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Introduction to Late Launch

This is an introduction of the "Late Launch" process on x86-based systems to establish a Dynamic Root of Trust for Measurement (DRTM). Late Launch is another name for a Dynamic Launch of a system for x86-based platforms. As such it is good to understand the difference between a Static Launch and a Dynamic Launch on x86 platforms. For x86 the fixed location used for a Static Launch is known as the reset vector which maps to SPI flash storage. A Dynamic Launch is achieved with a light-weight processor bootstrap initiated through a CPU instruction. For Intel the capability that provides this is called TXT and is initiated with the GETSEC[SENTER], summarily SENTER, instruction. For AMD it is considered part of AMD's secure virtualization (AMD-V) and is initiated with the SKINIT instruction.

An important function of x86 Late Launch CPU instructions is that they "measure" the execution code provided for the launch. This action of "measure" is accomplished by taking a cryptographic hash using an algorithm supported by the TCG's Trusted Platform Module (TPM) so that it may store the measurement within one of the TPM's Platform Configuration Registers (PCR). This initial measurement, referred to as the Core Root of Trust Measurement (CRTM), is the trust anchor for the DRTM.

While the Intel and AMD implementations of Late Launch both achieve a DRTM, how their implementations arrive at a DRTM are significantly different. As a result each will be addressed separately.

Intel Trusted eXecution Technology (TXT)

For TXT, Intel set about a holistic approachi[1] that introduced the Safer Mode Extensions (SMX) instruction set. As a result TXT provides for advanced security capabilities such as measuring System Management Mode (SMM) when an SMI Transfer Monitor (STM) is in place. The TXT process is built around the SINIT Authenticated Code Module (ACM) and a Measured Launch Environment (MLE). The ACM is a binary provided by Intel and the MLE is a software solution typically provided by the OS provider. Details about the ACM and the MLE are explained in the "Intel TXT Measured Launch Environment Developer's Guide". [2]

SENTER Procedure

From the moment when the SENTER instruction is invoked until execution control is handed to the MLE, a series of computations are completed by the CPU and then by the ACM to generate integrity assertions in the form of measurements about the platform environment as well as the MLE that will be given control. Details about the CPU's role in the launch can be found in the Intel Software Developer's Manual (SDM) under Vol. 2D 6.2.3 para 3 and 6.3 GETSEC[SENTER]. [3] The primary role for the CPU is to establish an environment that minimizes the ability of external tampering and taking the CRTM used for the DRTM. Below is an outline of the internal steps that the CPU takes when the SENTER instruction is initial invoked,

  1. Inhibit processor response to external events: INIT, A20M, NMI, and SMI.
  2. Establish and check the location and size of the authenticated code module to be executed by the ILP.
  3. Check for the existence of an Intel® TXT-capable chipset.
  4. Verify the current power management configuration is acceptable.
  5. Broadcast a message to enable protection of memory and I/O from the activities of other processor agents.
  6. Load the designated AC module into the authenticated code execution area.
  7. Isolate the content of the authenticated code execution area from further state modification by external agents.
  8. Authenticate the AC module.
  9. Updated the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) with the authenticated code module's hash.
  10. Initialize processor state based on the authenticated code module header information.
  11. Unlock the Intel® TXT-capable chipset private configuration register space and TPM locality 3 space.
  12. Begin execution in the authenticated code module at the defined entry point.


The ACM is the portion that is responsible for implementing the advanced security capabilities provided by TXT. To achieve this, the CPU provides a highly privileged execution mode that is capable of inspecting System Management Mode (SMM) memory (SMRAM), this is needed to allow the measurement of the STI. As a result it is highly important that only authorized code is allowed to execute in this mode. This is handled in step 8., the authentication of the ACM. The details of this process can be found in section A.1.2 of the MLE Developers Guide. [2] The ACM is entrusted with a series of responsibilities, ones of particular note are IOMMU protecting the MLE, measuring the MLE, and the enforcement of the Launch Control Policy (LCP),

Launch Control Policy

One of the capabilities provided by the ACM is the LCP Engine. The LCP is a rarely used mechanism to enforce that a known environment is being used. Within the ACM is an LCP engine that will look for a LCP in a designated TPM NVRAM address. The LCP allows for defining expected values for TPM PCRs and/or the expected hash value of the MLE. If a policy check fails, then the LCP Policy Engine will trigger the ACM to error exit from the SENTER instruction.

Measured Launch Environment

The final component in the Intel TXT process is the MLE, a software component that is responsible for the secure setup and execution of the target runtime. As the ACM conducted a transitive trust extension to the MLE, the MLE should similar conduct a transitive trust extension to bring the target runtime within the SMX trust boundary by protecting the runtime's memory from tampering, measuring the runtime, and optionally enforcing policy to ensure only authorized runtimes are allowed to execute.

AMD Secure Startup

The AMD approach is a simpler one that allows more control over code executed by the SKINIT instruction, to include environment setup and measurements, but unlike Intel's ACM, execution is limited to the same accesses as superprivileged mode. This means it is not possible to obtain a measurement of SMRAM at the time of the late launch. Therefore the trust boundary of SKINIT still bound to the SRTM. To use the Secure Startup capability, a Secure Loader (SL) image must be loaded and passed to SKINIT. Details about building an SL and calling the SKINIT instruction can be found in the AMD ARM64 Architecture Programmer's Manual, Volume 2. [2]

SKINIT Procedure

When the SKINIT instruction is executed, the base address for the SL is passed in the EAX register. The CPU will then execute the following sequence,

  1. Reinitialize the processor state similar to INIT signal
  2. Enter 32bit protected mode with paging disabled
  3. Clear all general purpose registers except,
    • EAX: start address of SL
    • EDX: CPU model, family, and stepping
  4. Secures registers,
    • Most MSRs retain their values (except those which might compromise SVM protections)
    • EFER MSR is cleared
    • setting DPD, R_INIT and DIS_A20M flags in the VM_CR register unconditionally to 1
  5. Page align EAX and use as the start address for 64KBytes of DEV protection
  6. Securely initializes AP(s)
    • clears Global Interrupt Flag (GIF)
    • setting DPD, R_INIT and DIS_A20M flags in the VM_CR register
  7. Transmit SL image to TPM for hash, any failure will trigger SKINIT failure
  8. Clear the GIF on the BSP which disables all interrupts, including NMI, SMI, and INIT
  9. Update ESP to point at SL stack (SLB base + 65536)
  10. Add SL entry offset to SL base and jump to that address

Secure Loader

In the AMD world, the initial code executed by the SKINIT instruction is the Secure Loader (SL). The SL is an Owner provided code base that is responsible for securely initializing the system and handover to a Security Kernel (SK). The SL must meet two primary conditions,

  1. SL image's first two words contain the entry point offset and image size
  2. SL image and stack must be less than 64KBytes
  3. SL image must be loaded page aligned

Upon execution, the SL is responsible for protecting the remainder of the execution environment through measurement and memory protection of the SK to which it will be handing over control.

Security Kernel

For AMD Secure Startup the last component is the SK. The SK can be an intermediate kernel or a target runtime kernel. The situation that drives the need for an intermediate kernel is for solutions that need to do more complex security verification and/or hand-off to target runtime kernel that cannot be implemented in less than 64Kbytes.

Foot Notes


Grawrock, D. (2006). The Intel safer computing initiative. Hillsboro, Or.: Intel Press.


Intel® Trusted Execution Technology (Intel® TXT) Software Development Guide: Measured Launched Environment Developer’s Guide


Intel® 64 and IA-32 Architectures Software Developer’s Manual, Combined Volumes: 1, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D and 4


AMD64 Architecture Programmer’s Manual Volume 2: System Programming

Last update: November 30, 2021