A Side-channel Attack on HotSpot Heap Management


Xiaofeng Wu, Kun Suo, Yong Zhao, and Jia Rao, The University of Texas at Arlington


CPU time-multiplexing is a common practice in multi-tenant systems to improve system utilization. However, the sharing of CPU and a single system clock makes it difficult for programs to accurately measure the length of an operation. Since a program is not always running in a time-sharing system but the system clock always advances, time perceived by one program could be dilated as it may include the run time of another program. Applications employing time-based resource management face a potential security threat of time manipulation.

HotSpot, a widely used Java virtual machine (JVM), relies on timing garbage collections to infer an appropriate heap size. In this paper, we present a new active side-channel attack that exploits time dilation to break the heap sizing algorithm in parallel scavenge, the default garbage collector in JDK 8. We demonstrate that a deliberate attack targeting a specific type of GC is able to crash a Java program with out-of-memory errors, cause excessive garbage collection, and leads to significant memory waste due to a bloated heap.

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@inproceedings {216849,
author = {Xiaofeng Wu and Kun Suo and Yong Zhao and Jia Rao},
title = {A Side-channel Attack on {HotSpot} Heap Management},
booktitle = {10th USENIX Workshop on Hot Topics in Cloud Computing (HotCloud 18)},
year = {2018},
address = {Boston, MA},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/hotcloud18/presentation/wu},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = jul,