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Intel Issues Microcode Updates To Protect Against 'Meltdown'

Intel this week released microcode updates to its original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and partners in a bid to curb Meltdown and Spectre attacks.

According to a Feb. 7 announcement by Navin Shenoy, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, the company has rolled out "production microcode updates for several Skylake-based platforms." The announcement offered few other details.

Intel's "Microcode Revision Guidance" document, revised Feb. 7 (PDF), showed that microcode was released for the Skylake U/Y/U23e and Skylake H/S processors. There was no information, at press time, for two other Skylake models shown in Intel's list.

The computer industry has generally responded to potential Meltdown and Spectre types of attacks by releasing microcode for AMD, ARM and Intel processors (also known as "firmware updates") and updates for operating systems (both Linux and Windows). The Meltdown and Spectre attack methods, potentially affecting most machines, were publicized in January by researchers after being known about for six months.

The researchers hadn't detected active exploits when they made their announcement back in January. However, it's thought that active exploits using Meltdown and Spectre attack methods are in the making.

A-V Test this month reported detecting 139 malware samples that appear to be Meltdown- or Spectre- related, including "the first working JavaScript PoC [proof of concept] for Spectre."

On the microcode side, chipmakers like Intel typically deliver their firmware updates to their OEM computer-building partners for testing before they become publicly available through the partners' sites for download by computer users. Intel previously noted system reboot problems associated with its early Broadwell and Haswell microcode updates and had earlier encouraged OEMs to prioritize testing its newer microcode releases.

Shenoy offered no clarification about the state of the Broadwell and Haswell microcode updates in his Feb. 7 announcement, nor did Intel's "Microcode Revision Guidance" document offer any new information. Intel, though, has been issuing new microcode updates to partners so that they can test "other affected products," according to Shenoy.

Intel's latest recommendations for organizations concerned about system stability issues included applying Microsoft's remediations to block the Spectre variant 2 mitigation. Microsoft's remediations, announced last month, specifically block Intel's microcode updates that caused the system reboot problems. However, IT pros have to make Windows registry changes to make that happen. To get the production-ready microcode from Intel when it's ready, IT pros will have to edit the registry yet again.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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