Retpoline To Improve Windows 10 Performance Following Spectre Vulnerability

Alex Ionescu, a Windows Internals expert and Security Architect with CrowdStrike in mid-October provided new insight into performance improvements coming to the next update of Windows, namely 19H1 or Version 1903:

With performance decreases estimated to be up to 30% in the worst-case scenarios while mitigating the Spectre vulnerabilities earlier this year; the upcoming version of Windows will add Google’s Retpoline instructions to improve performance:

Such instructions are already present in Red Hat, SUSE and Oracle Linux 6 and 7. Ionescu revealed that performance was significantly improved while trusting the newer version of Windows 10. Moreover; Spectre variant 2 (CVE-2017-5715) will now be fully mitigated even if your hardware was not updated to support indirect branch restricted speculation (IBRS); making it more secure. In his words “On systems without IBRS, Windows won’t flush the BPB on kernel->user transitions. This opens up a potential security issue for CPUs without microcode that implements IBRS”.

He also confirmed that Retpoline is enabled on systems with indirect branch prediction barrier (IBPB). This will protect such systems from kernel to user transitions where currently no protection exists. Finally he asked that Retpoline be back ported earlier (but currently supported) versions of Windows since systems without IBRS are “sitting ducks”:

These changes were also announced by a Microsoft engineer, Mehmet Iyigun working within the Windows and Azure kernel team.

In April 2019 we can look forward to a more secure and faster version of Windows. I’m particularly pleased to learn this since my water cooled Intel processor; an 18 core (36 thread) Core i9 7980XE has received full protection from Spectre in the form of IBRS and IBPB from the motherboard vendor. Performance impact has been minimal but any increase in performance is welcomed for my donations to Stanford’s Folding@Home project.

More info on IBRS and IBPB is available from this link. Thank you.

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