Patching hardware over the internet

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Reader Jay Blair pointed me to another interesting article this week. This time the article is over at Technology Review, and covers a new technology to enable vendors to patch defective computer hardware without breaking out a soldering iron.

The system, called Phoenix, is being developed by professor Josep Torrellas at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The system works by adding special hardware to a chip that can be reprogrammed to correct hardware faults. The prototype is built using FPGAs:

In some ways, the system works much like antivirus software, which uses downloaded virus information to identify and eliminate new threats. Similarly, if a defect is discovered on a Phoenix-enabled chip, the manufacturer would automatically transmit the patch to all machines that might be affected. The patch contains a defect signature outlining the specific events that lead to the hardware problem. (For example, when the processor executes certain instructions and stores something in a particular part of the computer’s memory, the computer might crash.) Once installed, the patch reprograms the Phoenix device so that it monitors the chip for the defect signature and alters the computer’s processes to prevent a crash.

Existing chips Crusoe (from Transmeta) and the Itanium can also be patched, but Torrellas claims his approach is more effective.

Of course some have raised the inevitable question: if hardware vendors can easily fix after they ship, will this induce them to spend less time trying to get it right in the first place?

Full article here.