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This document explains potential effects of speculation, and how undesirable
effects can be mitigated portably using common APIs.
To improve performance and minimize average latencies, many contemporary CPUs
employ speculative execution techniques such as branch prediction, performing
work which may be discarded at a later stage.
Typically speculative execution cannot be observed from architectural state,
such as the contents of registers. However, in some cases it is possible to
observe its impact on microarchitectural state, such as the presence or
absence of data in caches. Such state may form side-channels which can be
observed to extract secret information.
For example, in the presence of branch prediction, it is possible for bounds
checks to be ignored by code which is speculatively executed. Consider the
following code:
int load_array(int *array, unsigned int index)
if (index >= MAX_ARRAY_ELEMS)
return 0;
return array[index];
Which, on arm64, may be compiled to an assembly sequence such as:
B.LT less
MOV <returnval>, #0
LDR <returnval>, [<array>, <index>]
It is possible that a CPU mis-predicts the conditional branch, and
speculatively loads array[index], even if index >= MAX_ARRAY_ELEMS. This
value will subsequently be discarded, but the speculated load may affect
microarchitectural state which can be subsequently measured.
More complex sequences involving multiple dependent memory accesses may
result in sensitive information being leaked. Consider the following
code, building on the prior example:
int load_dependent_arrays(int *arr1, int *arr2, int index)
int val1, val2,
val1 = load_array(arr1, index);
val2 = load_array(arr2, val1);
return val2;
Under speculation, the first call to load_array() may return the value
of an out-of-bounds address, while the second call will influence
microarchitectural state dependent on this value. This may provide an
arbitrary read primitive.
Mitigating speculation side-channels
The kernel provides a generic API to ensure that bounds checks are
respected even under speculation. Architectures which are affected by
speculation-based side-channels are expected to implement these
The array_index_nospec() helper in <linux/nospec.h> can be used to
prevent information from being leaked via side-channels.
A call to array_index_nospec(index, size) returns a sanitized index
value that is bounded to [0, size) even under cpu speculation
This can be used to protect the earlier load_array() example:
int load_array(int *array, unsigned int index)
if (index >= MAX_ARRAY_ELEMS)
return 0;
else {
index = array_index_nospec(index, MAX_ARRAY_ELEMS);
return array[index];