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Intel Slides After Revealing Major Processor Flaw, AMD Surges

Tech website The Register  reports that chip giant Intel has a bug that lets some software gain access to parts of a computer’s memory which are set aside to protect things like passwords. The news sent INTC stock sliding over 2% to $45.90, while rival AMD surged as much as 6.2% as costly patches to Windows and OS X will be required and the security updates will slow down older machinery by up to 30%.

As the Register adds, "programmers are scrambling to overhaul the open-source Linux kernel's virtual memory system. Meanwhile, Microsoft is expected to publicly introduce the necessary changes to its Windows operating system in an upcoming Patch Tuesday: these changes were seeded to beta testers running fast-ring Windows Insider builds in November and December."

Crucially, these updates to both Linux and Windows will incur a performance hit on Intel products. The effects are still being benchmarked, however we're looking at a ballpark figure of five to 30% slow down, depending on the task and the processor model. More recent Intel chips have features – such as PCID – to reduce the performance hit. Your mileage may vary.

It's not just Windows: similar operating systems, such as Apple's 64-bit macOS, will also need to be updated – the flaw is in the Intel x86-64 hardware, and it appears a microcode update can't address it. It has to be fixed in software at the OS level, or go buy a new processor without the design blunder.

The report adds that the bug is present in modern Intel processors produced in the past decade. It allows normal user programs – from database applications to JavaScript in web browsers – to discern to some extent the layout or contents of protected kernel memory areas.

The vulnerability could be leveraged by malware and hackers to more easily exploit other security bugs. At worst, the hole could be abused by programs and logged-in users to read the contents of the kernel's memory. Suffice to say, this is not great. The kernel's memory space is hidden from user processes and programs because it may contain all sorts of secrets, such as passwords, login keys, files cached from disk, and so on. Imagine a piece of JavaScript running in a browser, or malicious software running on a shared public cloud server, able to sniff sensitive kernel-protected data.

According to Bloomberg, Intel has more than 80% market share overall and more than 90% in laptops and servers.