Battling the Prefetcher: A side-channel Attack (Part 2)

#programming #security

This is the second post on the topic of prefetchers. In the first post, we established the presence of several hardware prefetchers on a Coffee Lake CPU and verified some of their behaviors in the level 2 cache. We will use these insights here and try to build a cache side-channel attack on a much smaller probing buffer than typically used.

Table Of Contents


As we have established in the first post, there are 4 (documented) hardware prefetchers available on an Intel Coffee Lake CPU.

We did not manage to establish reliable results for the L1 data cache prefetchers which is why we will focus on the L2 prefetchers in this post. This should workTM because we can distinguish if something is cached in L1 or L2 based on the access time. However, without reliable results on the behavior of the L1 prefetchers, the attack may not easily generalize to all prefetchers.

This post aims to tinker with a prime/probe/flush/reload attack using a minimal probing buffer size, e.g. 256 x 64 bytes, and a custom access pattern such that prefetchers do not cause unwanted cache hits and screw up the attack.

The post is structured around three attacks:


We already know that prefetchers do not mess with unwanted cache hits across page boundaries. On one hand, the less contiguous memory we need for an attack, the less work is required to obtain said memory. In an attack scenario, it is not always easy to obtain contiguous chunks of memory. However, on the flip side, the prefetchers will start to introduce unwanted cache hits if we use too little memory to probe accesses.

Flush and Reload

The attack which we will simulate is a flush and reload attack. In a flush+reload1 scenario, an attacker does not control a victim’s execution, and the victim and attacker share some target code or data. This may be shared object files between distrusting user processes or deduplicated memory shared between two distrusting virtual machines. Furthermore, the attacker can issue flush instructions to selectively evict memory locations from the cache. On x86, the clflush instruction is unprivileged. If no clflush is available, an attack may use an eviction strategy (see this interesting read2).

  1. During the first phase of the attack, the attacker flushes all cache lines of the shared memory from the cache.
  2. The attacker then waits until the victim accesses the shared memory.
  3. In the final phase, the attacker reloads the shared memory by measuring the access times of all cache lines. If he receives a cache hit, then the memory line was accessed by the victim in step 2.

Powerful attacks such as Meltdown and Spectre are derived from this idea. As an excursion and to motivate flush+reload further, consider this snippet:

# char probing_array[4096 * 256];
mov eax, [kernel-address]              // Segmentation fault
mov ebx, [probing_array + 4096 * eax]  // Microarchitectural traces in cache

Unprivileged code loads kernel-address into eax and dereferences it such that distinct values of eax end up on different pages. Due to out-of-order execution, the access into probing_array ends up in the cache. The pipeline is flushed due to the illegal access of privileged memory. However, the microarchitectural changes remain in the cache. With a signal handler, we can recover from the segfault and probe the cache for a kernel byte leak. This is the gist of the Meltdown3 attack.

Threat Model

In the scope of this post, we assume that the victim and attacker are in the same unprivileged process. We will simulate some memory access (into a shared buffer of 4 pages) by the victim, and then use the said probing buffer to probe the victim’s memory access for a cache hit. The attacker uses clflush and the process is pinned to a core with taskset. We further allow the attacker to repeat the experiment as often as we want to increase accuracy. Also, we allow the attacker to disable the L1 prefetchers if this helps to increase accuracy. The attacker’s probing is done in a way (hopefully :-)) to confuse the prefetcher so it does not to hit the cache and introduce false positives.


The experiments run on an Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-8700K CPU @ 3.70GHz, pinned on a single core with taskset. Remember from Part 1 that we primarily got reliable insights for the L2 cache prefetchers. Hence, the experiments below distinguish a setup that enables L2 prefetchers from all prefetchers.


As we already established in the Threat Model, we have a shared probing_buffer of 4 pages. With a stride size of a cache line (64 bytes), this allows us in theory to leak 4 * 4096 / 64 = 256 distinct values at a time, or 8 bits.

// pseudo c code:

probing_buffer = mmap(NULL, 4 * 4096,
                      PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE,
                      -1, 0);
clflush(all bytes in probing_buffer);

// victim:
int secret = 100;
*(volatile char*) probing_buffer + secret * 64;

// attacker:
/* battle prefetcher and probe probing_buffer to leak secret. */

The side-channel is the probing buffer (or the underlying cache that caches access into the probing buffer). The victim accesses a secret element in the buffer and the attacker tries to recover the secret with an access order that confuses the prefetchers. The more the prefetchers are confused, the less likely they introduce unwanted cache hits.

Leaking 5 bits with L2 Prefetchers

In the first experiment, we will focus on a single page. A page has 4096 bytes, which holds 64 cache lines. So the total number of bits we could leak at once is 6 bits, log2(64) = 6.

Insight. We need some cache lines to initially confuse the prefetcher so we only end up with 5 bits. The following experiment requires 44 cache lines, 32 lines to leak 5 bits, and 12 (or more) lines to trick the L2 stream prefetcher. The experiment follows a confusing and leaking phase.

Confusing Phase. We know that the stream prefetcher associates an access stream with a memory page. We confuse the stream by first accessing 12 cache lines in a backward fashion, e.g. cache lines 11, 10, 9, … 0. Subsequent memory accesses in a forward fashion (against the stream direction) will (hopefully) no longer pollute the cache with prefetches.

Leaking Phase. We probe the cache lines 12 to 31 for cache hits. Here we only probe every even cache line (e.g. cache lines 12, 14, 16, …). This accounts for the 128 bytes L2 prefetcher. If we receive a cache hit in L1, we know that the victim accessed the current cache line. If we receive an L2 hit, we know that the victim accessed the next (+1) cache line. This takes advantage of the fact that the 128 bytes boundary prefetcher prefetches into level 2 cache. If we only allow L2 prefetchers we could also probe all elements in a sequence and only look for L1 accesses. However, the fewer memory probes, the fewer potential prefetches.

Threshold Tuning. We establish a threshold for an L1 and L2 cache hit in a tuning phase. On my hardware, I established an L1 hit threshold of 110 cycles (or fewer) and an L2 threshold of 150 cycles.

Experiments. The following plots depict the leaking phase for secrets 0, 24, 30 (L1 hits), and 1, 25, 31 (L2 hits). The L1 prefetchers are disabled. We can see that the secrets can be recovered.

Secrets 0, 1 (success): attack

The victim accesses cache line 0 (secret). We receive an L1 hit in cache line 0.


The victim accesses cache line 1 (secret). We receive an L2 hit in cache line 0.

Secrets 24, 25 (success): attack

The victim accesses cache line 24 (secret). We receive an L1 hit in cache line 24. Note that there is noise in cache line 22. However, the attack still succeeds.


The victim accesses cache line 25 (secret). We receive an L2 hit in cache line 24.

Secret 30, 31 (success): attack

The victim accesses cache line 30 (secret). We receive an L1 hit in cache line 30. There is noise in cache line 28. However, the attack still succeeds.


The victim accesses cache line 31 (secret). We receive an L2 hit in cache line 30.

Given this strategy, we manage to recover all secrets. However, this approach only allows the leak of 5 bits. There is some noise in the measurements. Nevertheless, we can filter it out given we can accurately determine the L1 hit. The following experiment will now use the same strategy but will enable all available prefetchers.

Leaking 5 bits with All Prefetchers

Experiments. All 4 prefetchers active and the same strategy as before seem to break the attack. The experiment does not easily scale to all prefetchers. This was apprehended because we mark an L1 hit as a successful leak. Interestingly, we now often receive an L1 hit in cache line 30. The plots below depict unsuccessful secret recoveries.

Secrets 0, 1 (fail): attack

The victim accesses secret 0, we receive an L1 hit in cache line 0 as well as cache line 30. The secret cannot be uniquely recovered.


The victim accesses secret 1, we receive an L2 hit in cache line 0 as well as a level 1 hit cache line 30. The secrets cannot be recovered.

Secrets 24, 25 (fail): attack

The victim accesses cache line 24, total noise.


Victim accesses cache line 25, total noise.

All prefetchers enabled seem to screw things up. No secret can be uniquely recovered.

Leaking 8 bits with L2 Prefetchers

We now continue to leak 1 byte across 4 pages. For this attack, we again disable the L1 prefetchers.

Insight. Unlike the previous experiment, we no longer use spare cache lines to prime the prefetchers.

The idea in this experiment is to confuse the L2 prefetcher such that it creates a stream table entry in the wrong direction. This is analogous to the previous experiment. For each page, we first access upwards (forward in cache lines) and then change direction to probe backward. Additionally, we first probe only even elements, and in a second attempt only odd elements (after flushing the probing array and re-running the victim). This is motivated to further decrease L2 noise. Even and odd probings are then merged into one result across all pages.

Experiments. The following plots depict 4 experiments, a leak of secret values 30, 60, 127, and 252. Only level 2 prefetchers are enabled. Four plots belong to one attack (one memory page per plot). Marked in the figures is the order of the cache lines accessed, the thresholds for L1 and L2, as well as L1 hits (green), L2 hits (red), and cache misses (gray). We notice that the attack succeeds for secrets 30, 60, and 127 and fails for the secret 252.

Secret 30 (success):
attack attack attack attack

The victim accesses secret cache line 30 in a probing array of 256 cache lines. The attacker manages to leak the byte.

As we can see for secret value 30, the attacker manages to leak the byte (green). We receive noise at the start and the end of each page (red), however, by selecting an L1 cache hit we manage to leak the secret.

Secret 60 (success): attack attack attack attack

The victim accesses secret cache line 60. We manage to leak the secret byte. More noise in the L2 cache.

Similar situation for secret byte 60. The attacker manages to leak the byte. However, there is much noise in the L2 cache. It seems that the prefetcher loses its confusion as it starts to prefetch in the wrong direction (unideal direction for attack).

Secret 127 (success): attack attack attack attack

The victim accesses secret cache line 127. We manage to leak the secret byte. More noise in the L2 cache.

Secret 127 shows similar results to secret 60. The prefetcher starts to lose its confusion and starts to massively introduce unwanted cache hits. However, the secret can still be recovered by selecting L1 hits.

Secret 252 (fail): attack attack attack attack

The victim accesses secret cache line 252. Too much noise. Attack fails.

The attacker fails to recover secret value 252. The threshold for L1 is not accurate enough to distinguish an L1 access from all the noise in the L2 cache.

This should emphasize how easy it is to pollute the cache. Even if we only allow L2 prefetches, the secret cannot always be recovered.


We discussed preliminary results for confusing the Coffee Lake prefetchers. In particular, we presented experiments to

As we can see, the experiments are not always successful and need more probing and tuning. If we only allow L2 prefetchers we can leak a secret by looking for L1 cache hits. However, for a more realistic scenario, we must consider all prefetchers. In addition, the considered threat model isolates much noise by allowing both the victim and attacker to run in the same process.

I hope this post highlights how easy it is to pollute the cache with unwanted accesses. Cache side-channel attacks are a relatively new attack surface and are the result of careful fine-tuning and massaging of the cache. Meltdown-like attacks have shown how damaging and powerful these attacks can be.

While the shown results are preliminary and just a drop in the ocean, I hope this blog post puts some light onto the fascinating world of prefetchers and how noise-prone cache side-channel attacks can be. The study of prefetchers remains an active topic of research and insights into their inner workings can increase the effectiveness of either cache side-channel attacks and their mitigations.

Thanks for reading.
– bean


I’d like to thank Michael Roth for helping me with the findings.

  1. Yuval Yarom and Katrina Falkner, 2014, FLUSH+RELOAD: A High Resolution, Low Noise, L3 Cache Side-Channel Attack, 23rd USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 14) ↩︎

  2. Oren, Yossef and Kemerlis, Vasileios P. and Sethumadhavan, Simha and Keromytis, Angelos D., 2015, The Spy in the Sandbox – Practical Cache Attacks in Javascript ↩︎

  3. Moritz Lipp and Michael Schwarz and Daniel Gruss and Thomas Prescher and Werner Haas and Anders Fogh and Jann Horn and Stefan Mangard and Paul Kocher and Daniel Genkin and Yuval Yarom and Mike Hamburg, 2018, Meltdown: Reading Kernel Memory from User Space, 27th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 18). ↩︎

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