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Transmeta Joins Microsoft's 'NX' Club

Transmeta will add a new antivirus technology standard to its next round of low-power chips, the company said Monday.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based concern said it has agreed to work with Microsoft on the software giant's "No Execute" (commonly known as "NX") technology, a security feature that is a combination of hardware and Microsoft's Execution Protection software.

The companies said the combination reduces memory buffer overruns that many hackers exploit to insert malicious code into Windows such as the MS Blaster, Code Red, and recent Sasser worms.

Microsoft has been planning to ship the software support technologies as part of its forthcoming Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) and has worked with other chipmakers on support for the new security features. Intel said it would include NX in its Pentium 4 "Prescott" later this year. AMD already has the technology as a part of its Athlon 64 and Opteron processors.

Transmeta said its hardware is scheduled to ship with NX in mid-year 2004 with its new TM8000-series "Efficeon" processors.

NX uses x86-based architecture CPUs to mark all memory locations in an application as non-executable unless the location explicitly contains executable code. This way, when an attacking worm or virus inserts program code into a portion of memory marked for data only, it cannot be run.

While buffer overruns also plague Unix and Linux environments, Transmeta said it is working with Microsoft first. The company that used to employ Linux founder Linus Torvalds said for Linux to take advantage of NX would require a kernel upgrade.

"Software programs alone are weak. They don't check every case as they should," John Heinlein, Transmeta director of strategic partner initiatives, told internetnews.com. "If you take a data region and store more data than you are supposed to... you can cause some code to execute. What this innovation does is provides hardware support to mark regions as not executable -- stopping these attacks."

The company was able to tweak its new Efficeon chips with NX technology without changes in silicon in part because of its proprietary Code Morphing Software, which translates inbound x86 instructions into the Efficeon's native Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) instructions at run-time. Heinlein said.

Microsoft and Transmeta have a longstanding relationship. For example, the Redmond, Wash.-based software vendor handpicked Transmeta as its reference design partner to help develop the next generation of its Smart Displays (code-named Mira).

As for Efficeon's future, Transmeta said it does expect a beta of the x86 compatible chip to debut on or before the Windows SP2 release. The processor for mobile, wireless, and embedded devices should build on its past architecture including three new high performance bus interfaces: an on-chip HyperTransport bus interface for increased input/output efficiency, an on-chip Double Data Rate (DDR) SDRAM memory interface for increased throughput, and an on-chip AGP graphics.

However, unlike roadmaps from Intel and AMD, Transmeta has expressed no plans to adopt either a 64-bit architecture or a multi-threaded strategy.

"Our technology is different. We don't have some of the same heat problems that the others have," Heinlein said.