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Microsoft reveals Pluton, a custom security chip built into Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm processors

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For the past two years, some of the world’s biggest chip makers have battled a series of hardware flaws, like Meltdown and Spectre, which made it possible — though not easy — to pluck passwords and other sensitive secrets directly from their processors. The chip makers rolled out patches, but required the companies to rethink how they approach chip security.

Now, Microsoft thinks it has the answer with its new security chip, which it calls Pluton. The chip, announced today, is the brainchild of a partnership between Microsoft, and chip makers Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm.

Pluton acts as a hardware root-of-trust, which in simple terms protects a device’s hardware from tampering, such as from hardware implants or by hackers exploiting flaws in the device’s low-level firmware. By integrating the chip inside future Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm central processor units, or CPUs, it makes it far more difficult for hackers with physical access to a computer to launch hardware attacks and extract sensitive data, the companies said.

“The Microsoft Pluton design will create a much tighter integration between the hardware and the Windows operating system at the CPU that will reduce the available attack surface,” said David Weston, director of enterprise and operating system security at Microsoft.

Microsoft said Pluton made its first appearance in the Xbox One back in 2013 to make it far more difficult to hack the console or allow gamers to run pirated games. The chip later graduated to Microsoft’s cloud service Azure Sphere, used to secure low-cost Internet of Things devices.

The idea now is to bring that same technology, with some improvements, to new Windows 10 devices.

The chip comes with immediate benefits, like making hardware attacks against Windows devices far more difficult to succeed. But the chip also solves a major security headache by keeping the device’s firmware up-to-date.

Whether or not the Pluton chip can stand the test of time is another matter. Most of the chip vulnerability research has been done by third-party researchers through extensive, and often tedious work. Microsoft’s Weston said the Pluton chip has undergone a security stress-test by its own internal red team and by external vendors. But that could come back to haunt the company if it got something wrong. Case in point: just last month, security researchers found an “unfixable” security flaw in Apple’s T2 security chip — a custom-built chip in most modern Macs that’s analogous to Microsoft’s Pluton — that could open up Macs to the very security threats that the chip is supposed to prevent.

Microsoft declined to say if it planned to offer the Pluton chip designs to other chip makers or if it planned to make the designs open source for anyone to use, but said it plans to share more details in the future, leaving the door open to the possibility.

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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 will land on phones in Q1 2021

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As promised, more info following yesterday’s Snapdragon 888 announcement. First off, as expected, the company’s next flagship SoC will arrive in the first quarter of next year. We’re still waiting on specific models, but as noted yesterday, the San Diego-based chip giant already has a lineup of smartphone makers planning to employ the 765 follow-up, including ASUS, Black Shark, LG, MEIZU, Motorola, Nubia, realme, OnePlus, OPPO, Sharp, vivo, Xiaomi and ZTE.

The focuses are also what you’d expect: 5G, AI, speed, security, imaging and gaming. As Qualcomm announced earlier, the new system sports the third-gen X60 5G modem, which supports both sub-6 and mmWave variations of the wireless technology with speeds up to 7.5 Gbps. Also on board is support for Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2.

The sixth-gen version of the company’s AI Engine brings faster processing speeds at lower power consumption — specifically up to 3x performance per watt, per Qualcomm’s numbers. That’s capable of up to 26 tera operations per second (TOPS). Compare that to the “incredible” 5.5 TOPS the company was talking up on the Snapdragon 765 roughly this time last year. The AI stuff is primarily used to boost camera, gaming, connectivity and voice assistants like Google’s.

On the camera side, the new chip features the improved Spectra 580, sporting the line’s first triple ISP (image signal processor). That’s going to go a ways toward fostering multi-camera setup, with the ability to simultaneously have three cameras at up to 2.7 gigapixels a second. The system also supports capture of three 4K HDR videos at once — overkill, perhaps, but neat. There’s improved low-light support as well, to brighten up dark shots — always a nice thing.

The on-board Adreno 660 GPU can do up to 35% faster graphics. The Kryo 680 — based on the new Arm Cortex-X1 architecture — brings up to a 25% uplift in CPU performance. Game rendering has been improved by up to 30%, and titles will get access to Variable Rate Shading — a first for a Qualcomm chip. As for security, the new chip offers a number of new features aimed at protecting on-device data, including the Qualcomm Secure Processing Unit.

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Self-driving trucks startup TuSimple raises $350M from U.S. rail, retail and freight giants

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Self-driving trucks startup TuSimple has closed a $350 million funding round from a diverse consortium of strategic investors that include major U.S. corporations in rail, retail and freight, according to sources familiar with the deal. 

The round, which was oversubscribed, was led by VectoIQ LLC, confirming a report by TechCrunch in September. VectoIQ is the consulting and investment company founded by Steve Girsky, the former GM vice chairman, consultant and investor whose special purpose acquisition company merged with hydrogen electric startup Nikola Corp. this summer. 

The injection of capital stands out not only because of its size, but the array of companies involved. Goodyear, Union Pacific, CN Rail, freight company U.S. Xpress and retailer Kroger all participated in the round, sources familiar with the deal told TechCrunch. Existing investors Volkswagen AG’s heavy-truck business The Traton Group and Navistar also participated. (Last month, Traton, which already held a 16.6% stake in Navistar agreed to acquire its remaining shares.)

TuSimple has raised $648 million since its founding in 2015.

The company declined to comment. 

TuSimple was one of the first autonomous trucking startups to emerge in what has become a small, yet bustling industry that now includes Aurora, Embark, Ike, Kodiak and Waymo. While TuSimple’s founding team and its earliest backers Sina and Composite Capital are from China, a chunk of its operations are in the United States, including its global headquarters in San Diego. TuSimple also operates an engineering center and truck depot in Tucson and more recently set up a facility in Texas to support its autonomous trips —always with a human safety operator behind the wheel. TuSimple also has operations in Beijing and Shanghai. 

As TuSimple has scaled with workforce and testing in the U.S., it has diversified its customer and investor base. The company has attracted a number of investors and partners in recent years, including UPS, Korean Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation, Traton Group and now U.S. Xpress. 

TuSimple raised $55 million in 2017 with plans to use those funds to scale up testing to two full truck fleets in China and the United States. By 2018, TuSimple began to test on public roads, beginning with a 120-mile highway stretch between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona and another segment in Shanghai. TuSimple has since expanded operations into Texas. 

Last year, the company’s valuation eked over the $1 billion-mark after raising $95 million in a Series D funding round. It’s unclear what TuSimple’s new post-money valuation is.

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Jitsu nabs $2M Seed to build open source data integration platform

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Jitsu, a graduate of the Y Combinator Summer 2020 cohort, is developing an open source data integration platform that helps developers send data to a data warehouse. Today, the startup announced a $2 million seed investment.

Costanoa Ventures led the round with participation from YCombintaor, The House Fund and SignalFire.

In addition to the open source version of the software, the company has developed a hosted version that companies can pay to use, which shares the same name as the company. Peter Wysinski, Jitsu’s co-founder and CEO, says a good way to think about his company is an open source Segment, the customer data integration company that was recently sold to Twilio for $3.2 billion.

But he says, it goes beyond what Segment by allowing you to move all kinds of data whether customer data, connected device data or other types. “If you look at the space in general, companies want more granularity. So let’s say for example, a couple years ago you wanted to sync just your transactions from QuickBooks to your data warehouse, now you want to capture every single sale at the point of sale. What Jitsu lets you do is capture essentially all of those events, all of those streams, and send them to your data warehouse,” Wysinski explained.

Among the data warehouses it currently supports include Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, PostGres and Snowflake.

The founders built the open source project called EventNative to help solve problems they themselves were having moving data around at their previous jobs. After putting the open source version on GitHub a few months ago, they quickly attained 1000 stars, proving that they had delivered something that solved a common problem for data teams. They then built the hosted version, Jitsu, which went live a couple of weeks ago.

For now, the company is just the two co-founders, Wysinski and CTO Vladimir Klimontovich, but they intend to do some preliminary hiring over the next year to grow the company, most likely adding engineers. As they begin to build out the startup, Wysinski says that being open source will help drive diversity and inclusion in their hiring.

“The goal is essentially to go after that open source community and hire people from anywhere because engineers aren’t just […] one color or one race, they’re everywhere, and being open source, and especially being in a remote world, makes it so so much simpler [to build a diverse workforce], and a lot of companies I feel are going down that road,” he said.

He says along that line, the plan is to be a fully remote company, even after the pandemic ends, as they hire from anywhere. The goal is to have quarterly offsite meetings to check in with employees, but do the majority of the work remotely.

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