Chip Flaws ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Loom Large

By Tiffany Trader

January 4, 2018

The HPC and wider tech community have been abuzz this week over the discovery of critical design flaws that impact virtually all contemporary microprocessors. The bugs leave processors vulnerable to side channel attacks where malicious programs can steal information from applications’ memory. Worse news yet some of the fixes for these flaws are either unclear at this point or may be associated with significant slowdowns.

As the story developed, many media reports focused on the “Intel chip flaw” but the problem is much bigger than that and impacts AMD and ARM CPUs as well. The New York Times has done a great job of pulling all the moving pieces together.

There are two major flaws, the Times reports. The first, dubbed Meltdown, has currently been shown to impact only Intel microprocessors (due to the way Intel handles speculative execution, covered comprehensively by Ars Technica). A Linux patch called KPTI (formerly KAISER) mitigates the security gap, but its implementation can degrade processor speed by as much as 30 percent, depending on the application.

The second issue, called Spectre, is conceivably even more problematic as it affects virtually all chip lines on the market, leaving potentially billions of devices, including phones, vulnerable to exploits. Security researchers believe this flaw is more difficult to exploit but also harder to assuage. “There is no known fix for it and it is not clear what chip makers like Intel will do to address the problem,” wrote the Times.

Intel released a statement yesterday downplaying the ramifications and emphasizing that competing chips are also affected.

“Intel and other technology companies have been made aware of new security research describing software analysis methods that, when used for malicious purposes, have the potential to improperly gather sensitive data from computing devices that are operating as designed. Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data,” the company asserted.

“Recent reports that these exploits are caused by a ‘bug’ or a ‘flaw’ and are unique to Intel products are incorrect. Based on the analysis to date, many types of computing devices — with many different vendors’ processors and operating systems — are susceptible to these exploits.”

Intel went on to say that for the “average computer user,” performance impacts “should not be significant and will be mitigated over time.”

This prompted one contributor to a popular HPC mailing list to respond: “We, ‘non-average computer users,’ are still [verb of your choice here].”

As this issue was still coming to light, the US government issued a dire statement (on Jan. 3), implying the problematic CPUs were essentially unsalvageable. “The underlying vulnerability is primarily caused by CPU architecture design choices. Fully removing the vulnerability requires replacing vulnerable CPU hardware,” wrote US-CERT, the computer safety division of Homeland Security.

A revised version of the notice offers less extreme, but vague, guidance. Affected parties are now advised that “operating system and some application updates mitigate these attacks.”

There is still a lot of uncertainty about the full ramifications of these major flaws. AMD and ARM have also released statements:



The impacted tech companies have known about the flaws for months and have been working to solve the issues before making a public disclosure. This is common practice to stay ahead of ill-intentioned hackers, but the timing is bringing attention to a major stock sale made late last year by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. In November, Krzanich sold off $39 million worth of company stock and options (for a $24 million gain), reducing his share down to the bare minimum required by his contract with Intel. The scope of the transactions were within permissible bounds but questions are now being raised as to whether knowledge of hardware vulnerabilities could have prompted the sell-off. A spokesperson for Intel said Krzanich’s sale was “unrelated.”

Computing professionals have taken to mailing lists, social media forums and message boards to vent frustrations and discuss strategies for addressing security and performance requirements. There is already talk of seeking compensation for lost performance. Even modest performance hits will take a toll on HPC systems, which can comprise hundreds or thousands of nodes. It is yet to be determined how much of a penalty the KPTI patch will extract for typical HPC workloads and usage patterns. We will continue to follow this developing story closely.

Update (Jan. 5, 2018)

Red Hat has informed that IBM System Z, Power 8 and Power 9 are also impacted. Here is IBM’s statement.

Additional reading:


Ground zero post:

Meltdown and Spectre logos were designed by Natascha Eibl and used under Creative Commons license. 

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

InfiniBand Still Tops in Supercomputing

July 19, 2018

In the competitive global HPC landscape, system and processor vendors, nations and end user sites certainly get a lot of attention--deservedly so--but more than ever, the network plays a crucial role. While fast, perform Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC for Life: Genomics, Brain Research, and Beyond

July 19, 2018

During the past few decades, the life sciences have witnessed one landmark discovery after another with the aid of HPC, paving the way toward a new era of personalized treatments based on an individual’s genetic makeup Read more…

By Warren Froelich

WCRP’s New Strategic Plan for Climate Research Highlights the Importance of HPC

July 19, 2018

As climate modeling increasingly leverages exascale computing and researchers warn of an impending computing gap in climate research, the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) is developing its new Strategic Plan – and high-performance computing is slated to play a critical role. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Introducing the First Integrated System Management Software for HPC Clusters from HPE

How do you manage your complex, growing cluster environments? Answer that big challenge with the new HPC cluster management solution: HPE Performance Cluster Manager. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Are Your Software Licenses Impeding Your Productivity?

In my previous article, Improving chip yield rates with cognitive manufacturing, I highlighted the costs associated with semiconductor manufacturing, and how cognitive methods can yield benefits in both design and manufacture.  Read more…

U.S. Exascale Computing Project Releases Software Technology Progress Report

July 19, 2018

As is often noted the race to exascale computing isn’t just about hardware. This week the U.S. Exascale Computing Project (ECP) released its latest Software Technology (ST) Capability Assessment Report detailing progress so far. Read more…

By John Russell

InfiniBand Still Tops in Supercomputing

July 19, 2018

In the competitive global HPC landscape, system and processor vendors, nations and end user sites certainly get a lot of attention--deservedly so--but more than Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC for Life: Genomics, Brain Research, and Beyond

July 19, 2018

During the past few decades, the life sciences have witnessed one landmark discovery after another with the aid of HPC, paving the way toward a new era of perso Read more…

By Warren Froelich

D-Wave Breaks New Ground in Quantum Simulation

July 16, 2018

Last Friday D-Wave scientists and colleagues published work in Science which they say represents the first fulfillment of Richard Feynman’s 1982 notion that Read more…

By John Russell

AI Thought Leaders on Capitol Hill

July 14, 2018

On Thursday, July 12, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology heard from four academic and industry leaders – representatives from Berkeley Lab, Argonne Lab, GE Global Research and Carnegie Mellon University – on the opportunities springing from the intersection of machine learning and advanced-scale computing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Serves as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for the Information Age

July 12, 2018

In an age defined and transformed by its data, several large-scale scientific instruments around the globe might be viewed as a ‘mother lode’ of precious data. With names seemingly created for a ‘techno-speak’ glossary, these interferometers, cyclotrons, sequencers, solenoids, satellite altimeters, and cryo-electron microscopes are churning out data in previously unthinkable and seemingly incomprehensible quantities -- billions, trillions and quadrillions of bits and bytes of electro-magnetic code. Read more…

By Warren Froelich

Tsinghua Powers Through ISC18 Field

July 10, 2018

Tsinghua University topped all other competitors at the ISC18 Student Cluster Competition with an overall score of 88.43 out of 100. This gives Tsinghua their s Read more…

By Dan Olds

HPE, EPFL Launch Blue Brain 5 Supercomputer

July 10, 2018

HPE and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausannne (EPFL) Blue Brain Project yesterday introduced Blue Brain 5, a new supercomputer built by HPE, which displ Read more…

By John Russell

Pumping New Life into HPC Clusters, the Case for Liquid Cooling

July 10, 2018

High Performance Computing (HPC) faces some daunting challenges in the coming years as traditional, industry-standard systems push the boundaries of data center Read more…

By Scott Tease

Leading Solution Providers

SC17 Booth Video Tours Playlist

Altair @ SC17


AMD @ SC17


ASRock Rack @ SC17

ASRock Rack



DDN Storage @ SC17

DDN Storage

Huawei @ SC17


IBM @ SC17


IBM Power Systems @ SC17

IBM Power Systems

Intel @ SC17


Lenovo @ SC17


Mellanox Technologies @ SC17

Mellanox Technologies

Microsoft @ SC17


Penguin Computing @ SC17

Penguin Computing

Pure Storage @ SC17

Pure Storage

Supericro @ SC17


Tyan @ SC17


Univa @ SC17


  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This