Solving Spectre and Meltdown may ultimately require an entirely new type of processor

Solving Spectre and Meltdown may ultimately require an entirely new type of processor

How to identify and fix execution bugs like Spectre and Meltdown has been a burning topic among microprocessor buffs this year. At Hot Chips, one of the industry’s premier academic conferences on microprocessors, experts agreed that the ultimate solution to solving them may require, yes, a lot more talk.

At a panel Monday at the Cupertino, California event, Professor Mark Hill of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was asked to think about the implications of side-channel, speculative execution attacks on modern microprocessors like those made by ARM, Intel, and others. His solutions included specialized cores, flushing caches on context switches, and business ideas like charging more for exclusive virtual machines.

But the real answer, he and several other panelists said, is more collaboration between hardware and software designers—and maybe a complete redesign of today’s microprocessors.

How the entire chip industry was blindsided

Meltdown and Spectre were revealed unexpectedly in late 2017, shortly before the vulnerabilities were due to be formally, quietly, disclosed during CES in January, 2018. Originally discovered by Google’s “zero-day” investigative team, Google Project Zero, the attacks take advantage of a modern property of microprocessors, speculative execution, where the processor essentially “guesses” which instruction branch to take and execute. (Paul Turner, an engineer and lead on Google’s kernel team who was on the panel, said that Project Zero didn’t give the others at Google a heads-up; they found out just like everyone else.)

What microprocessor designers thought for 20 years was that a bad “guess” simply retired the data without any security risks. They were wrong, as the side-channel attacks proved. 

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