So at the beginning of the new year, news broke via The Register that there could be a potential security vulnerability to Intel processors (Meltdown) and how it was a problem which couldn’t be easily fixed by a microcode update because of how the Intel architecture does speculative execution of code (in a nutshell this is how modern processors try to ‘predict’ the code it needs to execute next, before the current executing code produces a result – all modern processors do this to some extent in order to fill its internal pipeline and speed up processing)…. this quickly blew up into a storm where additional vulnerabilities were identified (Spectre) which affects Intel, AMD and ARM processors!
Three closely related vulnerabilities involving the exploit of speculative execution in CPUs were made public:
Variant 1 & 2 have been branded as Spectre, with Variant 3 known as Meltdown.
The fallout is spectacular…. lawsuits being filled against Intel…. videos of exploits (proof of concepts) already on youtube….. customers going crazy that Russians/North Koreans could be stealing data from their systems….. all this because chip manufacturers tried to outdo each other by putting speed of processing above security.
The best article I’ve read that explains how Speculative Execution works and how these vulnerabilities could be exploited can be found here: http://frankdenneman.nl/2018/01/05/explainer-spectre-meltdown-graham-sutherland/
It seems that at the moment the only way to minimise your exposure to potential exploits is to patch the OS or Hypervisor, however this isn’t without issues as people have started reporting that it adds an overhead to performance. In all honesty, I doubt personal users will notice a performance hit on their day to day usage (home/office applications or games), it will however impact anyone that undertakes high IO or system-call intensive applications (such as DBs, email, Big-data/data-mining)… a performance hit of between 5-30% depending on application!!
VMware have stated that at present they don’t believe Meltdown to be an issue to their products because ESXi does not run untrusted user mode code, and Workstation and Fusion rely on the protection that the underlying operating system provides. For Spectre, they have released an article detailing their response to the issues and 2 Security Advisories which addresses the vulnerabilities and how they can be mitigated, VMSA-2018-0002 has been superseded by VMSA-2018-0004.
From what I can see, the first Security Advisory consists of security patches to ESXi that addresses the vulnerability to mitigate against leakage from the hypervisor or guest VMs into a malicious guest VM – these were patches made available late last year before the news broke (which makes you wonder how long the industry have known about it).
The second Security Advisory is a full minor update to vCenter (5.5, 6.0 and 6.5) in order to support both newer vSphere ESXi patches and Microcode/BIOS patches to hardware. This seems to be what they call “Hypervisor-Assisted Guest mitigation” which virtualises the new speculative-execution control mechanism for guest VMs so that a Guest OS can mitigate leakage between processes within the VM – and this mitigation requires specific microcode patches from platform vendors which seem to introduce these new ‘speculative-execution control features’. More information on how to apply this Security Advisory can be found here: https://kb.vmware.com/s/article/52085.
Note: The update patches found in VMSA-2018-0004 will mean that these new CPU features will be exposed to Guest VMs and as such vMotion to ESXi hosts without the microcode or hypervisor patches applied will be prevented. However, if you have an EVC cluster, it looks like vCenter will suppress the new features from VMs to enable vMotion compatibility until all hosts have been upgraded (after which it will enable those features) – unpatched hosts will not be allowed to join an EVC cluster that has been patched.
It’s worth noting that Guest VMs should also have their OS updated with the latest security patches for effective mitigation of these known vulnerabilities!
Finally, VMware have released an article regarding these vulnerabilities and whether their virtual appliances are affected: https://kb.vmware.com/s/article/52264. It currently looks like vSphere Integrated Containers and vRealize Automation have not been patched yet.