Intel ME Required for Arc Firmware Updates on Non-Intel Systems (Updated)

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Updated 05/11/2022 09:07 PT

Intel released a statement Ars-Technica (opens in a new tab) that Intel’s Management Engine is not required to update the firmware on its Arc Alchemist graphics cards.

“Intel Arc products do not require the host CSME to update Arc firmware,” an Intel spokesperson told Ars Technica. “Firmware updates will work on both AMD and Intel platforms. Arc products have their own graphical security check for firmware updates and leverage existing Intel technology like the HECI interface protocol to implement the firmware update flow.”

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Upgrading the graphics system controller firmware on a graphics card isn’t something you will do very often, but if you have the not impossible combination of an Intel Arc graphics card and an AMD processor, you may not be able to do it at all. This is according to the developer (opens in a new tab) of one firmware update plugin (opens in a new tab) for Linux, as reported by Phoronix (opens in a new tab).

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(Image credit: Intel)

The problem revolves around the Intel Management Engine (opens in a new tab) (which, for some reason, takes the acronym MEI). This capability has been part of the platform controller hub in virtually all Intel chipsets since 2008. As a result, MEI always operates while the motherboard is powered, whether the PC is on or not (AMD has an equivalent since 2013, platform security processor).

The exact operation of the MEI is largely undocumented, its code in firmware is obfuscated, and it uses its own microprocessor (often an Intel Quark). It even has a UNIX-like operating system with access to memory, network, and screens. So this computer-within-a-computer is definitely doing something, but it’s not clear what exactly, and Intel isn’t saying.

One thing it can do is update graphics card firmware, and Intel has taken advantage of this capability for its new line of Arc discrete GPU cards. However, this poses a problem for anyone using another vendor’s products or systems that are so old that they don’t support MEI.

The problem was discovered while coders were trying to get an open-source Linux driver for Arc cards to run on IBM’s POWER architecture. Intel’s graphics drivers didn’t need to support non-x86 processors before Arc launched, and now that they do, drivers like Arm and RISC-V should be able to use the cards. It’s not perfect, but work is progressing.

There doesn’t currently appear to be a fix for the problem without Intel changing the way GSK firmware is delivered. Fortunately, these types of firmware updates are rare but can add new features, such as last year’s update (opens in a new tab) which added resizable BAR functionality to Nvidia’s RTX 30-series cards.

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