Linus Torvald’s announcement this week that Itanium support is “orphaned” in the Linux kernel means that we shouldn’t expect further support for it in the future, and possibly that support will be dropped in the future. In 2019, floppy disk support was dropped from the Linux kernel. In this article, I want to make the case that security considerations are important when considering End of Life for hardware platforms and components.
Dropping support for hardware which customers aren’t using is understandable if you’re a proprietary company and can decide what platforms and components to concentrate on, but why do so in open source software? Open source enthusiasts are likely to be running old hardware for years – sometimes decades after anybody is still producing it. There’s a vibrant community, in fact, of enthusiasts who enjoying resurrecting old hardware and getting it running (and I mean really old: EDSAC (1947) old), some of whom enjoy getting Linux running on it, and some of whom enjoy running it on Linux – by which I mean emulating the old hardware by running it on Linux hardware. It’s a fascinating set of communities, and if it’s your sort of thing, I encourage you to have a look.
But what about dropping open source software support (which tends to centre around Linux kernel support) for hardware which isn’t ancient, but is no longer manufactured and/or has a small or dwindling user base? One reason you might give would be that the size of the kernel for “normal” users (users of more recent hardware) is impacted by support for old hardware. This would be true if you had to compile the kernel with all options in it, but Linux distributions like Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian and RHEL already pare down the number of supported systems to something which they deem sensible, and it’s not that difficult to compile a kernel which cuts that down even further – my main home system is an AMD box (with AMD graphics card) running a kernel which I’ve compiled without most Intel-specific drivers, for instance.
There are other reasons, though, for dropping support for old hardware, and considering that it has met its End of Life. Here are three of the most important.
My first point isn’t specifically security related, but is an important consideration: while there are many volunteers (and paid folks!) working on the Linux kernel, we (the community) don’t have an unlimited number of skilled engineers. Many older hardware components and architectures are maintained by teams of dedicated people, and the option exists for communities who rely on older hardware to fund resources to ensure that they keep running, are patched against security holes, etc.. Once there ceases to be sufficient funding to keep these types of resources available, however, hardware is likely to become “orphaned”, as in the case of Itanium.
There is also a secondary impact, in that however modularised the kernel is, there is likely to be some requirement for resources and time to coordinate testing, patching, documentation and other tasks associated with kernel modules, which needs to be performed by people who aren’t associated with that particular hardware. The community is generally very generous with its time and understanding around such issues, but once the resources and time required to keep such components “current” reaches a certain level in relation to the amount of use being made of the hardware, it may not make sense to continue.
Security risk to named hardware
People expect the software they run to maintain certain levels of security, and the Linux kernel is no exception. Over the past 5-10 years or so, there’s been a surge in work to improve security for all hardware and platforms which Linux supports. A good example of a feature which is applicable across multiple platforms is Address Space Layout Randomisation (ASLR), for instance. The problem here is not only that there may be some such changes which are not applicable to older hardware platforms – meaning that Linux is less secure when running on older hardware – but also that, even when it is possible, the resources required to port the changes, or just to test that they work, may be unavailable. This relates to the point about resources above: even when there’s a core team dedicated to the hardware, they may not include security experts able to port and verify security features.
The problem goes beyond this, however, in that it is not just new security features which are an issue. Over the past week, issues were discovered in the popular sudo tool which ships with most Linux systems, and libgcrypt, a cryptographic library used by some Linux components. The sudo problem was years old, and the libgcrypt so new that few distributions had taken the updated version, and neither of them is directly related to the Linux kernel, but we know that bugs – security bugs – exist in the Linux kernel for many years before being discovered and patched. The ability to create and test these patches across the range of supported hardware depends, yet again, not just on availability of the hardware to test it on, or enthusiastic volunteers with general expertise in the platform, but on security experts willing, able and with the time to do the work.
Security risks to other hardware – and beyond
There is a final – and possibly surprising – point, which is that there may sometimes be occasions when continuing support for old hardware has a negative impact on security for other hardware, and that is even if resources are available to test and implement changes. In order to be able to make improvements to certain features and functionality to the kernel, sometimes there is a need for significant architectural changes. The best-known example (though not necessarily directly security-related) is the Big Kernel Lock, or BLK, an architectural feature of the Linux kernel until 2.6.39 in 2011, which had been introduced to aid concurrency management, but ended up having significant negative impacts on performance.
In some cases, older hardware may be unable to accept such changes, or, even worse, maintaining support for older hardware may impose such constraints on architectural changes – or require such baroque and complex work-arounds – that it is in the best interests of the broader security of the kernel to drop support. Luckily, the Linux kernel’s modular design means that such cases should be few and far between, but they do need to be taken into consideration.
Some of the arguments I’ve made above apply not only to hardware, but to software as well: people often keep wanting to run software well past its expected support life. The difference with software is that it is often possible to emulate the hardware or software environment on which it is expected to run, often via virtual machines (VMs). Maintaining these environments is a challenge in itself, but may actually offer a via alternative to trying to keep old hardware running.
End of Life is an important consideration for hardware and software, and, much as we may enjoy nursing old hardware along, it doesn’t makes sense to delay the inevitable – End of Life – beyond a certain point. When that point is will depend on many things, but security considerations should be included.