Some notes on Meltdown/Spectre

I thought I’d write up some notes.

You don’t have to worry if you patch. If you download the latest update from Microsoft, Apple, or Linux, then the problem is fixed for you and you don’t have to worry. If you aren’t up to date, then there’s a lot of other nasties out there you should probably also be worrying about. I mention this because while this bug is big in the news, it’s probably not news the average consumer needs to concern themselves with.

This will force a redesign of CPUs and operating systems. While not a big news item for consumers, it’s huge in the geek world. We’ll need to redesign operating systems and how CPUs are made.

Don’t worry about the performance hit. Some, especially avid gamers, are concerned about the claims of “30%” performance reduction when applying the patch. That’s only in some rare cases, so you shouldn’t worry too much about it. As far as I can tell, 3D games aren’t likely to see less than 1% performance degradation. If you imagine your game is suddenly slower after the patch, then something else broke it.

This wasn’t foreseeable. A common cliche is that such bugs happen because people don’t take security seriously, or that they are taking “shortcuts”. That’s not the case here. Speculative execution and timing issues with caches are inherent issues with CPU hardware. “Fixing” this would make CPUs run ten times slower. Thus, while we can tweek hardware going forward, the larger change will be in software.

There’s no good way to disclose this. The cybersecurity industry has a process for coordinating the release of such bugs, which appears to have broken down. In truth, it didn’t. Once Linus announced a security patch that would degrade performance of the Linux kernel, we knew the coming bug was going to be Big. Looking at the Linux patch, tracking backwards to the bug was only a matter of time. Hence, the release of this information was a bit sooner than some wanted. This is to be expected, and is nothing to be upset about.

It helps to have a name. Many are offended by the crassness of naming vulnerabilities and giving them logos. On the other hand, we are going to be talking about these bugs for the next decade. Having a recognizable name, rather than a hard-to-remember number, is useful.

Should I stop buying Intel? Intel has the worst of the bugs here. On the other hand, ARM and AMD alternatives have their own problems. Many want to deploy ARM servers in their data centers, but these are likely to expose bugs you don’t see on x86 servers. The software fix, “page table isolation”, seems to work, so there might not be anything to worry about. On the other hand, holding up purchases because of “fear” of this bug is a good way to squeeze price reductions out of your vendor. Conversely, later generation CPUs, “Haswell” and even “Skylake” seem to have the least performance degradation, so it might be time to upgrade older servers to newer processors.

Intel misleads. Intel has a press release that implies they are not impacted any worse than others. This is wrong: the “Meltdown” issue appears to apply only to Intel CPUs. I don’t like such marketing crap, so I mention it.

This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog post authored by Robert Graham. Read the original post at: Errata Security