Issue No. 11 - November (2004 vol. 37)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MC.2004.215
IBM DEVELOPS AUTONOMOUS CHIPS
A new chip technology from IBM, called eFuse, addresses many processor problems autonomously, including increasing power or reducing energy consumption.
The technology, part of IBM's autonomic computing initiative, puts tiny electrical fuses into a chip and implements several algorithms. Each fuse is a polysilicon line that connects to a transistor gate, said Subramanian Iyer, distinguished engineer and manager of embedded memory development at IBM.
Using eFuse, chips can run built-in self-test and self-repair algorithms. If the BIST feature detects a bad memory block, Iyer explained, eFuse can automatically redirect data to a good block. The self-repair function reprograms fuses to prevent them from sending data to the bad block and then changes the memory address so that data will go to the good block.
Another eFuse algorithm then lets chips change their internal circuitry configuration by opening and closing gates to allow the data to move along the desired path.
This same approach could help correct other problems, such as one malfunctioning chip in an array of server processors. eFuse technology on the bad processor could disable the chip so that the system could replace it with another processor not being used.
In addition, Iyer said, companies could use eFuse to reprogram a chip's operations to deliver more performance or consume less power, depending on the circumstances. For example, the technology could add or remove signal delays, thereby affecting a chip's data rate.
To deal with processor problems, users traditionally have had to remove and test the processor manually, and then replace either components or the entire chip. eFuse technology would be considerably more efficient and thus save time and money, Iyer said.
Eventually, he predicted, improvements in the technology will let companies use it to update or upgrade a chip's capabilities, rather than just work around problems or improve power or energy efficiency.
According to Iyer, chip makers can produce eFuse processors with current manufacturing processes, so the technology won't require expensive changes to fabrication facilities.
"eFuse is an interesting technology … [whose] initial benefits are likely to be mostly higher yields," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, a market research firm. Adaptive and self-healing technology could let developers work around many design failures. This would increase yields by letting designers use chips that they would otherwise have to scrap, Enderle explained.
And eFuse's capabilities would save companies money by permitting them to make chips that don't have to conform to tight tolerances because they could adapt to otherwise unacceptable voltage, frequency, or other variations.
"WALLET IN A PHONE" PUSHES MOBILE E-COMMERCE
A Japanese company has implemented a new e-commerce technology that could turn a cell phone into a virtual wallet that lets users pay for goods and services with a wave of an enabled handset.
NTT DoCoMo's FeliCa service is the first to let users download virtual cash via mobile networks directly into cell phones and use it to make purchases, said Susumu Takeuchi, NTT DoCoMo USA's vice president for corporate communications. Cards equipped with a chip that Sony developed store the virtual cash.
To make a purchase, users wave their cell phones within a few inches of a special display found in stores, arcade games, restaurants, and vending machines. Japan currently has about 9,000 such displays, according to Takeuchi. NTT DoCoMo charges transaction fees to users via their monthly phone bills. Specially equipped machines let users add money to their virtual wallets.
FeliCa is based on radio frequency identification technology. RFID systems consist of an antenna, a transceiver, and a transponder. The antenna in an NTT DoCoMo phone uses radio waves to transmit a signal that activates the transponder in the receiving device. The transponder then sends data back to the antenna, notifying a programmable logic controller that money is being either added to the virtual wallet or spent on a purchase.
The technology operates at 212 Kbits per second, which lets the system complete a typical transaction in about one-tenth of a second. FeliCa uses encryption and mutual authentication to protect transmitted transaction-related data.
There currently are several small mobile e-commerce applications, such as Paybox in Austria and Germany, most of which are used to transfer funds from bank accounts, not store virtual money in a device. Until now, though, cell phones have not been used significantly for e-commerce, said Martha Bennett, vice president and research director for European financial services with Forrester Research, a market analysis firm.
NTT DoCoMo hopes FeliCa will change this and has just begun deploying the technology in some cell phones.
According to Bennett, NTT DoCoMo will initially implement the technology only in Japan. NTT DoCoMo estimates that 83 million of Japan's 127 million people use cell telephones.
Although companies such as MasterCard and Visa support the technology, success is not a foregone conclusion, said analyst Adam Zawel of the Yankee Group, a market research firm.
"For something like the DoCoMo value proposition to stack up economically, you would need to get all kinds of players—banks, mobile operators, retailers—to agree to use the same technology," Bennett said. "That's not to say it won't happen sooner or later, if there is a really compelling proposition. But a lot of factors will have to fall into place first."
"PEEPING TOM" VIRUS LOOKS IN ON ITS VICTIMS
Researchers have discovered a worm that not only invades users' PCs but also intrudes on their privacy by activating their webcams and microphones and making images and sounds available to hackers.
The Rbot-GR worm exploits various PC-related security vulnerabilities, such as those in the WebDAV (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) extensions to the HTTP protocol that let users collaboratively edit and manage files on remote Web servers.
Rbot-GR also exploits other vulnerabilities that enable buffer-overflow attacks, such as weak passwords and back doors left in systems by other viruses. A buffer overflow occurs when a program or process tries to store more data in a buffer than it was designed to hold. The extra information can overflow into other memory sections, corrupting data or overwriting stored information with malicious executable code.
The new worm works much like previous well-known viruses such as Blaster or Nimda, according to Oliver Friedrichs, senior manager for antivirus-software vendor Symantec's Security Response operations.
Rbot-GR installs code on the victim's PC that gives hackers a command interface for controlling infected clients via an Internet relay chat channel, explained Philip Hannay, senior virus researcher and technical lead for antivirus-software vendor Sophos.
The new worm lets hackers activate a webcam or microphone and copy the resulting video and audio to the hacked computer's hard drive, according to Hannay. "The hacker can later simply retrieve the file using the worm's interface," he said.
So far, researchers say, hackers appear to have used these capabilities for amusement rather than as a way to spy on individuals or organizations. However, Friedrichs added, Rbot-GR could be useful for industrial espionage or personal snooping. "The overall concept is worrisome," he said.
In addition to capturing video and audio, a hacker can use Rbot-GR to look at information on a victim's hard drive, steal passwords, launch denial-of-service attacks, and control many PC functions.
Rbot-GR is just one member of a large malicious-code family, noted Craig Schmugar, virus research manager for vendor McAfee's Antivirus Emergency Response Team. It appears that each variant has different capabilities, with virus writers using toolkits to adapt existing malicious code to exploit new vulnerabilities or cause new problems for victims, Friedrichs said.
News Briefs written by Linda Dailey Paulson, a freelance technology writer based in Ventura, California. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.