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

Arc A300 series graphics cards
(Image credit: Intel)

Update 11/05/2022 9:07 am PT

Intel has released a statement to Ars Technica that Intel's Management Engine isn't mandatory 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 Graphics Security Control for firmware updates and leverage existing Intel technology like the HECI interface protocol to implement the firmware update flow."

Original Article

Upgrading the Graphics System Controller firmware on a graphics card isn't something you'll do very often, but if you own the not-impossible combination of an Intel Arc graphics card and an AMD CPU, you might not be able to do it at all. That's according to the developer of a firmware update plugin for Linux, as reported by Phoronix.

The end of the trailer

(Image credit: Intel)

The problem revolves around the Intel Management Engine (which, for some reason, takes the initialism MEI). This capability has been part of the platform controller hub in practically every Intel chipset since 2008. As a result, MEI is always working while the motherboard receives power, whether or not the PC is switched on (AMD has had an equivalent since 2013, the Platform Security Processor). 

The MEI's exact workings are largely undocumented, its code within the firmware obscured, and it uses its own microprocessor (often an Intel Quark). It even has a UNIX-like operating system with access to memory, networking and displays. So this computer within a computer definitely does something, but it's unclear precisely what, 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 boards. However, this causes a problem for anyone using another vendor's products or systems so old that they don't support MEI. 

The issue was discovered as coders attempted to obtain an open-source Linux driver for the Arc boards to work on IBM's POWER architecture. Intel's graphics drivers didn't need to support non-x86 processors before the launch of Arc, and now that they do, the likes of Arm and RISC-V should be able to use the boards. It's not perfect, but work is progressing.

There currently doesn't appear to be a way around the problem without Intel changing how the GSK firmware is delivered. Luckily, these kinds of firmware updates are rare but can add new features, such as last year's update that added the resizable BAR functionality to Nvidia's RTX 30-series cards.

Ian Evenden
Freelance News Writer

Ian Evenden is a UK-based news writer for Tom’s Hardware US. He’ll write about anything, but stories about Raspberry Pi and DIY robots seem to find their way to him.

  • -Fran-
    Oh... This is going to make people's lives SO MISERABLE if they need to upgrade their GPUs VBIOS then; I'm not even joking.

    Friggen' ME almost bricked my Sandy Bridge motherboard. I had to low-level debug the ROM and force it to upgrade the ME by hand because the automated upgrade failed miserably. This wasn't Asus' fault and it was Intel's. Most of the people that had this issue had to RMA from what I found out while researching, but I remember finding a solution for it; that's why I have a horrible memory of it.

    I hope they've gone past the stupid shenanigans now and it's less risky, but man... This sounds scary.

  • Kamen Rider Blade
    More reason to never use Arc, EVAR!
  • The things Intel does to make people use it's hardware is just.... I'm happy AMD is as an alternative. We'd be in a horrible position if Intel had a monopoly.
  • ikernelpro4
    Thank the NSA for allowing us to disable the Intel Mangement Engine backdoor
  • gdmaclew
    Please update your article.
    A report on Arstechnica says that IBM confirmed that MEI is NOT necessary for firmware updates.
    Firmware updates are possible using Intel or AMD CPUs.