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Upgrading And Repairing PCs 21st Edition: Processor Features

Processor Features, Explored

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Upgrading And Repairing PCs 21st Edition

Processor Features

As new processors are introduced, new features are continually added to their architectures to improve everything from performance in specific types of applications to the reliability of the CPU as a whole. The next few sections look at some of these technologies.

System Management Mode (SMM)

Spurred on initially by the need for more robust power management capabilities in mobile computers, Intel and AMD began adding System Management Mode (SMM) to its processors during the early 1990s. SMM is a special-purpose operating mode provided for handling low-level system power management and hardware control functions. SMM offers an isolated software environment that is transparent to the OS or applications software and is intended for use by system BIOS or low-level driver code.

SMM was introduced as part of the Intel 386SL mobile processor in October 1990. SMM later appeared as part of the 486SL processor in November 1992, and in the entire 486 line starting in June 1993. SMM was notably absent from the first Pentium processors when they were released in March 1993; however, SMM was included in all 75MHz and faster Pentium processors released on or after October 1994. AMD added SMM to its enhanced Am486 and K5 processors around that time as well. All other Intel and AMD x86-based processors introduced since that time also have incorporated SMM.

SMM is invoked by signaling a special interrupt pin on the processor, which generates a System Management Interrupt (SMI), the highest priority nonmaskable interrupt available. When SMM starts, the context or state of the processor and currently running programs are saved. Then the processor switches to a separate dedicated address space and executes the SMM code, which runs transparently to the interrupted program as well as any other software on the system. Once the SMM task is complete, a resume instruction restores the previously saved context or state of the processor and programs, and the processor resumes running exactly where it left off.

Although initially used mainly for power management, SMM was designed to be used by any low-level system functions that need to function independent of the OS and other software on the system. In modern systems, this includes the following:

  • ACPI and APM power management function
  • Universal serial bus (USB) legacy (keyboard and mouse) support
  • USB boot (drive emulation)
  • Password and security functions
  • Thermal monitoring
  • Fan speed monitoring
  • Reading/writing Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) RAM
  • BIOS updating
  • Logging memory error-correcting code (ECC) errors
  • Logging hardware errors besides memory
  • Wake and Alert functions such as Wake on LAN (WOL)

One example of SMM in operation occurs when the system tries to access a peripheral device that had been previously powered down to save energy. For example, say that a program requests to read a file on a hard drive, but the drive had previously spun down to save energy. Upon access, the host adapter generates an SMI to invoke SMM. The SMM software then issues commands to spin up the drive and make it ready. Consequently, SMM returns control to the OS, and the file load continues as if the drive had been spinning all along.