The death of Moore’s law is no surprise, because the semiconductor industry has told contradictory stories for years. While it created new process nodes like clockwork, the capital requirements to develop those new devices climbed nearly exponentially.
The laws of physics were to blame: they created a money pit into which Intel and the other companies threw tens of billions of dollars, with little to show for it.
Physics was a tough enough opponent, but now computer science itself has joined the fight thanks to the Meltdown and Spectre design flaws first revealed here in The Register.
The two mistakes mean that branch prediction techniques, designed to further improve the performance of ever-cheaper silicon, have introduced two classes of security threats - one set (Meltdown) that can be remediated by imposing as much as a 30% performance penalty - and another set (Spectre) that at this point can’t really be remediated at all - except, possibly, by littering code with instructions that suck all the benefits out of branch prediction.
The computer science behind microprocessor design has therefore found itself making a rapid U-turn as it learns that its optimisation techniques can be weaponised. The huge costs of Meltdown and Spectre - which no one can even guess at today - will make chip designers much more conservative in their performance innovations, as they pause to wonder if every one of those innovations could, at some future point, lead to the kind of chaos that has engulfed us all over the last weeks.
One thing has already become clear: in the short term, performance will go backwards. The steady and reliable improvements every software engineer could rely on to make messy code performant can no longer be guaranteed. Now the opposite applies: it’s likely computers will be less performant a year from now.Software has been increasingly bloated for about as long as I can remember - especially since Windows XP. Linux has seen a noticeable slow down over the past 10-15 years, and Linux has about as pure a performance optimization/old school software hacker ethos as anything these days.
Likely mobile phones will be hardest hit, as the iOS/Android bloat continues unabated and power draw prevents a brute force "turn up the clock speed" approach. Slower CPUs combined with bloated, slower software will give a lot worse user experience.
We are seeing the passing of an age of innocence.