Meltdown and Spectre Attacks Require IBM Mitigation

The chip security threats dubbed Meltdown and Spectre revealed last month apparently will require IBM threat mitigation in the form of code and patching. IBM has been reticent to make a major public announcement, but word finally is starting to percolate publicly.

Courtesy: Preparis Inc.

On January 4, one day after researchers disclosed the Meltdown and Spectre attack methods against Intel, AMD and ARM processors the Internet has been buzzing.  Wrote Eduard Kovacs on Wed.; Jan. 10, IBM informed customers that it had started analyzing impact on its own products. The day before IBM revealed its POWER processors are affected.

A published report from Virendra Soni, January 11, on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2018 in Las Vegas where Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang revealed how the technology leaders are scrambling to find patches to the Spectre and Meltdown attacks. These attacks enable hackers to steal private information off users’ CPUs running processors from Intel, AMD, and ARM.

For DancingDinosaur readers, that puts the latest POWER chips and systems at risk. At this point, it is not clear how far beyond POWER systems the problem reaches. “We believe our GPU hardware is immune. As for our driver software, we are providing updates to help mitigate the CPU security issue,” Nvidia wrote in their security bulletin.

Nvidia also reports releasing updates for its software drivers that interact with vulnerable CPUs and operating systems. The vulnerabilities take place in three variants: Variant 1, Variant 2, and Variant 3. Nvidia has released driver updates for Variant 1 and 2. The company notes none of its software is vulnerable to Variant 3. Nvidia reported providing security updates for these products: GeForce, Quadro, NVS Driver Software, Tesla Driver Software, and GRID Driver Software.

IBM has made no public comments on which of their systems are affected. But Red Hat last week reported IBM’s System Z, and POWER platforms are impacted by Spectre and Meltdown. IBM may not be saying much but Red Hat is, according to Soni: “Red Hat last week reported that IBM’s System Z, and POWER platforms are exploited by Spectre and Meltdown.”

So what is a data center manager with a major investment in these systems to do?  Meltdown and Spectre “obviously are a very big problem, “ reports Timothy Prickett Morgan, a leading analyst at The Last Platform, an authoritative website following the server industry. “Chip suppliers and operating systems and hypervisor makers have known about these exploits since last June, and have been working behind the scenes to provide corrective countermeasures to block them… but rumors about the speculative execution threats forced the hands of the industry, and last week Google put out a notice about the bugs and then followed up with details about how it has fixed them in its own code. Read it here.

Chipmakers AMD and AMR put out a statement saying only Variant 1 of the speculative execution exploits (one of the Spectre variety known as bounds check bypass), and by Variant 2 (also a Spectre exploit known as branch target injection) affected them. AMD, reports Morgan, also emphasized that it has absolutely no vulnerability to Variant 3, a speculative execution exploit called rogue data cache load and known colloquially as Meltdown.  This is due, he noted, to architectural differences between Intel’s X86 processors and AMD’s clones.

As for IBM, Morgan noted: its Power chips are affected, at least back to the Power7 from 2010 and continuing forward to the brand new Power9. In its statement, IBM said that it would have patches out for firmware on Power machines using Power7+, Power8, Power8+, and Power9 chips on January 9, which passed, along with Linux patches for those machines; patches for the company’s own AIX Unix and proprietary IBM i operating systems will not be available until February 12. The System z mainframe processors also have speculative execution, so they should, in theory, be susceptible to Spectre but maybe not Meltdown.

That still leaves a question about the vulnerability of the IBM LinuxONE and the processors spread throughout the z systems. Ask your IBM rep when you can expect mitigation for those too.

Just patching these costly systems should not be sufficiently satisfying. There is a performance price that data centers will pay. Google noted a negligible impact on performance after it deployed one fix on Google’s millions of Linux systems, said Morgan. There has been speculation, Googled continued, that the deployment of KPTI (a mitigation fix) causes significant performance slowdowns. As far as is known, there is no fix for Spectre Variant 1 attacks, which have to be fixed on a binary-by-binary basis, according to Google.

Red Hat went further and actually ran benchmarks. The company tested its Enterprise Linux 7 release on servers using Intel’s “Haswell” Xeon E5 v3, “Broadwell” Xeon E5 v4, and “Skylake,” the upcoming Xeon SP processors, and showed impacts that ranged from 1-19 percent. You can demand these impacts be reflected in reduced system prices.

DancingDinosaur is Alan Radding, a veteran information technology analyst, writer, and ghost-writer. Please follow DancingDinosaur on Twitter, @mainframeblog. See more of his IT writing at and here.


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One Response to “Meltdown and Spectre Attacks Require IBM Mitigation”

  1. Compuware Brings Multi-Platform DevOps to the Z | DancingDinosaur Says:

    […] Mainframe computing in the 21st century « Meltdown and Spectre Attacks Require IBM Mitigation […]

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