A Look at Meltdown and Spectre

Meltdown and Spectre have been predictably making waves in the industry, and the vendor responses have been scattered and, in some cases, haphazard. The latest patches from Intel cause increased system reboots; Microsoft had to halt patches for AMD systems, as systems were rendered unbootable. Ubuntu Linux has also had a patch reverted due to systems being unbootable. The overall fix is changing the processor architecture, which likely won’t happen for a number of years.

As a brief introduction to these vulnerabilities, Meltdown and Spectre are two different attacks leveraged against the intended functionality of modern processors. Meltdown can be used broadly against a wide range of processors from different vendors, and its main functionality is to potentially read kernel memory from userspace. Spectre is much more targeted, and focuses on leaking data between or within processes. The key point to understand about these vulnerabilities is that they are information disclosure vulnerabilities that can enable processes and applications to access information they otherwise shouldn’t be able to: user-mode applications can access privileged information in the kernel and throughout the operating system.

As a Palo Alto Networks partner, EITS has been closely following their response to the bugs. As with most vendors, the main recommendation has been to focus on patching your servers and endpoints as you can, and if there are any specific attacks that can be mitigated, they will provide security content to address this as they can. Palo Alto Networks’ Traps endpoint product has also been noted, like other AV solutions, to not be capable of stopping these attacks, as these are kernel memory reading vulnerabilities that do not cause code execution. That being said, Traps is one of the most well-equipped products at mitigating attacks in general, and Meltdown/Spectre still rely on local privilege and deployment mechanisms such as malware.

Microsoft has made a significant change in their patching process moving forward in relation to AV compatibility. Historically, Microsoft has called out any vendors that caused issues with patches they deployed, and, as is expected in this industry, vendors have been quick to point out issues with Microsoft. As of the January 3rd patch, however, Microsoft deemed it important enough to require A/V vendors evaluate their products for compatibility, and then set a registry key on impacted endpoints.

If a machine does not have this registry key, they will no longer receive security updates from Microsoft through Automatic Updates. For organizations leveraging deployment solutions to deliver their patches, there should not be any impact. What makes this a bit more complicated for everyone else is that many vendors have chosen to not automatically set this registry key, including Palo Alto Networks Traps (note: Palo Alto Networks is working on an update to do this and is expected soon.)

EITS recommends evaluating any patches relevant to your systems thoroughly due to these documented concerns. You can find more information at the below links:


Customer Advisory from Palo Alto Networks


The Register: Meltdown/Spectre Week Three


Overview of Impact by Intel