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Disabling vulnerable PSF mechanism in AMD Zen 3 processors almost does not decrease performance
04.04.2021 [23:26],
Konstantin Khodakovsky

AMD recently announced that the Predictive Store Forwarding (PSF) mechanism in Zen 3 processors is susceptible to side-channel attacks (such as Specter and Meltdown), which are based on the analysis of data deposited in the processor cache during speculative instruction execution. The company told users how they can secure themselves and disable this functionality, but did not comment on how this would affect performance. Phoronix journalists decided to clarify this issue.


New Predictive Store Forwarding (PSF) Prediction Engine in AMD Zen 3 Processors Exposed to Hardware Side Channel Reading Vulnerability. In theory, disabling this feature should reduce performance, and this is exactly the effect we observed on the example of Intel processors in the process of eliminating the Specter and Meltdown vulnerabilities. But at the moment AMD refers to the fact that the cases of exploitation of the vulnerability in PSF are unknown, so it does not recommend end users to disable the functionality in order to avoid performance degradation.

PSF is disabled in Zen 3 processors by setting certain MSR bits. In a whitepaper, AMD promised to publish patches for Linux to make it easy to disable PSF if needed, but there are no publicly available patches yet.


Nevertheless, Michael Larabel of Phoronix built his own Linux kernel with PSF disabled and ran dozens of tests on several systems with AMD Ryzen 5000 and EPYC 7003 series processors on a regular core and a kernel with PSF disabled. According to him, testing was carried out on a wide range of workloads, with each test being automatically launched several times.

As a result, I had to admit that disabling PSF has a minimal effect on performance. In most cases, the difference was within the margin of error, although in some workloads it approached 1%. For example, the Ryzen 7 5800X has been run through a suite of over 100 benchmarks. At the same time, the averaging of all results indicates less than 1.5% loss of performance when the potentially dangerous Zen 3 function is turned off.


In short, while AMD generally discourages its customers from disabling PSF, if someone decides to take this step in the name of improved security, it likely won’t result in any significant performance difference. Unlike other patches designed to combat attacks related to speculative command execution, this time everything came at a low cost.

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