Spectre and Meltdown: How Cache Works

The year so far has been filled with news of Spectre and Meltdown. These exploits take advantage of features like speculative execution, and memory access timing. What they have in common is the fact that all modern processors use cache to access memory faster. We’ve all heard of cache, but what exactly is it, and how does it allow our computers to run faster?

In the simplest terms, cache is a fast memory. Computers have two storage systems: primary storage (RAM) and secondary storage (Hard Disk, SSD). From the processor’s point of view, loading data or instructions from RAM is slow — the CPU has to wait and do nothing for 100 cycles or more while the data is loaded. Loading from disk is even slower; millions of cycles are wasted. Cache is a small amount of very fast memory which is used to hold commonly accessed data and instructions. This means the processor only has to wait for the cache to be loaded once. After that, the data is accessible with no waiting.

A common (though aging) analogy for cache uses books to represent data: If you needed a specific book to look up an important piece of information, you would first check the books on your desk (cache memory). If your book isn’t there, you’d then go to the books on your shelves (RAM). If that search turned up empty, you’d head over to the local library (Hard Drive) and check out the book. Once back home, you would keep the book on your desk for quick reference — not immediately return it to the library shelves. This is how cache reading works.

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