After ZombieLoad, Intel is running out of friends. Can Project Athena save it?

Intel ZombieLoad
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

ZombieLoad is the latest in a line of high profile security flaws with attention-grabbing names to plague Intel processors, and it seems that many of the chip maker’s friends and allies are running out of patience with the company.

As with previous security flaws, like Meltdown and Spectre, the disclosure of ZombieLoad, which potentially allows malicious hackers to steal private browsing history, passwords and other information, has lead to companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google rushing out patches to help mitigate the impact of the errors.

Having to work around the clock to fix an issue in another company’s product is never going to go down well. And, while Intel’s biggest partners have mainly kept diplomatically quiet over their frustrations with having to fix yet another security flaw in Intel’s hardware, their engineers must have felt acutely frustrated.

Just look at the noise coming from the open source community. Open source developers can talk more freely about their annoyance with Intel and its latest security fail as there are no business relationships that need to be kept sweet, no NDAs to sign or gentlemen’s agreements. The open source community isn’t well known for biting its tongue when something annoys it.

Take the release notes for the Linux kernel 5.1.2 by Greg Kroah-Hartman, the stable Linux kernel maintainer, which was released in the aftermath of ZombieLoad. As he notes, “As I said before just over a year ago, Intel once again owes a bunch of people a lot of drinks for fixing their hardware bugs in our software.”

There surely are many developers at the bigger tech companies that will be quietly agreeing with him.

Intel ZombieLoad

How long will Intel's partners tolerate having to fix security issues with Intel's hardware? (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Performance hits

While many companies released mitigations against ZombieLoad, the problem doesn’t end there. Most of the fixes involve disabling hyper-threading, a feature that generates virtualized processor cores for improved multitasking performance, and that has lead to some drastic performance impacts after the patches are applied.

If your Mac suddenly starts running slow, you’re likely to blame Apple before you blame Intel.

For example, Apple revealed that, with the ZombieLoad patch installed, there could be performance drops of up to 40% – which would particularly impact Macs with multi-core processors. That's practically every modern Mac in use today.

Meanwhile, the Phoronix website has taken a deep dive into what sort of performance impact ZombieLoad mitigations have on Linux machines – and the results aren’t good.

Not only will this annoy customers who are seeing their expensive devices perform worse, but it’s not a good look for the manufacturers, either. If your Mac suddenly starts running slow, you’re likely to blame Apple before you blame Intel.

It’s no secret that Apple has been considering parting ways with Intel and building its own processors to power its Mac devices. After insinuating that Intel’s recent processor shortage was responsible for lower Mac sales (and prompted us to half-jokingly suggest that Apple should buy AMD), this new security flaw – and the impact its mitigations have on performance – could further sour Apple and Intel’s relationship.

So, Intel is fast losing friends. Is there anything it can do? Well, apart from stop releasing hardware with major security issues in them, that is.

Intel ZombieLoad

Project Athena's collaborative approach could save Intel. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Help us Project Athena, you’re our only hope

With Intel’s partners seemingly frustrated with the hardware maker, it surely must be hoping that its Project Athena initiative pays off.

If laptop makers and software developers end up falling out with Intel, then we could see them move to Qualcomm and ARM hardware.

Project Athena sees Intel working closely with manufacturers to develop the next generation of laptops. While it won’t answer many of the problems its partners have, by working more closely together, Intel and companies such as Microsoft, Google and Dell can help shape future hardware that’s free from major security exploits.

Project Athena should produce laptops that can meet the requirements of modern users: offering always-connected 5G internet, day-long battery life and drastically reduced start-up times.

These are all features that Windows on Snapdragon (WOS) devices have. WOS laptops run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon hardware – making them a distinct threat to Intel. If laptop makers and software developers end up falling out with Intel, then we could see them move to Qualcomm and other ARM hardware.

That means the success of Project Athena is more important than ever for Intel. If it can manage to produce hardware that’s free from the major security flaws we’ve recently seen, while collaborating with its partners and fighting off competition from Qualcomm and a resurgent AMD, then Project Athena could save Intel.

If it can’t, then Team Blue could be in a lot of trouble, and it might find its old friends aren’t going to be so keen to help it out in the future.

Image credits: Nyoman Arya Suartawan/Shutterstock

Matt Hanson
Managing Editor, Core Tech

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. Ever since he got an Amiga A500+ for Christmas in 1991, he's loved using (and playing on) computers, and will talk endlessly about how The Secret of Monkey Island is the best game ever made.