Intel Recommends Disabling Hyper-Threading as it Reveals New Spectre Attack

Intel unveiled yet another speculative execution side-channel flaw in its processors. The vulnerability affects most of the company’s processor SKUs, except the 8th and 9th generation chips, which Intel said includes hardware mitigations against this flaw.

Microarchitectural Data Sampling in Intel Chips

The Microarchitectural Data Sampling (MDS) issue is a speculative execution side-channel attack that may allow malicious actors to locally execute code in order to extract sensitive data that would otherwise by protected by Intel processors’ architectural mechanisms.

According to Intel, four CVEs were assigned to this flaw in Intel’s processors, including:

  • CVE-2018-12126 Microarchitectural Store Buffer Data Sampling (MSBDS)
  • CVE-2018-12130 Microarchitectural Fill Buffer Data Sampling (MFBDS)
  • CVE-2018-12127 Microarchitectural Load Port Data Sampling (MLPDS)
  • CVE-2019-11091 Microarchitectural Data Sampling Uncacheable Memory (MDSUM)

Significant Changes to Operating Systems, Core Software Are Required

Intel believes that in order to protect users against this speculative execution issue, Microsoft and other operating system vendors, hypervisor vendors, as well as Intel itself will need to implement significant changes in their software. The solution will involve clearing microarchitectural buffers when switching to software that is not trusted by the previous software.

For instance, every time a processor would switch from one third-party app to another, from a Windows process to a third-party app, or even from less trusted Windows processes to more trusted ones, the buffers would have to be cleared or overwritten. Adding such a significant step in the processing software will most likely lead to a performance loss. How large or small, it remains to be seen, but chances are it could be on the significant side.

Intel Recommends Disabling Hyper Threading

The company admitted in its white paper that the software mitigations will have a significant effect on how HT works. The threads will need a higher level of isolation between each other, and they will not be able to run processes from different security domains anymore. Threads from different security domains will simply become idle (thus turning into wasted processing power).

Image credit: IntelImage credit: Intel
It seems that with every other speculative execution attack, Intel’s Hyper Threading becomes either less secure or slower. Intel itself seems to be moving away from Hyper Threading lately on some of its best CPUs, even in the face of AMD competition with both higher number of cores and simultaneous multithreading (SMT) support at similar price points.

Intel has also been publicly reluctant to agree with the disabling of HT when others have called for it with the discovery of some previous CPU flaws, but in its paper, the company stated that disabling HT altogether may be warranted as protection against MDS attacks.

Despite all of these drawbacks, Intel did mention in the white paper that these software mitigations are highly recommended, despite the vulnerabilities being classified only low to medium severity.

Intel noted that future processors will have data sampling methods mitigated in hardware. Some of the company’s current chips could also enable similar mitigations, but only after a microcode update has been loaded. In other words, you’ll rely on your motherboard maker or laptop maker to deliver that update to you, before you can benefit from this mitigation.

Affected Processors

Virtually all of Intel’s chips starting with the Nehalem architecture (launched in 2008, 11 years ago) and newer, with the exception of the Whiskey Lake (ULT refresh), Whiskey Lake (desktop), as well as the Atom and Knights architectures, are affected by the MDS vulnerabilities.

What this tell us is not only that there are now multiple speculative execution attacks against Intel’s processors, or that there will be more to come until a Intel applies a more significant overhaul to its architecture, but that most of these chips will likely never be patched against this flaw and others like it. Motherboard and laptop OEMs tend to update only their most recent products, so the majority of systems sold in the past 11 years will likely remain vulnerable.

Those that do get the patches shouldn’t necessarily consider themselves that much luckier either, as the performance loss after the patches are applied could be significant. Those who buy the new Intel chips starting with Whiskey Lake refresh and later should see a much lower performance loss as well as the security protection from the built-in hardware mitigations, at least until a new speculative execution attack appears that can bypass the new mitigation appears.

Intel has provided more information about the MDS flaws, including about how to get the software patches, on its website.

57 comments
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  • jankerson
    So those with 8th and 9th Generation CPU's are fine.
  • jeremyj_83
    Another day another Intel security flaw in Hyper Threading. It is really amazing how insecure HT is.
  • jeremyj_83
    Quote:
    So those with 8th and 9th Generation CPU's are fine.

    Not unless you have a Whiskey Lake CPU, which is only on laptops, Atom, or Knights Landing based CPUs.