If you’re a chip designer like AMD, how do you improve security when you know that there’s all the chance in the world that someone’s going to hack into the software your processor will be running and just simply take over. How would you stop that from ever happening right from the millisecond the hard code hits the CPU cache? By using a single core to prevent such software execution, that’s how. IBM’s Cell processor inside the Playstation 3 famously has eight Synergistic Processing Elements (Sony speak for, “we spent a truckload of money on it”) cores but doesn’t use all of them – six of those cores are available to developers while the seventh is used for the Playstation GUI and general usage. The eighth is reportedly disabled to improve chip yields, although I believe that may actually be used to prevent software execution that Sony doesn’t like or want on its system.
While the reality is that the eighth core’s purpose is still a mystery, AMD has recently teamed up with ARM to allow the use of ARM’s TrustZone technology on their APUs and motherboards. Hit the jump for more info and some interesting possibilities.
The partnership will see AMD inject ARM’s TrustZone technology into future APUs via a SoC (system-on-chip). AMD is calling it an industry first collaboration and says by adopting “the industry-standard approach to security that TrustZone technology embodies,” the two companies will be able to provide a consistent approach to security spanning billions of web-connected devices, be they ARM-based or AMD x86 APU-based. If this is gibberish to you, here’s what it means for you: AMD’s APUs will be hard at work providing you with a great low-cost gaming experience while there’s a low-power ARM Cortex-A5 sitting quietly on the board, monitoring all the info the flows around it. If it finds a string of malicious code, it will kill it before it even reaches the L1 cache of the APU without disturbing you or your game.
Its like Data Execution Prevention, a software measure designed to prevent code executing in hardware without your approval. Over the years the use of D.E.P. has waned and it isn’t so hotly thrown around anymore as Windows closes up more holes over time. However, malicious code that could get into your BIOS and overvolt your CPU to toasted levels still is a problem and one that D.E.P. can’t easily fix without ruining some legitimate software.
ARM’s approach is much more simple, employing a single core to monitor for such code and kill it before the start process. It will have much better use in computing environments where the hardware doesn’t change – that benefits laptops, tablets, phones and consoles. Its been a longtime rumour that Sony seeks to use AMD’s APU inside the PS3, likely to be a version of Trinity for consoles when the next-generation units launch next year. With both Microsoft and Sony looking to cut costs and development time, this is the perfect time for AMD to stage a coup with their APU lineup. With the dual-GPU HD7660 it would make 720p gaming a breeze, just about right for it to be an upgrade for today’s consoles. If there’s any plans on beefing that power up to 1080p levels remains to be seen, but we’re going off topic here.
“As technology becomes more important to our everyday lives, security needs to be present in every single device. The challenge that the industry faces is how to make this a reality,” said Ian Drew, executive vice president, strategy, ARM. “Through this technology partnership with AMD, and the broadening of the ARM TrustZone technology ecosystem, we’re making another important step towards a solution. The aim is to make security accessible and consistent for consumers and business users across all computing devices.”
As I said before, this applies to devices that don’t change hardware and this will be a huge design win for AMD, especially since Intel has nothing like this at all. AMD further confirmed that it plans to provide development platforms that have TrustZone security features on select APUs in 2013, expanding further across its product portfolio in 2014.
That’s right on cue for the next Playstation release. Bets, anyone?
Source: Tom’s Hardware
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