Kconfig A A+ F U U+

A: Arch 5.1.8,A+: Arch Harden 5.1.11,F: Fedora 5.1.8,U: Ubuntu 5.0.0,U+: Ubuntu LTE 4.15.0

Mitigating Stack Overflows

When a stack is overflowed, an attacker has a chance to overwrite a security-critical data structure located in another task's stack. For example, thread_info traditionally locates at the bottom of the stack, which one long-size overflow can overwrite to. By overwriting the thread_info, an attacker can escalate its privilege by overwriting the cred structure.

Preventing stack clash

Using virtually-mapped (vmap) stacks has two benefits: 1) flexible in allocating larger, non-continuous pages, 2) preventing a potential stack overflow by placing one guard page between vmapped regions. Such a guard page can mitigate a stack clash that is overwritten by another task, if consequently located. As virtually mapped, the guard page won't be wasting any real page unlike kmalloc()-based stack.

// @kernel/fork.c
  -> __vmalloc_node_range()
     -> __get_vm_area_node()

    // by default, vmap_area includes one more page as a guard
    if (!(flags & VM_NO_GUARD))
      size += PAGE_SIZE;

The way the kernel handles a stack overflow is pretty interesting. When the kernel mode touches a guard page, it generates a page fault, so its handler specifically checks such a condition like below.

// @arch/x86/mm/fault.c
// do_page_fault()
//   -> __do_page_fault()
//      -> do_kern_addr_fault()
//         -> bad_area_nosemaphore()
//            -> __bad_area_nosemaphore()
static noinline void
no_context(struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned long error_code,
	   unsigned long address, int signal, int si_code)
  if (is_vmalloc_addr((void *)address) &&
       (((unsigned long)tsk->stack - 1 - address < PAGE_SIZE) ||
         address - ((unsigned long)tsk->stack + THREAD_SIZE) < PAGE_SIZE)) {

    // NB. as the stack is likely out-of-space, use the stack for double-fault
    unsigned long stack = __this_cpu_ist_top_va(DF) - sizeof(void *);

    // NB. invoke handle_stack_overflow() to inform an oops.
    asm volatile ("movq %[stack], %%rsp\n\t"
                   "call handle_stack_overflow\n\t"
                   "1: jmp 1b"
                   : ASM_CALL_CONSTRAINT
                   : "D" ("kernel stack overflow (page fault)"),
                     "S" (regs), "d" (address),
                   [stack] "rm" (stack));

It's likely that the page fault handler touches the guard page, again as we are running out of the stack space, which generates a double-fault.

// @arch/x86/kernel/traps.c
void do_double_fault(struct pt_regs *regs, long error_code)
  cr2 = read_cr2();
  if ((unsigned long)task_stack_page(tsk) - 1 - cr2 < PAGE_SIZE)
    handle_stack_overflow("kernel stack overflow (double-fault)", regs, cr2);

One difference is that the page fault handler checks one page before/after the stack, but the double-fault handler checks only the overflow (when growing downward). This likely misdiagnoses the condition for STACK_GROWSUP yet rarely used in practice.

Related CVEs. Numerous CVEs (e.g., CVE-2016-10153, CVE-2017-8068, CVE-2017-8070, etc) relevant to VMAP_STACK are recently assigned due to its implication of DoS or potential memory corruption (unlikely controllable). The basic idea is that during iterating the scatter-gather list by a DMA engine, the stack-allocated, vmapped buffer is unlikely physically contiguous across the page boundary, potentially overwriting irrelevant page. It's unlikely that the buffer is large enough to cross the page boundary, otherwise a developer allocated DMA-able region at the first place. One caveat however was that under a certain condition (e.g., DEBUG_VIRTUAL), __phys_addr() can trigger BUG() when the provided address is vmalloc()-region, resulting in a DoS.

Performance implication

VMAP=nVMAP=y, #C=0#C=2#C=3#C=5
iterations, cpu 010634399673101130100568100025
iterations, cpu 211852693372119380117901116726
iterations, cpu 711770094010117651117719115385

The table above shows thread performance results measured using microbenchmarks. The higher the number of iterations, It means the faster the performance. And #C means number of cache entries.

Allocating a stack from the vmalloc area, makes creating a process with clone() take about 1.5┬Ás longer.[1] So for fixing this problem, caching two thread stacks per cpu was introduced.[4]

Thread performance is slower when using virtual mapped stacks. and the performance is affected by number of cache entries. Currently, the number of cache entries is two, and if it is increased than two, the performance is slower a bit. And if CONFIG_VMAP_STACK set when kernel build, it is about 0.1 seconds faster then without CONFIG_VMAP_STACK. So It's better using CONFIG_VMAP_STACK and two cache entries can complement the performance.


  1. LWN: Virtually mapped kernel stacks
  2. CVE-2016-1583: Exploiting Recursion in the Linux Kernel
  3. Mailing: Can someone explain all the CONFIG_VMAP_STACK CVEs lately?
  4. fork: Cache two thread stacks per cpu if CONFIG_VMAP_STACK is set

Protecting thread_info

Hijacking thread_info or task_struct is a straight way to achieve a privilege escalation: overwriting its uid to the root's, zero. As they are used to locate at the bottom of the stack (e.g., task_struct in <2.6 or thread_info in later versions), bugs such as stack clash, stack overflow, or arbitrary write after a stack pointer leak, can launch an exploit against them.

An easy mitigation is to completely remove them from the stack: THREAD_INFO_IN_TASK, as its name implicates, embeds thread_info into task_struct. Since the current task can be accessed with per-cpu data structure, thread_info can be accessed with one additional memory access. Note that thread_info is supposed to contain the architecture-specific information and task_struct does for architecture-neutral data. The current effort in x86 virtually migrates all information to the task_struct.

// @include/linux/sched.h
struct task_struct {
   * For reasons of header soup (see current_thread_info()), this
   * must be the first element of task_struct.
   struct thread_info thread_info;

The bottom of the stack contains thread_info if not THREAD_INFO_IN_TASK, which is protected by a magic value, STACK_END_MAGIC that shouldn't be considered as security enhancement or mechanism. end_of_stack() simply returns the usable stack region and handles both situation seamlessly.

// @include/linux/sched/task_stack.h
void set_task_stack_end_magic(struct task_struct *tsk)
  unsigned long *stackend;
  stackend = end_of_stack(tsk);

  // NB. indicating that current stack is overwritten by an overflow
  *stackend = STACK_END_MAGIC;

unsigned long *end_of_stack(const struct task_struct *task)
  return task->stack;
// NB. thread_info will be copied as part of task_struct
#define setup_thread_stack(new,old) do { } while(0)

unsigned long *end_of_stack(struct task_struct *p)
  return (unsigned long *)(task_thread_info(p) + 1);
void setup_thread_stack(struct task_struct *p, struct task_struct *org)
  // NB. copied to the stack end (top)
  *task_thread_info(p) = *task_thread_info(org);
  task_thread_info(p)->task = p;

Performance implication

  • don't expect much

Stack canary (SSP)

FIX. config in 4.15 is named differently

Performance implication

Option Size (KB) Protected functions

None 53,519 KB 0/48,606

STACKPROTECTOR 53,490 KB (-0.05%) 1,390/48,607 (+2.86%)

STACKPROTECTOR_STRONG 55,312 KB (+3.35%) 9,922/48,608 (+20.41%)

STACKPROTECTOR_STRONG inserts a canary to 20% of functions in the kernel, unlike STACKPROTECTOR protects 3%, resulting in about 3% increment of the binary size. For example, bstat() is newly protected with STACKPROTECTOR_STRONG as it has struct kstat as a local variable.

What's interesting is the binary size of STACKPROTECTOR compared with the unprotected binary: inserting canary indeed reduces the binary size. According to our analysis, checking canary at the epilogue tends to encourage the reuse of common gadgets (e.g., pop or ret) at exit paths, rendering better utilization of instructions.