All posts by Peter Bright

AMD muscles in on Xeon’s turf as it unveils Epyc

AUSTIN—Today, AMD unveiled the first generation of Epyc, its new range of server processors built around its Zen architecture. Processors will range from the Epyc 7251—an eight-core, 16-thread chip running at 2.1 to 2.9GHz in a 120W power envelope—up to the Epyc 7601: a 32-core, 64-thread monster running at 2.2 to 3.2GHz, with a 180W design power.

AMD initially revealed its server chips, codenamed "Naples," earlier this year. Since then, we've known the basics of the new chips: they'll have 128 PCIe lanes and eight DDR4 memory controllers and will support one or two socket configurations. With today's announcement, we now know much more about how the processors are put together and what features they'll offer.

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2017 Surface Pro least repairable ever; Surface Laptop is made of glue

Enlarge / The only way into the Surface Laptop is through the fabric. There's no going back. (credit: iFixit)

While it's not a big surprise given the size and general trends when building these things, Microsoft's new Surface Laptop does not appear to be even remotely repairable, and the new Surface Pro isn't much better, according to iFixit.

iFixit's pictures, as ever, give a great look at the insides of the two machines. The Laptop has no external screws at all; to get into the system, iFixit had to peel off the glued-down fabric keyboard surround, an operation that obviously can't be undone, producing a machine that offers essentially no serviceability whatsoever. With the keyboard surround removed, the system reveals its internals, with components taped, soldered, or otherwise permanently affixed in place. Given how destructive one has to be to open the machine in the first place, perhaps that's not a big deal.

The Surface Pro teardown shows that while the work Microsoft has done to the Surface Pro on the outside is very incremental (it's a honed version of the Surface Pro 4), the interior work has been more substantial. The batteries are bigger (45Wh, compared to 38.2Wh in the Pro 4), and a giant spidery heatsink distributes the processor's heat across the back of the entire machine. This beefed-up passive cooling is how Microsoft has managed to make the Core i5 version of the Pro fanless; the Pro 4 had a fanless version, too, but that required the use of a low-power Y-series processor.

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Windows Server to copy Windows 10, get twice-yearly feature updates

Rows of Open Compute Project racks in a Facebook data center. (credit: Facebook)

The way Microsoft updates Windows Server 2016 is going to get a bit of a shake-up as Microsoft continues to unify its Windows development and deliver new features on a regular basis.

Just as is already the case with Windows 10 and Office, Windows Server is going to receive twice-yearly feature updates.

This new policy addresses one of the big unknowns of Microsoft's unified Windows development. The desktop version of Windows 10 has picked up, for example, new features for the Hyper-V virtualization platform; these are features that server operators might well want. Putting those Windows 10 features in the hands of desktop users is straightforward, as they can just be put into one of the twice-annual feature updates. But until now, Microsoft hadn't said how Windows Server users would be able to get their hands on the same new capabilities.

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According to statistics, programming with spaces instead of tabs makes you richer

Enlarge (credit: Kai Hendry)

Stop the world, I want to get off.

The annual Stack Overflow developer surveys often include lots of bad news. "People still use PHP," for example, is a recurring and distressing theme. "Perl exists" is another.

But never before has the survey revealed something as devastatingly terrible as the 2017 survey. Using PHP and Perl are matters of taste. Extremely masochistic taste, certainly, but nobody is wrong for using those languages; it's just the programming equivalent of enjoying Adam Sandler movies. But the 2017 survey goes beyond taste; it goes into deep philosophical questions of right and wrong, and it turns out that being wrong pays more than being right.

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Surface Pro review: Incremental improvement isn’t enough

Enlarge / Surface Pro with a Cobalt Blue Type Cover.

Every new Surface Pro has been the best Surface Pro yet. The new fifth-generation Surface Pro—unnumbered, Microsoft having dropped numeric suffixes—continues that trend. It is as good as or better than its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4, in every way.

And yet, the new machine strikes me as unambitious in a way that older models weren't.

The 2017 Surface Pro is an extremely incremental update. What was once a Skylake processor is now a Kaby Lake chip, which brings a healthy improvement in battery life and additional GPU features such as accelerated 4K HEVC video decoding. Overall, the new Surface Pro runs a bit faster and lasts longer away from the wall socket. The screen size and resolution remain the same (a beautiful 12.3" display with a strange 2736×1824 resolution), pen latency is lower, and parallax error seems improved. The pen itself is better.

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Microsoft’s decision to patch Windows XP is a mistake

(credit: Aurich Lawson)

Once again, Microsoft has opted to patch the out-of-support Windows XP. Dan has written about the new patch, the circumstances around the flaws it addresses, and why Microsoft has chosen to protect Windows XP users. While Microsoft's position is a tricky one, we argue in this post first published in 2014 that patching is the wrong decision: it sends a clear message to recalcitrant corporations that they can stick with Windows XP, insecure as it is, because if anything too serious is found, Microsoft will update it anyway. Windows 10 contains a wide range of defense-in-depth measures that will never be included in Windows XP: every time an organization resists upgrading to Microsoft's latest operating system, it jeopardizes its own security.

Microsoft officially ended support of the twelve-and-a-half-year-old Windows XP operating system a few weeks ago. Except it apparently didn't, because the company has included Windows XP in its off-cycle patch to fix an Internet Explorer zero-day that's receiving some amount of in-the-wild exploitation. The unsupported operating system is, in fact, being supported.

Explaining its actions, Microsoft says that this patch is an "exception" because of the "proximity to the end of support for Windows XP."

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OneDrive done right is back, and now it works properly

OneDrive placeholders are back. A new OneDrive client is available for the latest Windows 10 Insider build, and it brings back seamless integration with OneDrive cloud storage under the name "OneDrive Files On Demand."

With cloud storage services, it's very easy to have large amounts of storage and data "in the cloud" that you don't necessarily have room for locally. The traditional solution has been some kind of selective sync; some folders are nominated to be stored locally, while others are visible only through the service provider's Web interface. While this addresses immediate size constraints—it means that your hundreds of gigabytes of cloud files won't overflow your laptop's paltry 128GB SSD—it typically represents an awkward usability trade-off. Those files that aren't synchronized locally become invisible to the operating system, so you can't browse and manage them in Explorer, and neither can you open them directly in your applications.

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Intel fires warning shots at Microsoft, claims x86 emulation is a patent minefield

Enlarge / Qualcomm's prototype of a Snapdragon 835 motherboard for an ARM PC has an area of 50.4 square centimetres. (credit: Qualcomm)

In celebrating the x86 architecture's 39th birthday yesterday—the 8086 processor first came to market on June 8, 1978—Intel took the rather uncelebratory step of threatening any company working on x86 emulator technology.

Intel's blog post offers a rundown of all the investments that the company has made in extending and improving the x86 instruction set, with features such as SSE, AVX, TSX transactional memory, and SGX secure enclaves acting as a demonstration of how the company has transformed this ancient instruction set into something cutting edge and forward-looking. But the second part of the post takes a more sour note: Intel notes that many of these developments are patented and that it has a history of using patents to protect its x86 innovations  AMD, Cyrix, VIA, and Transmeta are all named as victims of this defence.

The post doesn't name any names, but it's not too hard to figure out who it's likely to be aimed at: Microsoft, perhaps with a hint of Qualcomm. Later in the year, companies including Asus, HP, and Lenovo will be releasing Windows laptops using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor. This is not the first time that Windows has been released on ARM processors—Microsoft's first attempt to bring Windows to ARM was the ill-fated Windows 8-era Windows RT in 2012—but this time around there's a key difference. Windows RT systems could not run any x86 applications. Windows 10 for ARM machines, however, will include a software-based x86 emulator that will provide compatibility with most or all 32-bit x86 applications.

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Sneaky hackers use Intel management tools to bypass Windows firewall

Enlarge / Physical serial ports (the blue ones) are fortunately a relic of a lost era and are nowadays quite rare to find on PCs. But their virtual counterparts are alive and well, and they can be used for some exciting things. (credit: Ericf)

When you're a bad guy breaking into a network, the first problem you need to solve is, of course, getting into the remote system and running your malware on it. But once you're there, the next challenge is usually to make sure that your activity is as hard to detect as possible. Microsoft has detailed a neat technique used by a group in Southeast Asia that abuses legitimate management tools to evade firewalls and other endpoint-based network monitoring.

The group, which Microsoft has named PLATINUM, has developed a system for sending files—such as new payloads to run and new versions of their malware—to compromised machines. PLATINUM's technique leverages Intel's Active Management Technology (AMT) to do an end-run around the built-in Windows firewall. The AMT firmware runs at a low level, below the operating system, and it has access to not just the processor, but also the network interface.

The AMT needs this low-level access for some of the legitimate things it's used for. It can, for example, power cycle systems, and it can serve as an IP-based KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) solution, enabling a remote user to send mouse and keyboard input to a machine and see what's on its display. This, in turn, can be used for tasks such as remotely installing operating systems on bare machines. To do this, AMT not only needs to access the network interface, it also needs to simulate hardware, such as the mouse and keyboard, to provide input to the operating system.

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Has Microsoft just secretly announced the Xbox One Scorpio release date?

The Xbox One E3 Teaser Trailers

Using the slogan "Feel The Power," Microsoft is teasing its E3 reveal of the next generation "Project Scorpio" Xbox in a set of videos. A Twitter user has gone through the videos frame by frame—because truly, there's no way you'll ever notice these things at full speed—and discovered that the videos do a bit more than merely whet our appetites for the hugely powerful new Xbox that will be out later this year.

Six is greater than four.

Six is greater than four. (credit: Microsoft)

First, a little Sony-trolling seems to be going on. A funfair scene shows the text "6 > 4" on a tent. This is presumably a reference to the compute power of Scorpio: its 6 teraflops of claimed GPU-based number crunching power is indeed greater than the 4 teraflops found in Sony hardware. Fifty percent greater, in fact.

This broken S is a console-related trademark. "S" is also the first letter of "Scorpio." These facts may be related.

This broken S is a console-related trademark. "S" is also the first letter of "Scorpio." These facts may be related. (credit: EUIPO)

Second, and even more obscure, is a string of text in an enormous crowd scene, reading "X10S101-317." "X10S" might be a reference to the Scorpio itself; earlier this week, a NeoGAF user found a European trademark application for a stylized S registered in the field of video game consoles and computer game software. Don't be shocked if "S" is very likely to be part of the Scorpio branding in some way.

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