Intel teases 'software-defined silicon' with Linux kernel contribution – and won't say why

It might enable activation of entirely new features on existing Xeon CPUs … or, you know, not


Intel has teased a new tech it calls "Software Defined Silicon" (SDSi) but is saying almost nothing about it – and has told The Register it could amount to nothing.

SDSi popped up around three weeks ago in a post to the Linux Kernel mailing list, in which an Intel Linux software engineer named David Box described it as "a post-manufacturing mechanism for activating additional silicon features".

"Features are enabled through a license activation process," he wrote. "The SDSi driver provides a per-socket, ioctl interface for applications to perform three main provisioning functions." Those provisioning functions are:

  1. Provision an Authentication Key Certificate (AKC) – a key written to internal NVRAM that is used to authenticate a capability-specific activation payload.
  2. Provision a Capability Activation Payload (CAP) – a token authenticated using the AKC and applied to the CPU configuration to activate a new feature.
  3. Read the SDSi State Certificate – containing the CPU configuration state.

Box's post also pointed to a GitHub page that includes the following explanation:

Intel Xeon family processors with support for Intel Software Defined Silicon (SDSi) allow the configuration of additional CPU features through a license activation process.

Between that GitHub mention and the three functions added to the Linux kernel, it seems plain that Intel could ship Xeons with latent features you could enable by sending it some cash.

Intel's offered precious few other details. The GitHub page includes a document detailing how to use SDSi-equipped silicon to enable dormant features, but with no detail on what new features could be activated with this tech.

The Register asked Intel to explain its Linux Kernel mailing list post. Chipzilla offered us the following non-committal response:

We’re not going into a lot of details about Software Defined Silicon at this time. As you know, Intel regularly submits code to the Linux Kernel that could be used in future products. And that’s what happened in this case. If we plan to implement these updates in future products we will provide a deeper explanation of how they are implemented at that time.

Yeah, right. Intel has gone to all the trouble of cooking up a way to license highly configurable Xeons, but hasn't decided if it will become a product, and tossed the tech into the Linux kernel anyway.

If you believe that, The Register has a bridge we'd like to sell you.

So let's ponder what Intel could be up to here – starting with why Intel wants to license CPU features.

Today, Intel sells a CPU and as often as not doesn't see any more cash from its customers until their next purchase – which could be years into the future. Licensing CPU features would potentially give Intel more revenue, more often, perhaps even letting it create the kind of subscription services that investors adore because they boost revenue – and make its arrival more predictable.

Intel is going to need predictable cashflow to fund its plans to spend tens of billions on new factories.

Those factories are infamously complex, and Intel works them hard – partly because it makes many variants of its products. If Intel could make fewer variants, and instead pack all its tech into a smaller number of SKUs that could be re-configured in software, production savings could be substantial. Customers would still pay a premium for high-end kit, which would be switched on by software rather than created as discrete products.

We also know that Intel plans to make its products yet more complex, with the "Alder Lake" architecture that mixes and matches cores of different kinds on the same die.

Configurable CPUs could delight customers, by letting them buy a CPU with advanced capabilities like Intel's AVX-512 extensions – a tech aimed at speeding machine learning – but pay to use those extensions only when needed, rather than wearing an up-front cost. Or buyers could acquire servers knowing they have some extra overhead to turn on as their needs increase.

That kind of flexibility is not far-fetched. In fact, Intel already offers something similar in its Speed Select Technology (SST) – an offering that allows users to set CPUs into configurations matched to different workloads. SST also allows definition of virtual CPUs with characteristics that differ from the physical CPU.

Another current option emphasising composability and flexibility comes from HPE, which offers silicon-on-demand that allows customers of its GreenLake ITaaS environment to vary the numbers of cores that are active on Intel-powered servers and pay only for those cores, rather than having to rent a whole server.

Remember, too, the mid-2010s fad for composable infrastructure – the notion that a collection of connected components could be assembled into servers that meet the requirements of the day. That sort of concept nearly always takes a few years to go from nifty idea to practical adoption.

Intel ended its response to The Register's questions about SDSi by stating: "We're continuously innovating to ensure we enable flexible solutions to meet the unique demands of our customers and partners and lead the industry in product capabilities and features."

Which means absolutely nothing. Yet going to all the trouble of inserting SDSi in the Linux kernel surely signals something substantial is brewing. And if that something is configurable and/or composable CPUs, Intel may have something rather more substantial to say. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021