Sequence of Processor Instructions Leads to Unexpected Behavior (Halt and Catch Fire)

Specific combinations of processor instructions lead to undesirable behavior such as locking the processor until a hard reset performed.


If the instruction set architecture (ISA) and processor logic are not designed carefully, and tested thoroughly, certain combinations of instructions may lead to locking the processor or other unexpected and undesirable behavior. Upon encountering unimplemented instruction opcodes or illegal instruction operands the processor should throw an exception and carry on without negatively impacting security. However, specific combinations of legal and illegal instructions may cause unexpected behavior with security implications such as allowing unprivileged programs to completely lock the CPU.

Some examples are the Pentium f00f bug, MC6800 HCF, the Cyrix comma bug, and more generally other "Halt and Catch Fire" instructions.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

The Pentium F00F bug is a real-world example of how a sequence of instructions can lock a processor. The “cmpxchg8b” instruction compares contents of registers with a memory location. The operand is expected to be a memory location, but in the bad code snippet it is the eax register. Because the specified operand is illegal, an exception is generated, which is the correct behavior and not a security issue in itself. However, when prefixed with the “lock” instruction, the processor deadlocks because locked memory transactions require a read and write pair of transactions to occur before the lock on the memory bus is released. The exception causes a read to occur but there is no corresponding write, as there would have been if a legal operand had been supplied to the cmpxchg8b instruction.

lock cmpxchg8b eax

See Also

Core and Compute Issues

Weaknesses in this category are typically associated with CPUs, Graphics, Vision, AI, FPGA, and microcontrollers.

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses without Software Fault Patterns

CWE identifiers in this view are weaknesses that do not have associated Software Fault Patterns (SFPs), as covered by the CWE-888 view. As such, they represent gaps in...

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during implementation.

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