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Intel bug spawns third-party fixes

Days after the discovery of the Pentium "F0" bug, potential fixes are cropping up, even before the release of an official work-around from Intel.

Just days after the discovery of a new bug that causes Pentium-based computers to crash, some potential fixes are cropping up even before the release of an official "work-around" from Intel (INTC).

The Pentium "F0" bug can freeze up Pentium MMX and "classic" Pentium (non-MMX) computers, machines that number in the hundreds of millions worldwide. (See related article)

A work-around is now available for Linux, an operating system that's similar to Unix. The fix should be rolled into versions of the operating system (OS) over the next few days, according to users of the OS.

Information about the patch is available at a site dealing with Linux Kernel patches.

Linux is more widely used than many people think. "We use it for email gateways and application servers," said Max Southall, a computer system administrator at PRN Info Systems in Miami, Florida.

"Yes, the bug fix works," he added.

On another front, one company is already selling software it claims is the first "FO" bug fix for a wide variety of computing environments.

The "F0 Fighter" scans files, directories, drives, or even an entire system. If it finds code containing the illegal instructions that cause the crash, it warns users of the potential danger before execution. "Its task is similar, albeit with a few significant differences, to that of a virus scanner," according to Louis-Eric Simard, representative for a company called The Freedom Factory.

Some experts doubt such a work-around is viable, however.

"That's like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's not a practical way to solve the problem," according to David Niemi, a computer security expert with Sallie Mae, a financial services corporation for higher-education loans.

Scanning files for the offending instructions would be helpful in instances where they are listed together, but there are ways to hide the instructions from detection by such a program, he says. Niemi notes that Sallie Mae doesn't run any critical applications on Pentium-based servers, although some Pentium Pro systems are used.

Berkeley Software Design, Incorporated (BSDI) has already posted a fix for its customers, a spokesperson for the company comfirmed. BSDI is the commercial supplier of a version of the Unix operating system software originally developed at the University of California, Berkeley. However, the company has not yet posted an explanation of how the fix works.

Intel, meanwhile, says there are a number of ways of dealing with errata, including programming technology techniques, operating system patches, and hardware modifications, according to Tom Waldrup, an Intel spokesperson.

"We're not ready to discuss what work-arounds were going to recommend...Our engineers look at everything that's viable and you have to explore them in depth, so it's not an uncomplicated process," Waldrup said.

Intel has said it will update users by next week on its progress in finding a bug fix.