Microsoft, Malwarebytes Spectre Fixes Contrast With Intel’s Efforts

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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ANALYSIS: Updates from two vendors caused problems this month , but the difference in how they were handled was remarkable

Microsoft Outlook wasn’t working properly, that much was clear. I was trying to write a quick email, but the text was lagging far behind my typing. Clicks on the menu bar weren’t responding. Then Outlook simply stopped working and aborted. 

So I tried running the program again and it hung up during restart, then aborted. Next  Windows 10 simply quit running and then my computer, unbidden by me, rebooted. 

I knew this was going to be a bad day. What I didn’t realize was that it was about to get worse. I’ll spare you the details, but I was unable to use my computer even long enough to copy data that I needed so I could try to use another computer. 

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Patching attitudes

Later, while looking at Twitter, I saw a series of Tweets about a problem with the Malwarebytes anti-malware software that caused users to experience computer crashes in some cases because their memory became unavailable. Apparently that’s what was affecting my computer and I learned that an update was coming. 

After a few more reboots, the problem went away. The folks at Malwarebytes had called in their entire staff and in just a couple of hours found a solution to the problem and rolled out an update that fixed a previous update that was causing the problem. 

Contrast that with what’s been going on at Intel, where the company apparently knew of the Spectre and Meltdown issues nearly a year ago and then with the help of a few other companies, kept the entire thing a secret for months. 

This is compounded with reports that Intel notified Chinese companies including Lenovo about the problem before informing the U.S. government about a problem affecting critical computing infrastructure and it became an even bigger issue. 

Yet, the problem still isn’t fixed. One part of the mitigation that Intel did release once its hand was forced for the Spectre variant 2 (branch target injection), turned out to be buggy. The patch that Intel supplied for its processors caused computers to randomly reboot. So far, Intel has not fixed that problem, a fact that the company acknowledged in its earnings report Jan. 25. 

In fact, it’s reached the point where Microsoft has released a new update that removes Intel’s Spectre fix so that computers running Windows won’t keep rebooting. In its commentary about the new fix, Microsoft notes that there have been no reported cases of breaches related to Spectre or Meltdown, but that there have been many problems related to the fix. In other words, Intel’s fix was worse than the bug it was supposed to repair. 

The new update from Microsoft is what the company calls an out-of-band update, meaning it won’t appear in the normal Windows Update process. Instead, affected users can download a patch from the Microsoft Update Catalog

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Microsoft has also provided a means for Windows Server administrators to switch the Intel remediation on or off, depending on the role of the server. It involves editing the Windows Registry, but in some cases, it’s the only way to control the machine’s response to the original Intel update. 

For its part, Malwarebytes had a problem that was significantly more problematic for its  customers since it prevented them from using their computers at all in many cases. But the company responded openly to the problem and described what it was doing to fix it. Then it let customers know when a new update was available to restore affected computers to full operation. 

Next Malwarebytes investigated exactly how the problem happened, how it slipped past the protections the company has in place to prevent such occurrences and what corrective actions need to be. Then the company published a root cause analysis so everyone can see what happened. 

Doron Aronson, the director of global communications for Malwarebytes said that they have no way to know how many of their customers were affected by the outage, but he said that they were dismayed to find out it happened. “We’re doing everything we can to provide a fix,” he told eWEEK. 

“We’re responding to customer concerns about everything that happened over the weekend,” he said. “We take this very seriously. Our customers are number one for us.” 

 Originally published on eWeek