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Meltdown: Reading Kernel Memory from User Space

circuit board with Spectre and Meltdown icons

Credit: Golubovy / Andrij Borys Associates

Memory isolation is a cornerstone security feature in the construction of every modern computer system. Allowing the simultaneous execution of multiple mutually distrusting applications at the same time on the same hardware, it is the basis of enabling secure execution of multiple processes on the same machine or in the cloud. The operating system is in charge of enforcing this isolation, as well as isolating its own kernel memory regions from other users.

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Given its central role on modern processors, the isolation between the kernel and user processes is backed by the hardware, in the form of a supervisor bit that determines whether code in the current context can access memory pages of the kernel. The basic idea is that this bit is set only when entering kernel code and it is cleared when switching to user processes. This hardware feature allows operating systems to map the kernel into the address space of every process, thus supporting very efficient transitions from the user process to the kernel (for example, for interrupt handling) while maintaining the security of the kernel memory space.


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