Computer Circuit Graphic Image.
Computer chip on a circuit board. (Photo credit: Washington State University)

A Washington State University research team has uncovered significant and previously unknown vulnerabilities in high-performance computer chips that could lead to failures in modern electronics. The researchers found they could damage the on chip communications system and shorten the lifetime of the whole computer chip significantly by deliberately adding malicious workload. They have been working to understand the vulnerabilities of computer chips as a way to prevent malicious attacks on the electronics that make up everyday life.

High-performance computers use a large number of processors and do parallel processing for big data applications and cloud computing, and the communications system coordinates the processors and memory. Researchers are working to increase the number of processors and incorporate high-performance capabilities into hand-held devices as well. In order to find vulnerabilities, three "craftily constructed deleterious" attacks were launched to test the communications system. This additional workload enhanced electromigration-induced stress and crosstalk noise. They found that a limited number of crucial vertical links of the communication system were particularly vulnerable to failure. Those links connect the processors in a stack, which allows them to talk with each other.

The researchers determined how an agent can target the communication system to start malfunctions in the chip. They said that the role of the communications and the threat had not previously been clear to the research community. The researchers will now be working to develop ways to mitigate the problem, such as automated techniques and algorithms to detect and thwart attacks.

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