Intel is annoyed by a new technology it calls “Software Defined Silicon” (SDSi), but says almost nothing about it – and said The register it can be anything.
SDSi appeared about three weeks ago in a post to the Linux Kernel mailing list, in which an Intel Linux software engineer named David Box describes it as a “post-production mechanism for activating additional silicon features.”
“Features are activated through a license activation process,” he wrote. “The SDSi driver provides for each socket,
ioctl application interface to perform three main security functions. “These security functions are:
- Provide Certificate Key Certificate (AKC) – a key written in the internal NVRAM that is used to authenticate a feature-specific activation payload.
- Capability Activation Capability (CAP) – A token authenticated by AKC and attached to the CPU configuration to activate a new feature.
- Read the SDSi status certificate – containing the status of the processor configuration.
The Box publication also pointed to a GitHub page which includes the following explanation:
Between the mention of GitHub and the three features added to the Linux kernel, it seems clear that Intel can supply Xeons with hidden features that you can activate by sending it some money.
Intel offered several other valuable details. The GitHub page includes a document with details on how to use SDSi silicon equipment to activate sleep functions, but without details on what new functions can be activated with this technology.
The register asked Intel to explain its publication in the Linux Kernel mailing list. Chipzilla offered us the following non-committal answer:
Yes correct. Intel tried to come up with a way to license highly configurable Xeons, but did not decide if it would become a product, and still threw the technology into the Linux kernel.
If you believe that, The register there is a bridge we would like to sell you.
So let’s think about what Intel can do here – starting with why Intel wants to license CPU features.
Today, Intel sells a processor and so often does not see more money from its customers until their next purchase – which could be years to come. Licensing CPU features would potentially generate more revenue for Intel, more often, perhaps, even allow it to create the kind of subscription services that investors adore because it increases revenue – and makes its arrival more predictable.
Intel will need predictable cash flow to fund its spending plans tens of billions of new factories.
These factories are infamously complex, and Intel works hard with them – in part because it makes many variations of its products. If Intel could make fewer options and instead pack all of its technology into fewer SKUs that could be reconfigured into software, the production savings could be significant. Customers will still pay a premium for a high-end kit that will be included by software rather than being created as discrete products.
We also know that Intel plans to make its products even more sophisticated with “Alder Lake” architecture that mixes and combines cores of different types on the same matrix.
Configurable processors can delight customers by allowing them to purchase an advanced processor such as Intel’s AVX-512 extensions – a technology designed to accelerate machine learning – but pay to use these extensions only when needed, instead of the original price. Or buyers may acquire servers knowing they have additional overhead to connect as their needs increase.
This kind of flexibility is not exaggerated. In fact, Intel already offers something similar in its own Speed selection technology (SST) – a proposal that allows users to set CPUs in configurations tailored to different workloads. SST also allows the definition of virtual CPUs with characteristics that differ from the physical CPU.
Another current option, emphasizing composition and flexibility, comes from HPE, which offers silicon on request which allows customers in its GreenLake ITaaS environment to change the number of cores that are active on Intel-powered servers and pay only for those cores instead of having to rent an entire server.
Don’t forget the fashion from the middle of 2010 as well composite infrastructure – the idea that a collection of connected components can be assembled into servers that meet the requirements of the day. This type of concept almost always takes several years to move from a fine idea to a practical one.
Intel terminated its response to The registerQuestions about SDSi, stating: “We are constantly innovating to ensure that we provide flexible solutions to meet the unique requirements of our customers and partners and to lead the industry in product capabilities and features.”
Which means absolutely nothing. Still, making all the trouble of inserting SDSi into the Linux kernel certainly signals that something significant is coming. And if that thing is configurable and / or composite processors, Intel may have something much more substantial to say. ®