Linux kernel developers have announced version 5.18 of the stable Linux kernel, with a feature that could affect future Intel processors by limiting CPUs unless users pay for upgrades to unlock features already available on are present on the chip.
Why Intel users might be forced to pay with Linux 5.18
The new version of Linux kernel supports Intel’s Software-Defined Silicon (SDSi) initiative. Under this scheme, future Intel CPUs would ship with some on-chip features disabled unless the customer paid Intel for a certificate that would unlock them, as a Linus Tech Tips video explains:
This would allow Intel to differentiate its processors by price but sell the same chips to different customers. One chip might be optimized for gaming while another is designed to run on a server.
CPU makers are already partially operating under this scheme, selling chips that have lower clock speed ratings than they are officially capable of. Because of this, overclocking chips or increasing the CPU clock speed to a faster setting than advertised is popular with some customers, especially gamers.
Intel’s SDSi could put an end to practices like overclocking. Intel CPUs with this feature monitor attempts to bypass it and throttle performance until the computer restarts if a user makes too many unsuccessful attempts.
What’s next for Linux 5.18?
SDSi is first applied to Intel Xeon chips. These CPUs are marketed for workstation and server computers. Enterprise customers may be more willing to pay Intel to unlock additional features, since these chips are less upgradeable than desktop PC processors. There is no indication of SDSi being applied to consumer chips yet, but that could change in the future.
Since Linux users tend to be ideologically in favor of software freedom, Intel’s scheme obviously doesn’t sit well with some of the more ardent members of the community. Even if Linux users reject the changes, they might still find ways to circumvent them.
“Antifeatures in free software don’t usually last long, and free drivers can often unlock hardware capabilities that their vendors may not have seen fit to make available,” Jonathan Corbet wrote in an LWN article in February.
Angry Linux users may choose to replace the CPU outright, perhaps with one of Intel’s competitor AMD, rather than pay to unlock a portion of the processor on their machines.
Either way, most Linux users will have some time to decide. Linux distributions will take a while to integrate the kernel into their systems, with the exception of rolling release distributions like Arch, which release changes as they are ready.
Linux 5.18 won’t hold back determined overclockers
The new kernel version, no matter what Intel does, probably won’t deter overclockers if a possible voided warranty doesn’t stop them. There are a number of software tools, including from Intel themselves, that allow users to tweak their overclocked machines to get the most out of their processors.
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