Meltdown and Spectre

On January 2018, security researchers disclosed two attacks coined Meltdown and Spectre. These attacks bypass the memory isolation of modern CPU by exploiting side-channel attacks on hardware-based optimization features of these CPUs. Thus, Meltdown and Spectre can gain arbitrary access to confidential information in the memory of the computer.

Modern CPUs, so-called superscalar computers, do not execute anymore the instructions sequentially. They implement many hardware-based optimization techniques that modify the normal instruction flow. For instance, the CPU executes multiple instructions concurrently to keep the processor’s sub-units as busy as possible (See Eben Upton’s post). Thus, out-of-order execution speculatively executes instructions further down the instruction flow as soon as all needed resources are available. Thus, the CPU may execute an instruction before it is sure that the instruction is needed. If later the CPU determines the instruction was not needed, it discards the corresponding results from its registers. This mechanism is sound architecturally but not at the microarchitecture level. The cache memory still holds the discarded results. Unfortunately, for many years, security researchers have designed side-channel attacks that leak confidential information from the cache. Modern CPUs’ branch predictors attempt to guess the future control flow and, execute the instructions of the predicted instruction flow preemptively. If the predicted decision is wrong, the CPU discards the “results” of the speculative instructions if the prediction was incorrect. Once more, this mechanism is sound architecturally. Unfortunately, the results remain in the cache memory. Covert-side-channel cache attacks can retrieve them.

The attacks

The goal of Meltdown is to dump the kernel memory space from a user-space process. In a simplified explanation, Meltdown operates in two steps. During the first step, Meltdown entices the CPU to access the kernel space through out-of-order instructions. When the instruction flow reaches this execution point, it detects the violation and triggers an exception handling that blocks actual access to the kernel space. During the second step, Meltdown uses covert-channel cache attacks to retrieve the cached “inaccessible” data. Intel memory management maps privileged kernel memory in the user-space. Thus, kernel memory becomes accessible. The usual security assumption is that kernel memory is secure and not accessible on a computer without root access. Meltdown breaks the hardware-enforced isolation between kernel space and user-space.

Meltdown may affect any CPU using out-of-order mechanism and is OS-independent. Meltdown has been successfully tested on Intel x86, Intel XEON processors, and ARM Cortex A57. Meltdown was mounted on cloud containers, such as Docker, successfully. The software countermeasures use KAISER. KAISER is a software patch that prevents the mapping of kernel memory into the user space, thus thwarting Meltdown. The KAISER patch is available for Windows 10, Linux, MacOS and iOS.

The goal of Spectre is to reach information from another process. Spectre exploits branch prediction and speculative execution. It operates in three steps. During the first step, Spectre mistrains the branch predictor by repeatedly executing a given branching. During the second step, Spectre entices the branch predictor to mispredict the control flow. The CPU then executes the speculative code that should perform the “illegal” operations, such as reading unauthorized memory. As in Meltdown, the third step exfiltrates the cached data using a covert-channel cache attack. Spectre accesses from a given user-space the memory of another user-space. Spectre breaks the hardware-enforced isolation between processes.

Spectre has been successfully implemented on recent Intel processors, AMD Ryzen, AMD FX, and AMD PRO. Spectre was implemented on Windows and Linux-based OS. It was written in C and also in JavaScript. The countermeasure would be to halt predictive execution on sensitive execution paths. This is a difficult task as the current instruction set is not fit for that purpose. The alternative solution is to implement in the code mechanisms that reduce the impact of the leaked information (for instance, combining conditional select and conditional move. In other words, developers must be aware of the covert-channel cache attack and implement adequate countermeasures. Compilers may also implement some tricks.

As Spectre can be mounted with JavasScript, malicious adware may become the first exploits using Spectre in the field. Thus, browsers are receiving patches to mitigate the risk. The exploitability via JavaScript is worrying.

Google’s Project Zero released concurrently three vulnerabilities, coined variant 1 to 3. These three vulnerabilities are identical to Meltdown and Spectre. Variant 1 and 2 correspond to Spectre whereas variant 3 maps to Meltdown.


Meltdown and Spectre are not due to bugs. They are the consequences of a new breed of side-channel attacks exploiting information leaking at the microarchitectural level for speed optimization.

It is interesting to notice that Paul Kocher is one of the researchers disclosing Meltdown and Spectre. In 1996, Paul designed the first side channel attack. His attack disrupted the security of smart cards. Since 1996, side-channel attacks have been among the most prolific, complex fields of research in security.

We want/need the CPUs to be faster. Thus, silicon designer added these optimization features to go faster. Unfortunately, most trivial countermeasures would defeat the benefit. For instance, cache attacks may be defeated by randomizing or equalizing the access time, which would annihilate the purpose of the cache. New hardware architecture, as well as new instruction sets, will help to defend. Nevertheless, we have a new class of side channel attacks to take into account. No doubts that variants will soon flourish.

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