activist hedge fund Third Point has taken a stake of nearly $1 billion in Intel and called on the chipmaker to consider shedding its manufacturing operations, throwing a core part of its strategy into question. The firm with $15 billion in assets run by Daniel Loeb made a number of demands in a letter sent to Intel’s chairman Omar Ishrak on Tuesday and seen by the Financial Times. In the letter, Mr Loeb said that Intel was “once the gold standard for innovative microprocessor manufacturing” but had fallen behind manufacturing competitors in East Asia such as TSMC and Samsung. His intervention comes as Intel faces a critical decision over its future as a leading-edge manufacturer of semiconductors—a position it has held for decades, and the source of its dominance in the PC era. Bob Swan, its chief executive, has indicated that he will decide early next year whether Intel should outsource a significant part of its most advanced manufacturing, or even get out of leading-edge production altogether, after a series of slips. The company in July revealed it had hit a new hurdle in trying to move to the next generation of manufacturing technology, where the features on chips are reduced to a width of only 7 nanometres. That compounded a series of missteps that helped cement the lead seized by TSMC, the Taiwanese chip company that manufacturers semiconductors on behalf of many of the world’s biggest chip designers, including Nvidia, Qualcomm and AMD. Intel has lost some $60 billion in market value over the past year, Mr Loeb pointed out, as he took aim at the chipmaker’s corporate governance. “We cannot fathom how the boards who presided over Intel’s decline could have permitted management to fritter away the company’s leading market position while simultaneously rewarding them handsomely with extravagant compensation packages,” Mr Loeb wrote. The hedge fund said it was particularly concerned at the loss of talent at Intel, saying the company had lost many of its best chip designers while the ones that remained “are becoming increasingly demoralized.” Mr Loeb said Intel should hire investment advisers to determine whether the company should both design and manufacture chips as well as consider divesting failed acquisitions, though the letter did not point to any specific examples. “Intel welcomes input from all investors regarding enhanced shareholder value,” the company said in a statement. “In that spirit, we look forward to engaging with Third Point on their ideas towards that goal.” Ending its efforts to physically make the most advanced semiconductors would mark a turning point in Intel’s fortunes, while also leaving the US without a top chip manufacturer. Mr Loeb called its difficulties a “critical concern” that could have broader implications on America’s national security if the US was forced to rely on companies located in “geopolitically unstable” regions to “power everything from PCs to data centers to critical infrastructure and more.” Intel shares rose more than 5 percent on news of Mr Loeb’s letter, which was first reported by Reuters. Source: Activist hedge fund advises Intel to outsource CPU manufacturing
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