Specter and Meltdown are still alive, but Intel fixes some hardware-level issues with Whiskey Lake.
The year started off in the worst possible way for Intel. Discovering the Specter and Meltdown vulnerabilities put his processors against the sword and the wall, although both Intel and the rest of the affected companies were mitigating the problem with firmware updates or the different operating systems available.
That does not mean that the problem has completely disappeared: for that to happen the only solution is to create chips with hardware designs that avoid these vulnerabilities, something that has not yet happened. At IFA 2018 Intel has presented its new families of processors, and one of them, Whiskey Lake, achieves natively tackle two of the six variants thanks to certain modifications in the hardware of these chips.
Whiskey Lake begins the path of the hardware solution to Specter and Meltdown
The new generation of Intel notebook processors has been the most relevant launch of the firm in recent months. With the U-series Whiskey Lake (15 W) and the Y-series Amber Lake (5 W) the firm raised improvements in efficiency and connectivity, but those responsible for Intel did not comment on the Specter and Meltdown situation and if those problems affected these processors.
In AnandTech they wanted to investigate precisely that question, and after talking with Intel engineers they managed to clarify the status of those problems nowadays.
Neither of the two Specter variants still has a hardware solution in Whiskey Lake, but two of the four Meltdown variants, as shown in the table, yes they already have direct mitigation on the chips.
Things change in the case of Amber Lake, a family that is an iteration of Kaby Lake with the 14+ manufacturing process. In the absence of hardware solutions, the way to mitigate the problem is what we have already known for months: a firmware update for the processors sometimes combined with operating system updates to avoid problems with these vulnerabilities.
Cascade Lake and the performance impact
A few days before the presentation of Whiskey Lake and Amber Lake, Intel presented Cascade Lake, the new family of processors oriented to data centers and servers, and which for the first time introduced changes in the architecture that allowed to tackle the problem directly with the hardware of these chips.
Thanks to that approach, in Cascade Lake three of the six variants are mitigated of Specter and Meltdown by hardware, although in one of those solutions an update of the operating system also intervenes.
Whiskey Lake follows precisely that model although it does not manage to tackle so many variants, but it seems that the path marked by Cascade Lake is the one that will allow it to be finally we have chips free of these threats.
Performance hit remains one of the obstacles Intel faces with these mechanisms. If problems with software are mitigated Intel says the impact may be between 3 and 10% of the yield without those patches.
With the hardware mitigations the impact is much less, they affirm in Intel without giving specific data, but it is also true that these processors will also be more powerful than their predecessors, so that reduction of the potential impact will also be less appreciable.
Now it remains to be seen if Intel’s upcoming processor families can fully tackle the problem natively, but the situation little by little it seems to be improving to all users.