CPU, Hardware, Intel, News, VR World

Did Intel Got Lucky with the Skylake Freezing Bug?

UPDATE January 18, 2016 – MSI released a beta version of the BIOS which contains micro-code update that should remove the Skylake crashing bug. You can download the beta version of the BIOS for select products on their OneDrive account.

Intel recently reported its quarterly and full year results, and they’re quite impressive. The company reported fourth quarter revenue of $14.9 billion, or 1% down from Q4 2014. Net income (profit) also declined to $3.61 billion. Once we look at full year results, they’re more than interesting – 2015 saw Intel recording a revenue of $55.4 billion with $11.4 billion net income.

The results are quite impressive,  as market research firms painted a gloomy picture – Gartner reported a 8.3% decline in PC sales (Desktop / Notebook), while IDC went on record with 10.6% drop. It’s not surprising to see that Intel had a decline in PC space, but also their datacenter division a.k.a. profit-maker reported a 5% YoY increase. For the PC segment, more customers are moving to a more expensive processors, with enthusiast-class Core i5 and i7 ‘K’ processors being shipped in record volumes.

Thus, news that Intel Skylake processor carriers a fatal bug in Prime95 benchmark could not come at a better time. Since the ill-fated FDIV bug, which caused a recall of Intel Pentium 100 MHz processor, the company adopted a cautious approach to its products. Still, a watershed moment for the company happened when Tom’s Hardware discovered that the Pentium III 1.13 GHz freezes during Linux kernel compiling test. Intel was forced to recall the product at the time when AMD was beating it with K7 i.e. Athlon processors. Following the Pentium III fiasco, Intel adopted a so-called ‘microcode update’, or a function which enables ‘flashing the firmware’ of the processor, and removing bugs such as the Skylake one. Every Intel (and AMD) processor that shipped over the past decade or so has the ability to be updated through a BIOS update, and time will tell can Intel fix the problem with Mersenne Prime numbers bug.

Intel Processor Diagnostic Tool shows no errors on Skylake processors. However...

Intel Processor Diagnostic Tool shows no errors on Skylake processors. However…

This potentially troublesome bug causes crashes on every Skylake-architecture based processor, no matter are you using Linux or Windows operating systems, and was discovered by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) group, or more commonly known for people that are behind the popular CPU benchmark ‘Prime95.’ The ‘Simple instructions for freezing a Skylake Processor’ thread on Intel’s own Communities forum got confirmed by Intel as well, as we received a statement from Intel’s PR crew:

 “Intel has identified an issue that potentially affects the 6th-generation Intel Core family of products. This issue only occurs under certain complex workload conditions, like those that may be encountered when running applications like Prime95. In those cases, the processor may hang or cause unpredictable system behavior.”

While the fix is unknown yet, it might pose a limited threat to Intel’s own revenue in PC and Workstation markets, as Skylake-based processors are now available as single-socket, Xeon E3-1000 v5 family of products too. Given that specific Xeon E3 v5 processors come without integrated graphics as well, it is no wonder that enthusiasts started to buy higher-end Skylake-based Xeon E3 processors, and motherboard vendors like ASUS, GigaByte and MSI all launched their workstation-chipsets (C236 and C232).

Where Intel dodged the bullet? Even though using Prime95 benchmark is limited, the fact of the matter is that big money drivers, Xeon E5 and E7 series – are currently based on Haswell-E/EX, and Skylake-E/EX processors are good year and a half to two years away (Broadwell-E/EX is the architecture for 2016, launching in the second quarter). Any errata / bug there could significantly kill buyer confidence, and Intel’s profit run could come to an end.

Until then, it remains to be seen can Intel use ‘microcode update’ feature to eradicate this bug. Microcode update released on December 14th, 2015 already removed it from some systems (according to this forum). If the company fails to do so, then the title of this story won’t be “Got Lucky’, but the company might be forced into a multi-billion dollar write-off and a mandatory recall of all Skylake-based products. Time will tell where the coin will fall, but it is quite certain all the processors / microcode engineers are burning the midnight oil in order to solve the Mersenne-crashes-Skylake bug.

In meanwhile, this is how you can test your Skylake-based system to see if your processor suffers from the same issue or not. As always, close all other applications before you test it.