Reverse Engineering x86 Processor Microcode

Authors: 

Philipp Koppe, Benjamin Kollenda, Marc Fyrbiak, Christian Kison, Robert Gawlik, Christof Paar, and Thorsten Holz, Ruhr-University Bochum

Abstract: 

Microcode is an abstraction layer on top of the physical components of a CPU and present in most general-purpose CPUs today. In addition to facilitate complex and vast instruction sets, it also provides an update mechanism that allows CPUs to be patched in-place without requiring any special hardware. While it is well-known that CPUs are regularly updated with this mechanism, very little is known about its inner workings given that microcode and the update mechanism are proprietary and have not been throughly analyzed yet.

In this paper, we reverse engineer the microcode semantics and inner workings of its update mechanism of conventional COTS CPUs on the example of AMD’s K8 and K10 microarchitectures. Furthermore, we demonstrate how to develop custom microcode updates. We describe the microcode semantics and additionally present a set of microprograms that demonstrate the possibilities offered by this technology. To this end, our microprograms range from CPU-assisted instrumentation to microcoded Trojans that can even be reached from within a web browser and enable remote code execution and cryptographic implementation attacks.

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BibTeX
@inproceedings {203688,
author = {Philipp Koppe and Benjamin Kollenda and Marc Fyrbiak and Christian Kison and Robert Gawlik and Christof Paar and Thorsten Holz},
title = {Reverse Engineering x86 Processor Microcode},
booktitle = {26th {USENIX} Security Symposium ({USENIX} Security 17)},
year = {2017},
isbn = {978-1-931971-40-9},
address = {Vancouver, BC},
pages = {1163--1180},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity17/technical-sessions/presentation/koppe},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},
}