As Intel Corp. (INTC) and other chip makers work on patches for vulnerabilities in processors, the overriding question is how much needed security fixes will diminish chip speeds.
"It looks like the cloud providers have the most exposure in terms of performance impact and of course they also have the risk, which is why they have been working at this proactively and are at the forefront of the resolution," Gartner Inc. analyst Joseph Unsworth said.
Intel said in a call on Wednesday that patches to fix a security gap in its chips would diminish speeds from zero to 2% for most tasks. For some more complicated jobs, though, the company conceded that the slowdown could approach 30%. Data centers are not themselves more vulnerable. However, the massive workloads that companies process on the cloud and in private data centers could trigger slowdowns.
"We don't differentiate on the performance impact between PC clients and the data center part. It's really about the attributes of the workload," Intel Director ofCPU Computing Architecture Ronak Singhal said during the Wednesday call. "[Some] workloads that spend a lot of time going back and forth between the application and the operating system ... are the types of workloads where you can see higher levels of impact based on the mitigations that have been put in place."
Customers of the big cloud services are ultimately paying for storage and, importantly, for performance. "If this patch fixes this, will you be able to see the same level of performance you were enjoying before this, and if not who incurs that cost?" Gartner's Unsworth asked.
Shares of Intel fell 1.8% to $44.43 on Thursday, after declining 3.4% on Wednesday after news of the security flaw surfaced.
For its part, Microsoft said in a statement that a "majority of Azure customers should not see a noticeable performance impact with this update." Amazon and Google did not immediately respond to queries.
"The most notable application or workload that would be affected from a slow down is one that will have the system call a lot of information or data from various places and try to aggregate them," Morningstar Inc. analyst Abhinav Davuluri said.
"Databases are a prime example," he said, noting that the largest information-crunching jobs would be done in data centers rather than on PCs.
Intel is a power in the data center market.
"It's high margin. It's growing pretty aggressively," Davuluri said of Intel's data center business. "Obviously you have the PC space in decline. [Data centers] have been a really nice offset for Intel."
Other chip makers also have exposure to some of the recently discovered security issues. Intel's chips are vulnerable to three of them, and it has gotten most of the attention in the media and the financial community. As a result, companies such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) , Cavium Inc. (CAVM) and Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) may be able to gain ground.
"As customers, Amazon, Google and Microsoft want someone else to arise and maybe this issue creates an opportunity for a company like AMD that's also been aggressively pursuing this market, [as well as] the ARM-based chips that have come up from Cavium and from Qualcomm," Davuluri said. AMD shares gained 4.9% to 12.12 on Thursday, after rising 5.2% on Wednesday.
Nvidia Inc. (NVDA) could benefit as well, even though its graphic processing units do not compete directly with Intel's central processing units. Nvidia's powerful GPUs, long the standard in gaming, are used for artificial intelligence and other demanding tasks in data centers. "You still need an Intel CPU to direct where that data goes, but more and more computations are running on the likes of Nvidia GPUs in the data center and all of the major cloud vendors," Davuluri said.
It won't be easy unseat Intel, however. "Intel runs that data center business like clockwork, where at a specific scheduled time you'll have a new chip come out that will be head and shoulders above anything else," Davuluri said. "Also you have the ecosystem whether it's the software or the other workloads you're already running on Intel's chips. To rip that out there are a decent amount of switching costs."
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