Meltdown in a nutshell

Exception, Eagerness and Electrons

Exception is the starting point

Consider this pseudocode:

x = read(memory_location_of_os_where_secret_lies) // will cause exception

y = arr[x *4096] // read some other local memory based on x

Eagerness of the CPU

Although, the first line is an exception and it should never have read the Operating System (OS) memory. Due to an optimization where instructions are broken in micro operations, the x contains the value of the sacred OS memory for just a small fraction of time before the system finds out that this is an illegal access and purges/deletes/clears the value of x.

Meanwhile, believe me or not, the next line was ready to execute and it also executed before the OS could clear out the value of x and an exception was raised. So, if the value of x was ‘s’, then memory arr[‘s’ * 4096] would be accessed by the CPU.

Electrons cause heat

The value of y will also be cleared very soon after x was cleared, so an attacker can no longer read x or y. To know the value of x we will check the cache lines and somehow guess what x would have been. Subsequent access to arr[‘s’ * 4096] address will activate a particular bit in cache hit. By checking which address was ‘hot’ among all cache address we can find the value of ‘s’ * 4096. Then we do simple math from that and get ‘s’. Next, we do that again and again and get ‘e’, ‘c’,’r’,’e’,’t’.