May 30, 2024

Reed: LaGrande Another 432?

David Reed has an interesting perspective on Intel’s LaGrande proposal.

Reed likens LaGrande to the Intel 432 processor. Few non-techies have heard of the 432, but in the processor-design community the 432 is a legendary failure. As Reed says, the 432 was “Intel’s attempt to create an ‘object oriented’ processor that would embed all the great ideas of object oriented computing in a revolutionary new architecture.”

The 432 died because it tried to build into hardware ideas that were still under development. Of all the parts of a computer system, the hardware is the most expensive to change, and the most difficult. It follows that you only want to put a particular function in hardware if you know that that function is necessary, and you know exactly how to do it. Because if you decide a year later that you want to do it differently, you’re out of luck. Hardware is much harder to change than software.

The Japanese “Fifth Generation” project from the 80’s is another example of a disaster caused by committing too early to a speculative design approach. Fifth Generation was going to reorganize the computing world around logic-based programming. This seemed like a good idea at first, but when it became evident that the right answer lay elsewhere, it was too late to reorient the project.

Reed has a good point, but I think he goes too far. The 432 and the Fifth Generation were both radical departures from existing practice; they wanted to tear up and redesign the whole processor. LaGrande seems much less ambitious. But Reed is right on target in saying that building security features into processor hardware is a risky engineering decision.

Intel to Offer "Security" Features in Future Microprocessors

Intel is reportedly planning to include security technologies, code-named “LaGrande,” in a future processor chip.

I haven’t seen much in the way of technical detail. The article referenced above says:

Where Internet security technologies already protect information in transit between a user’s PC and Web sites, LaGrande and Palladium attempt to safeguard information and software once it is on a PC. The idea is to partition off parts of a computer into protected sections dubbed “vaults,” and protect the pathways between those areas and keyboards, monitors and other accessories.

One benefit is what Intel calls a “secure boot,” which means that the basic instructions used when starting a computer can’t be modified for improper purposes.

It’s way too early to tell whether this is good or bad for consumers. We’ll need many more technical details before we can even form sensible opinions.

Every security technology is designed to give somebody more control over something. The key questions are who is getting control, and over what will they be given control. We can’t answer those questions yet for LaGrande.

It used to be a given that when somebody talked about securing a computer, that meant giving more control to the computer’s owner. Nowadays the term “security” is more and more applied to measures that take control away from the owner. Whether LaGrande empowers consumers or erodes their control over their property remains to be seen.

Once we know what LaGrande is trying to do, we can move on to the question of whether it actually delivers on its promises. Intel got into trouble once before with a “security” feature – the Pentium III processor ID (PID). The PID raised privacy concerns, which Intel tried to defuse by arguing that the PID could protect consumers against fraud. Unfortunately the technical details of the PID made it fairly useless as an anti-fraud measure. Ultimately, Intel withdrew the PID feature after a storm of public criticism. Such an outcome is good for nobody.

It appears that Intel is being more careful this time. If Intel wants public buy-in, the best thing they could do is to release the technical specifications for LaGrande, to enable an informed public debate about it.

The Other Digital Divide

Long and well-written articleby Drew Clark and Bara Vaida in the National Journal’s Tech Daily, about the history of the current Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley battle over copy protection. If you’re still coming up to speed on this issue, the article is a great scene-setter. Even if you know the issue well, you still might learn a thing or two.

My favorite telling detail:

Valenti warned that the Hollings approach “might be what had to happen.”

No, the tech executives said, a process to resolve differences between the two industries was already in place: the technical working group formed in 1996. But Valenti wanted a CEO-level dialogue, not another meeting of the engineers.

Dilbert fans will recognize this as a classic Pointy-Haired Boss tactic: “We can’t solve this engineering problem. Maybe if we kick the engineers out of the room we can solve it faster.”

Who Controls Your PC?

One of the most interesting issues in technology today is the battle for control over users’ computers. Ray Ozzie offers some thoughts, and a nice tutorial.

Misleading Term of the Week: "Broadcast Flag"

[This posting inaugurates a new feature. Each week I will dissect one widely used but misleading bit of terminology. See my previous posting on the term “piracy” for more on why terminology is important.]

This week’s misleading term is “broadcast flag,” which is used by Hollywood to refer to a wide-ranging ban on video technologies that they are proposing via the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG).

Technologists normally use the term “flag” to refer to a simple label that is attached to data to indicate some attribute of the data. A recipient of the data can use the flag as one factor in deciding what to do with the data, but most flags are strictly advisory and do not compel any action by the recipient. Such a flag is simple and nonrestrictive. Who could object to it?

Hollywood doesn’t need to ask for a true broadcast flag. The standards for digital television broadcasting already have a place for such a flag. No government action is needed to allow Hollywood to use a flag to indicate the broadcast status of a program.

Instead, they use the harmless-sounding term “broadcast flag” to refer to something else entirely. If you read Hollywood’s “broadcast flag” proposal, you’ll see that what they are really asking for is a draconian set of restrictions on video technology. Their proposal would even give them veto power over the development of new video technologies. Calling it a mere “flag” makes it sound simple and harmless. What a brilliant bit of misdirection!