Security Software

Deep Dive: Introduction to Speculative Execution Side Channel Methods

Speculative Execution

Speculative execution is one of the main techniques used by most modern high performance processors to improve performance. The concept behind speculative execution is that instructions are executed ahead of knowing that they are required. Without speculative execution, the processor would need to wait for prior instructions to be resolved before executing subsequent ones. By executing instructions speculatively, performance can be increased by minimizing latency and extracting greater parallelism. The results may be discarded if it is discovered that the instructions were not needed after all.

The most common form of speculative execution involves the control flow of a program. Instead of waiting for all branch instructions to resolve to determine which operations are needed to execute, the processor predicts the control flow using a highly sophisticated set of mechanisms. Usually the predictions are correct, which allows high performance to be achieved by hiding the latency of the operations that determine the control flow and increasing the parallelism the processor can extract by having a larger pool of instructions to analyze. However, if a prediction is wrong, then the work that was executed speculatively is discarded and the processor will be redirected to execute down the correct instruction path.

While speculative operations do not affect the architectural state of the processor, they can affect the microarchitectural state, such as information stored in Translation Lookaside Buffers (TLBs) and caches. The side channel methods described in this white paper take advantage of the fact that the content of caches can be affected by speculative execution.

Side Channel Cache Methods

A side channel method works by gaining information through observing the system, such as by measuring microarchitectural properties about the system. Unlike buffer overflows and other vulnerability classes, side channels do not directly influence the execution of the program, nor do they allow data to be modified or deleted.

A cache timing side channel involves an agent detecting whether a piece of data is present in a specific level of the processor’s caches, where its presence may be used to infer some other piece of information. One method to detect whether the data in question is present is to use timers to measure the latency to access memory at the address. If the memory access takes a short time, then the data must be present in a nearby cache. If the access takes a longer time, then the data may not be in the nearby cache.

Mitigations

Intel has been working closely with the ecosystem, including other processor vendors and software developers, to identify mitigations for the side channel methods previously described. The mitigation strategy is focused on identifying techniques that can be applicable both for products currently in the market as well as for future products in development. Mitigations pursued address the attack method in question, as well as balancing that with other considerations such as performance impact and complexity of implementation. Enabling existing processor security features like Supervisor-Mode Execution Protection (SMEP) and Execute Disable Bit can substantially increase the difficulty of attacking a system. See the Related Intel Security Features section for additional details on these security features. Intel strongly recommends following good security practices that protect against malware in general, including always staying updated with the latest software patches and microcode and not installing untrusted software.

Intel has been working with OS vendors, Virtual Machine Monitor (VMM) Vendors, and other software developers to mitigate these attacks.

As part of our normal development process, Intel may enhance the efficacy of these mitigations in upcoming processors.

Conclusions

Along with other companies whose platforms are potentially impacted by these new methods, Intel has worked with software vendors, equipment manufacturers, and other ecosystem partners to develop software and firmware updates that can protect systems from these methods. End users and systems administrators should check with their software vendors and system manufacturers and apply any available updates as soon as practical.

For malware to compromise security using these methods, it must be running locally on a system. Intel strongly recommends following good security practices that protect against malware in general. Doing so will also help protect against possible exploitation of these analysis methods.

The threat environment continues to evolve. Intel is committed to investing in the security and reliability of our products, and to working constructively with security researchers and others in the industry to help safeguard users’ sensitive information. Please see the Intel Security Center for more details. Intel is continuing to investigate architecture and/or microarchitecture changes to combat these types of attacks while maintaining high processor performance.


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