time to bleed by Joe Damato

technical ramblings from a wanna-be unix dinosaur

Archive for the ‘testing’ Category

GCC optimization flag makes your 64bit binary fatter and slower

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The intention of this post is to highlight a subtle GCC optimization bug that leads to slower and larger code being generated than would have been generated without the optimization flag.

UPDATED: Graphs are now 0 based on the y axis. Links in the tidbits section (below conclusion) for my ugly test harness and terminal session of the build of the test case in the bug report, objdump, and corresponding system information.

Hold the #gccfail tweets, son.

Everyone fucks up. The point of this post is not to rag on GCC. If writing a C compiler was easy then every asshole with a keyboard would write one for fun.


Watch yourself.

The original bug report for -fomit-frame-pointer.

I stumbled across a bug report for GCC that was very interesting. It points out a very subtle bug that occurs when the -fomit-frame-pointer flag is passed to GCC. The bug report is for 32bit code, however after some testing I found that this bug also rears its head in 64bit code.

What is -fomit-frame-pointer supposed to do?

The -fomit-frame-pointer flag is intended to direct GCC to avoid saving and restoring the frame pointer (%ebp or %rbp). This is supposed to make function calls faster, since the function is doing less work each invocation. It should also make function code take fewer bytes since there are fewer instructions being executed.

A caveat of using -fomit-frame-pointer is that it may make debugging impossible on certain systems. To combat this on Linux, .debug_frame and .eh_frame sections are added to ELF binaries to assist in the stack unwinding process when the frame pointer is omitted.

What is the bug?

The bug is that when -fomit-frame-pointer is used, GCC erroneously uses the frame pointer register as a general purpose register when a different register could be used instead.


The amd64 and i386 ABIs1 2 specify a list of caller and callee saved registers.

  • The frame pointer register is callee saved. That means that if a function is going to use the frame pointer register, it must save and restore the value in the register.
  • The test case provided in the bug report shows that other caller saved registers were available for use.
  • Had the function used a caller saved register instead, there would be no need for the additional save and restore instructions in the function.
  • Removing those instructions would take fewer bytes and execute faster.

What are the consequences?

Let’s take a look at two potential pieces of code.

The first piece is the code that would be generated if -fomit-frame-pointer is not used:

        pushq %rbp       ; save frame pointer
        movq %rsp,%rbp   ; update frame pointer to the current stack pointer
           ; here is where your function would do work
        leave            ; restore the stack pointer and frame pointer
        ret              ; return

Size: 6 bytes.

The above assembly sequence uses the frame pointer.

Let’s take a look at the code that is generated by GCC when -fomit-frame-pointer is used:

        sub $0x8, %rsp    ; make room on the stack
        movq %rbp, (%rsp) ; store rbp on the stack
          ; here is where your function would modify and use %rbp as needed
        movq (%rsp), %rbp ; restore %rbp
        add $0x8, %rsp    ; get rid of the extra stack space
        ret               ; return

Size: 17 bytes.

The above assembly sequence is what is generated when GCC decides to use the frame pointer register as a general purpose register. Since it is callee saved, it must be saved before being modified and restored after being modified.

So -fomit-frame-pointer makes your binary fatter, but does it make it slower?

Only one way to find out: do science.

I built a simple (and very ugly) testing harness to test the above pieces of code to determine which piece of code is faster. Before we get into the benchmark results, I want to tell you why my benchmark is bullshit.

Yes, bullshit.

You see, it makes me sad when people post benchmarks and neglect to tell others why their benchmark may be inaccurate. So, lemme start the trend.

This benchmark is useless because:

  • Reading the CPU cycle counter is unreliable (more on this below the conclusion). I also tracked wall clock time, too.
  • I don’t have the ideal test environment. I ran this on bare metal hardware, and set the CPU affinity to keep the process pinned to a single CPU… BUT
  • I could have done better if I had pinned init to CPU0 (thereby forcing all children of init to be pinned to CPU0 – remember child processes inherit the affinity mask). I would have then had an entire CPU for nothing but my benchmark.
  • I could have done better if I forced the CPU running my benchmark program to not handle any IRQs.
  • I only tested one version of GCC: (Debian 4.3.2-1.1) 4.3.2
  • I could have taken more samples.

You can find more testing harness tidbits below the conclusion.

Benchmark Results

test 1 — Code sequence simulating using the frame pointer.
test 2 — Code sequence simulating using the frame pointer as a general purpose register.

64bit results

Using -fomit-frame-pointer is SLOWER (contrary to what you’d expect) than not using it!

cycles test 1 cycles test 2 microsecs test 1 microsecs test 2
mean 3514422987.92 4559685515.66 1882707.27 2442663.94
median 3507007423.5 4562511684.5 1878721.5 2444171.5
max 3922780211 4672066854 2101457 2502869
min 3502194976 4327782795 1876113 2318452
std dev 31927179.5632 15449507.8196 17103.7755 8275.49788
variance 1.02E+15 238687291867021 292539135.936 68483865.11835

32bit results

Using -fomit-frame-pointer is FASTER (as it should be) than not using it! The binary is still fatter, though.

cycles test 1 cycles test 2 microsecs test 1 microsecs test 2
mean 3502932799.49 3491263364.89 1876553.08 1870301.35
median 3501486586.5 3492013955.5 1875778 1870702.5
max 3905163528 3731985243 2092032 1999259
min 3500916510 3408834436 1875472 1826144
std dev 10066939.1113 7992367.6913 5393.0412 4281.5466
variance 101343263071403 63877941312996.4 29084893.2588 18331640.9459


  • GCC is a really complex piece of software; this bug is very subtle and may have existed for a while.
  • I’ve said this a few times, but knowing and understanding your system’s ABI is crucial for catching bugs like these.
  • Math and science are cool now, much like computers. You should use both.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to subscribe (via RSS or e-mail) and follow me on twitter.

Testing harness tidbits

Each run of the benchmark executes either test1 or test2 (from above) 500,000,000 times. I did around 2500 runs for each test function.

You can get the testing harness, a build script, and a test script here: http://gist.github.com/483524

You can look at the terminal session where I build the test from the original bug report on my system: http://gist.github.com/483494

The code I used to read the CPU cycle counter looks like this:

static __inline__ unsigned long long rdtsc(void)
  unsigned long hi = 0, lo = 0;
  __asm__ __volatile__ ("lfence\n\trdtsc" : "=a"(lo), "=d"(hi));
  return ( (unsigned long long)lo)|( ((unsigned long long)hi)<<32 );

The lfence instruction is a serializing instruction that ensures that all load instructions which were issued before the lfence instruction have been executed before proceeding. I did this to make sure that the cycle counter was being read after all operations in the test functions were executed.

The values returned by this function are misleading because CPU frequency may be scaled at any time. This is why I also measured wall clock time.


  1. http://www.sco.com/developers/devspecs/abi386-4.pdf []
  2. http://www.x86-64.org/documentation/abi.pdf []

Written by Joe Damato

July 20th, 2010 at 5:59 am

Rewrite your Ruby VM at runtime to hot patch useful features

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Some notes before the blood starts flowin’

  • CAUTION: What you are about to read is dangerous, non-portable, and (in most cases) stupid.
  • The code and article below refer only to the x86_64 architecture.
  • Grab some gauze. This is going to get ugly.


This article shows off a Ruby gem which has the power to overwrite a Ruby binary in memory while it is running to allow your code to execute in place of internal VM functions. This is useful if you’d like to hook all object allocation functions to build a memory profiler.

This gem is on GitHub

Yes, it’s on GitHub: http://github.com/ice799/memprof.

I want a memory profiler for Ruby

This whole science experiment started during RubyConf when Aman and I began brainstorming ways to build a memory profiling tool for Ruby.

The big problem in our minds was that for most tools we’d have to include patches to the Ruby VM. That process is long and somewhat difficult, so I started thinking about ways to do this without modifying the Ruby source code itself.

The memory profiler is NOT DONE just yet. I thought that the hack I wrote to let us build something without modifying Ruby source code was interesting enough that it warranted a blog post. So let’s get rolling.

What is a trampoline?

Let’s pretend you have 2 functions: functionA() and functionB(). Let’s assume that functionA() calls functionB().

Now also imagine that you’d like to insert a piece of code to execute in between the call to functionB(). You can imagine inserting a piece of code that diverts execution elsewhere, creating a flow: functionA() –> functionC() –> functionB()

You can accomplish this by inserting a trampoline.

A trampoline is a piece of code that program execution jumps into and then bounces out of and on to somewhere else1.

This hack relies on the use of multiple trampolines. We’ll see why shortly.

Two different kinds of trampolines

There are two different kinds of trampolines that I considered while writing this hack, let’s take a closer look at both.

Caller-side trampoline

A caller-side trampoline works by overwriting the opcodes in the .text segment of the program in the calling function causing it to call a different function at runtime.

The big pros of this method are:

  • You aren’t overwriting any code, only the address operand of a callq instruction.
  • Since you are only changing an operand, you can hook any function. You don’t need to build custom trampolines for each function.

This method also has some big cons too:

  • You’ll need to scan the entire binary in memory and find and overwrite all address operands of callq. This is problematic because if you overwrite any false-positives you might break your application.
  • You have to deal with the implications of callq, which can be painful as we’ll see soon.

Callee-side trampoline

A callee-side trampoline works by overwriting the opcodes in the .text segment of the program in the called function, causing it to call another function immediately

The big pro of this method is:

  • You only need to overwrite code in one place and don’t need to worry about accidentally scribbling on bytes that you didn’t mean to.

this method has some big cons too:

  • You’ll need to carefully construct your trampoline code to only overwrite as little of the function as possible (or some how restore opcodes), especially if you expect the original function to work as expected later.
  • You’ll need to special case each trampoline you build for different optimization levels of the binary you are hooking into.

I went with a caller-side trampoline because I wanted to ensure that I can hook any function and not have to worry about different Ruby binaries causing problems when they are compiled with different optimization levels.

The stage 1 trampoline

To insert my trampolines I needed to insert some binary into the process and then overwrite callq instructions like this:

  41150b:       e8 cc 4e 02 00         callq  4363dc [rb_newobj]
  411510:       48 89 45 f8             ....

In the above code snippet, the byte e8 is the callq opcode and the bytes cc 4e 02 00 are the distance to rb_newobj from the address of the next instruction, 0×411510

All I need to do is change the 4 bytes following e8 to equal the displacement between the next instruction, 0×411510 in this case, and my trampoline.


My first cut at this code lead me to an important realization: the callq instructions used expect a 32bit displacement from the function I am calling and not absolute addresses. But, the 64bit address space is very large. The displacement between the code for the Ruby binary that lives in the .text segment is so far away from my Ruby gem that the displacement cannot be represented with only 32bits.

So what now?

Well, luckily mmap has a flag MAP_32BIT which maps a page in the first 2GB of the address space. If I map some code there, it should be well within the range of values whose displacement I can represent in 32bits.

So, why not map a second trampoline to that page which can contains code that can call an absolute address?

My stage 1 trampoline code looks something like this:

  /* the struct below is just a sequence of bytes which represent the
    *  following bit of assembly code, including 3 nops for padding:
    *  mov $address, %rbx
    *  callq *%rbx
    *  ret
    *  nop
    *  nop
    *  nop
  struct tramp_tbl_entry ent = {
    .mov = {'\x48','\xbb'},
    .addr = (long long)&error_tramp,
    .callq = {'\xff','\xd3'},
    .ret = '\xc3',
    .pad =  {'\x90','\x90','\x90'},

  tramp_table = mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_WRITE|PROT_READ|PROT_EXEC, 
                                   MAP_32BIT|MAP_ANONYMOUS|MAP_PRIVATE, -1, 0);
  if (tramp_table != MAP_FAILED) {
    for (; i < 4096/sizeof(struct tramp_tbl_entry); i ++ ) {
      memcpy(tramp_table + i, &ent, sizeof(struct tramp_tbl_entry));

It mmaps a single page and writes a table of default trampolines (like a jump table) that all call an error trampoline by default. When a new trampoline is inserted, I just go to that entry in the table and insert the address that should be called.

To get around the displacement challenge described above, the addresses I insert into the stage 1 trampoline table are addresses for stage 2 trampolines.

The stage 2 trampoline

Setting up the stage 2 trampolines are pretty simple once the stage 1 trampoline table has been written to memory. All that needs to be done is update the address field in a free stage 1 trampoline to be the address of my stage 2 trampoline. These trampolines are written in C and live in my Ruby gem.

static void
insert_tramp(char *trampee, void *tramp) {
  void *trampee_addr = find_symbol(trampee);
  int entry = tramp_size;
  tramp_table[tramp_size].addr = (long long)tramp;
  update_image(entry, trampee_addr);

An example of a stage 2 trampoline for rb_newobj might be:

static VALUE
newobj_tramp() {
  /* print the ruby source and line number where the allocation is occuring */
  printf("source = %s, line = %d\n", ruby_sourcefile, ruby_sourceline);

  /* call newobj like normal so the ruby app can continue */
  return rb_newobj();

Programatically rewriting the Ruby binary in memory

Overwriting the Ruby binary to cause my stage 1 trampolines to get hit is pretty simple, too. I can just scan the .text segment of the binary looking for bytes which look like callq instructions. Then, I can sanity check by reading the next 4 bytes which should be the displacement to the original function. Doing that sanity check should prevent false positives.

static void
update_image(int entry, void *trampee_addr) {
  char *byte = text_segment;
  size_t count = 0;
  int fn_addr = 0;
  void *aligned_addr = NULL;

 /* check each byte in the .text segment */
  for(; count < text_segment_len; count++) {

    /* if it looks like a callq instruction... */
    if (*byte == '\xe8') {

      /* the next 4 bytes SHOULD BE the original displacement */
      fn_addr = *(int *)(byte+1);

      /* do a sanity check to make sure the next few bytes are an accurate displacement.
        * this helps to eliminate false positives.
      if (trampee_addr - (void *)(byte+5) == fn_addr) {
        aligned_addr = (void*)(((long)byte+1)&~(0xffff));

        /* mark the page in the .text segment as writable so it can be modified */
        mprotect(aligned_addr, (void *)byte+1 - aligned_addr + 10, 

        /* calculate the new displacement and write it */
        *(int  *)(byte+1) = (uint32_t)((void *)(tramp_table + entry) 
                                     - (void *)(byte + 5));
        /* disallow writing to this page of the .text segment again  */
        mprotect(aligned_addr, (((void *)byte+1) - aligned_addr) + 10,

Sample output

After requiring my ruby gem and running a test script which creates lots of objects, I see this output:

source = test.rb, line = 8
source = test.rb, line = 8
source = test.rb, line = 8
source = test.rb, line = 8
source = test.rb, line = 8
source = test.rb, line = 8
source = test.rb, line = 8

Showing the file name and line number for each object getting allocated. That should be a strong enough primitive to build a Ruby memory profiler without requiring end users to build a custom version of Ruby. It should also be possible to re-implement bleak_house by using this gem (and maybe another trick or two).



  • One step closer to building a memory profiler without requiring end users to find and use patches floating around the internet.
  • It is unclear whether cheap tricks like this are useful or harmful, but they are fun to write.
  • If you understand how your system works at an intimate level, nearly anything is possible. The work required to make it happen might be difficult though.

Thanks for reading and don't forget to subscribe (via RSS or e-mail) and follow me on twitter.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trampoline_(computers) []

Written by Joe Damato

November 23rd, 2009 at 5:59 am

Defeating the Matasano C++ Challenge with ASLR enabled

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Important note

I am NOT a security researcher (I kinda want to be though). As such, there are probably way better ways to do everything in this article. This article is just illustrating my thought process when cracking this challenge.

The Challenge

The Matasano Security blog recently posted an article titled A C++ Challenge1 which included a particularly ugly piece of C++ code that has a security vulnerability. The challenge is for the reader to find the vulnerability, use it execute arbitrary code, and submit the data to Matasano.

Sounds easy enough, let’s do this! cue hacking music

Making it harder

Recent linux kernels have feature called Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) which can be set in /proc/sys/kernel/randomize_va_space. ASLR is a security feature which randomizes the start address of various parts of a process image. Doing this makes exploiting a security bug more difficult because the exploit cannot use any hard coded addresses.

The options you can set are:

  • 0 – ASLR off
  • 1 – Randomize the addresses of the stack, mmap area, and VDSO page. This is the default.
  • 2 – Everything in option 1, but also randomize the brk area so the heap is randomized.

Just for fun I decided to set it to 2 to make exploiting the challenge more difficult.

Got the code, but now what?

I decided to start attacking this problem by looking for a few common errors, in this order:

  1. strcpy()/strncpy() bugs No calls
  2. memcpy() bugs A few calls
  3. Off by one bugs None obvious

It turned out from a quick look that all calls to memcpy() included sane, hard-coded values. So, it had to be something more complex.

Digging deeper – finding input streams the user can control

Next, I decided to actually read the code and see what it was doing at a high level and what inputs could be controlled. Turns out that the program reads data from a file and uses the data from the file to determine how many objects to allocate.

Obviously, this portion of the code caught my interest so let’s take a quick look:

/* ... */

fd.read(file_in_mem, MAX_FILE_SIZE-1);

/* ... */

struct _stream_hdr *s = (struct _stream_hdr *) file_in_mem;

if(s->num_of_streams >= INT_MAX / (int)sizeof(int)) {
    safe_count = MAX_STREAMS;
} else {
    safe_count = s->num_of_streams;

Obj *o = new Obj[safe_count];

OK, so clearly that if statement is suspect. At the very least it doesn’t check for negative values, so you could end up with safe_count = -1 which might do something interesting when passed to the new operator. Moreover, it appears this if statement will allow values as large as 536870910 ([INT_MAX / sizeof(int)] – 1).

Maybe the exploit has something to do with values this if statement is allowing through?

A closer look at the integer overflow in new

Let’s use GDB to take a closer look at what the compiler does before calling new. I’ve added a few comments in line to explain the assembly code:

mov    %edx,%eax   ;  %edx and %eax store s->num_of_streams
add    %eax,%eax   ;  add %eax to itself (s->num_of_streams * 2)
add    %edx,%eax   ;  add  s->num_of_streams + %eax (s->num_of_streams*3)
shl    $0x2,%eax   ;  multiply (s->num_of_streams * 3) by 4  (s->num_of_streams * 12)
mov    %eax,(%esp) ;  move it into position to pass to new
call   0x8048a7c <_Znaj@plt> ; call new

The compiler has generated code to calculate: s->num_of_streams * sizeof(Obj). sizeof(Obj) is 12 bytes. For large values of s->num_of_streams multiplying it by 12, causes an integer overflow and the value passed to new will actually be less than what was intended.

For my exploit, I ended up using the value 357913943. This value causes an overflow, because 357913943 * 12 is greater than the biggest possible value for an integer by 20. So the value passed to new is 20. Which is, of course, significantly less than what we actually wanted to allocate. Other people have written about integer overflow in new in other compilers2 before.

Let’s see how this can be used to cause arbitrary code to execute. Remember, for arbitrary code execution to occur there must be a way to cause the target program to write some data to a memory address that can be controlled.

Find the (possible) hand-off(s) to arbitrary code

To find any hand-off locations, I looked for places where memory writes were occurring in the program. I found a few memory writes:

  • 2 calls to memset()
  • 2 calls to memcpy()
  • parse_stream() of class Obj

Unfortunately (from the attacker’s perspective) the calls to memcpy() and memset() looked pretty sane. The parse_stream() function caught my interest, though.

Take a look:

class Obj {
    int parse_stream(int t, char *stream)
      type = t;
      // ... do something with stream here ...
      return 0;

    int length;
    int type;
/* ... */

REMEMBER: In C++, member functions of classes have a sekrit parameter which is a pointer to the object the function is being called on. In the function itself, this parameter is accessed using this. So the line writing to the type variable is actually doing this->type = t; where this is supplied to the function sektrily by the compiler.

This is important because this piece of code could be our hand-off! We need to find a way to control the value of this so we can cause a memory write to a location of our choice.

Controlling this to cause arbitrary code to execute

Take a look at an important piece of code in the challenge:

struct imetad {
  int msg_length;
  int (*callback)(int, struct imetad *);
/* ... */

Nice! The callback field of struct imetad is offset by 4 bytes into the structure. The type field of class Obj is also offset by 4 bytes. See where I’m going?

If we can control the this pointer to point at the struct imetad on the heap when parse_stream is called, it will overwrite the callback pointer. We’ll then be able to set the pointer to any address we want and hand-off execution to arbitrary code!

But how can we manipulate this?

Take a look at this piece of code that calls callback:

o[i].parse_stream(dword, stream_temp);
imd->callback(o[i].type, imd);

Since it is possible to overflow new and allocate fewer objects than safe_count is counting, that means that for some values of i, o[i] will be pointing at data that isn’t actually an Obj object, but just other data on the heap. Infact, when i = 2, o[i] will be pointing at the struct imetad object on the heap. The call to parse_stream will pass in a corrupted this pointer, that points at struct imetad. The write to type will actually overwrite callback since they are both offset equal amounts into their respective structures.

And with that, we’ve successfully exploited the challenge causing arbitrary code to execute.

Let’s now figure out how to beat ASLR!

How to defeat address space layout randomization

I did NOT invent this technique, but I read about it and thought it was cool. You can read a more verbose explanation of this technique here. The idea behind the technique is pretty simple:

  • When you call exec, the PID remains the same, but the image of the process in memory is changed.
  • The kernel uses the PID and the number of jiffies (jiffies is a fine-grained time measurement in the kernel) to pull data from the entropy pool.
  • If you can run a program which records stack, heap, and other addresses and then quickly call exec to start the vulnerable program, you can end up with the same memory layout.

My exploit program is actually a wrapper which records an approximate location of the heap (by just calling malloc()), generates the exploit file, and then executes the challenge binary.

Take a look at the relevant pieces of my exploit to get an idea of how it works:

/* ... */

/* do a malloc to get an idea of where the heap lives */
void *dummy = malloc(10);

/* ... */

unsigned int shell_addr = reinterpret_void_ptr_as_uint(dummy);

 * XXX TODO FIXME - on my platform, execl'ing from here to the challenge binary
 * incurs a constant offset of 0x3160, probably for changes in the environment
 * (libs linked for c++ and whatnot).
shell_addr += 0x3160;

 * a guess as to how far off the heap the shellcode lives.
 * luckily we have a large NOP sled, so we should only fail when we miss
 * the current entropy cycle (see below).
shell_addr += 700;

/* ... build exploit file in memory ... */

/* copy in our best guess as to the address of the shellcode, pray NOPs
 * take care of the rest! */
memcpy(entire_file+88, &shell_addr, sizeof(shell_addr));

/* ... write exploit out to disk ... */

/* launch program with the generated exploit file!
* calling execl here inherits the PID of this process, and IF we get lucky
* ~85%+ of the time, we'll execute before the next entropy cycle and hit
* the shellcode, even with ASLR=2.
execl("./cpp_challenge", "cpp_challenge", "exploit", (char *)0);

My exploit for the C++ challenge

My exploit comes with the following caveats:

  • i386 system
  • The challenge binary is called “cpp_challenge” and lives in the same directory as the exploit binary.
  • The exploit binary can write to the directory and create a file called “exploit” which will be handed off to “cpp_challenge”

Get the full code of my exploit here.


Results on my i386 Ubuntu 8.04 VM running in VMWare fusion, for each level of randomize_va_space:

  • 0 – 100% exploit hit rate
  • 1 – 100% exploit hit rate
  • 2 – ~85% exploit hit rate. Sometimes, my exploit code falls out of the time window and the address map changes before the challenge binary is run

I could probably boost the hit rate for 2 a bit, but then I’d probably re-write the entire exploit in assembly to make it run as fast as possible. I didn’t think there was really a point to going to such an extreme, though. So, an 85% hit rate is good enough.


  1. Security challenges are fun.
  2. More emphasis and more freely available information on secure coding would be very useful.
  3. Like it or not developers need to be security conscious when writing code in C and C++.
  4. As C and C++ change, developers need to carefully consider security implications of new features.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to subscribe (via RSS or e-mail) and follow me on twitter.


  1. Matasano Security LLC – Chargen – A C++ Challenge []
  2. Integer overflow in the new[] operator []

Written by Joe Damato

October 16th, 2009 at 4:59 am

Fix a bug in Ruby’s configure.in and get a ~30% performance boost.

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Special thanks…

Going out to Jake Douglas for pushing the initial investigation and getting the ball rolling.

The whole --enable-pthread thing

Ask any Ruby hacker how to easily increase performance in a threaded Ruby application and they’ll probably tell you:

Yo dude… Everyone knows you need to configure Ruby with --disable-pthread.

And it’s true; configure Ruby with --disable-pthread and you get a ~30% performance boost. But… why?

For this, we’ll have to turn to our handy tool strace. We’ll also need a simple Ruby program to this one. How about something like this:

def make_thread
  Thread.new {
    a = []
    10_000_000.times {
      a << "a"

t = make_thread 
t1 = make_thread 


Now, let's run strace on a version of Ruby configure'd with --enable-pthread and point it at our test script. The output from strace looks like this:

22:46:16.706136 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706177 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706218 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706259 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000005>
22:46:16.706301 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706342 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706383 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706425 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>
22:46:16.706466 rt_sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, NULL, [], 8) = 0 <0.000004>

Pages and pages and pages of sigprocmask system calls (Actually, running with strace -c, I get about 20,054,180 calls to sigprocmask, WOW). Running the same test script against a Ruby built with --disable-pthread and the output does not have pages and pages of sigprocmask calls (only 3 times, a HUGE reduction).

OK, so let's just set a breakpoint in GDB... right?

OK, so we should just be able to set a breakpoint on sigprocmask and figure out who is calling it.

Well, not exactly. You can try it, but the breakpoint won't trigger (we'll see why a little bit later).

Hrm, that kinda sucks and is confusing. This will make it harder to track down who is calling sigprocmask in the threaded case.

Well, we know that when you run configure the script creates a config.h with a bunch of defines that Ruby uses to decide which functions to use for what. So let's compare ./configure --enable-pthread with ./configure --disable-pthread:

[joe@mawu:/home/joe/ruby]% diff config.h config.h.pthread 
> #define _REENTRANT 1
> #define _THREAD_SAFE 1
> #define HAVE_NANOSLEEP 1

OK, now if we grep the Ruby source code, we see that whenever HAVE_[SG]ETCONTEXT are set, Ruby uses the system calls setcontext() and getcontext() to save and restore state for context switching and for exception handling (via the EXEC_TAG).

What about when HAVE_[SG]ETCONTEXT are not define'd? Well in that case, Ruby uses _setjmp/_longjmp.


That's what's going on! From the _setjmp/_longjmp man page:

... The _longjmp() and _setjmp() functions shall be equivalent to longjmp() and setjmp(), respectively, with the additional restriction that _longjmp() and _setjmp() shall not manipulate the signal mask...

And from the [sg]etcontext man page:

... uc_sigmask is the set of signals blocked in this context (see sigprocmask(2)) ...

The issue is that getcontext calls sigprocmask on every invocation but _setjmp does not.

BUT WAIT if that's true why didn't GDB hit a sigprocmask breakpoint before?

x86_64 assembly FTW, again

Let's fire up gdb and figure out this breakpoint-not-breaking thing. First, let's start by disassembling getcontext (snipped for brevity):

(gdb) p getcontext
$1 = {} 0x7ffff7825100
(gdb) disas getcontext
0x00007ffff782517f : mov $0xe,%rax
0x00007ffff7825186 : syscall

Yeah, that's pretty weird. I'll explain why in a minute, but let's look at the disassembly of sigprocmask first:

(gdb) p sigprocmask
$2 = {} 0x7ffff7817340 <__sigprocmask>
(gdb) disas sigprocmask
0x00007ffff7817383 <__sigprocmask+67>: mov $0xe,%rax
0x00007ffff7817388 <__sigprocmask+72>: syscall

Yeah, this is a bit confusing, but here's the deal.

Recent Linux kernels implement a shiny new method for calling system calls called sysenter/sysexit. This new way was created because the old way (int $0x80) turned out to be pretty slow. So Intel created some new instructions to execute system calls without such huge overhead.

All you need to know right now (I'll try to blog more about this in the future) is that the %rax register holds the system call number. The syscall instruction transfers control to the kernel and the kernel figures out which syscall you wanted by checking the value in %rax. Let's just make sure that sigprocmask is actually 0xe:

[joe@pluto:/usr/include]% grep -Hrn "sigprocmask" asm-x86_64/unistd.h 
asm-x86_64/unistd.h:44:#define __NR_rt_sigprocmask                     14

Bingo. It's calling sigprocmask (albeit a bit obscurely).

OK, so getcontext isn't calling sigprocmask directly, instead it replicates a bunch of code that sigprocmask has in its function body. That's why we didn't hit the sigprocmask breakpoint; GDB was going to break if you landed on the address 0x7ffff7817340 but you didn't.

Instead, getcontext reimplements the wrapper code for sigprocmask itself and GDB is none the wiser.

Mystery solved.

The patch

Get it HERE

The patch works by adding a new configure flag called --disable-ucontext to allow you to specifically disable [sg]etcontext from being called, you use this in conjunction with --enable-pthread, like this:

./configure --disable-ucontext --enable-pthread

After you build Ruby configured like that, its performance is on par with (and sometimes slightly faster) than Ruby built with --disable-pthread for about a 30% performance boost when compared to --enable-pthread.

I added the switch because I wanted to preserve the original Ruby behavior, if you just pass --enable-pthread without --disable-ucontext Ruby will do the old thing and generate piles of sigprocmasks.


  1. Things aren't always what they seem - GDB may lie to you. Be careful.
  2. Use the source, Luke. Libraries can do unexpected things, debug builds of libc can help!
  3. I know I keep saying this, assembly is useful. Start learning it today!

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You'll want to stay tuned; tmm1 and I have been on a roll the past week. Lots of cool stuff coming out!

Written by Joe Damato

May 5th, 2009 at 3:20 am

5 Things You Don’t Know About User IDs That Will Destroy You

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*nix user and group IDs are complicated, confusing, and often misused. Look at this code snippet from the popular Ruby project, Starling:

def drop_privileges
  Process.egid = options[:group] if options[:group]
  Process.euid = options[:user] if options[:user]

At quick first glance, you might think this code looks OK. But you’d be wrong.

Let’s take a look at 5 things you probably don’t know about user and group IDs that can lead you to your downfall.

  1. The difference between real, effective, and saved IDs
  2. This is always a bit confusing, but without a solid understanding of this concept you are doomed later.

    • Real ID – The real ID is the ID of the process that created the current process. So, let’s say you log in to your box as joe, your shell is then launched with its real ID set to joe. All processes you start from your shell will inherit the real ID joe as their real ID.
    • Effective ID – The effective ID is the ID that the system uses to determine whether a process can take a particular action. There are two popular ways to change your effective ID:
      • su – the su program changes your effective, real, and saved IDs to the ID of the user you are switching to.
      • set ID upon execute (abbreviated setuid) – You can mark a program’s set uid upon execute bit so that the program runs with its effective and saved ID set to the owner of the program (which may not necessarily be you). The real ID will remain untouched. For example, if you have a program:

        rv = getresuid(&ruid, &euid, &suid);

        printf("ruid %d, euid %d, suid %d\n", ruid, euid, suid);

        If you then chown the program as root and chmod +s (which turns on the setuid bit), the program will print:

        ruid 1000, euid 0, suid 0

        when it is run (assuming your user ID is 1000).

    • Saved ID – The saved ID is set to the effective ID when the program starts. This exists so that a program can regain its original effective ID after it drops its effective ID to an unprivileged ID. This use-case can cause problems (as we’ll see soon) if it is not correctly managed.
    • If you start a program as yourself, and it does not have its set ID upon execute bit set, then the program will start running with its real, effective, and saved IDs set to your user ID.
    • If you run a setuid program, your real ID remains unchanged, but your effective and saved IDs are set to the owner of the file.
    • su does the same as running a setuid program, but it also changes your real ID.

  3. Don’t use Process.euid= in Ruby; stay as far away as possible
    • Process.euid= is EXTREMELY platform specific. It might do any of the following:

      • Set just your effective ID
      • Set your effective, real, and saved ID.

      On most recent Linux kernels, Process.euid= changes ONLY the Effective ID. In most cases, this is NOT what you want. Check out this sample Ruby script. What would happen if you ran this script as root?

    • def write_file
          File.open("/test", "w+") do |f|
          puts "wrote test file"
        rescue Errno::EACCES
          puts "could not write test file"
      puts "ok, set uid to nobody"
      Process.euid = Etc.getpwnam("nobody").uid
      puts "going to try to write to / now…"
      puts "restoring back to root"
      Process.euid = 0
      puts "now writing file"

      This might surprise you, but the script regains root‘s ID after it has dropped itself down to nobody.

    • Why does this work?
    • Well as we just said, Process.euid= doesn’t touch the Saved ID, only the Effective ID. As a result, the effective ID can be set back to the saved ID at any time. The only way to avoid this is to call a different Ruby function as we’ll see in #4 below.

  4. Buggy native code running as nobody can execute arbitrary code as root in 8 bytes
    • Imagine a Ruby script much like the one above. The script is run as root to do something special (maybe bind to port 80).
    • The process then drops privileges to nobody.
    • Afterward, your application interacts with buggy native code in the Ruby interpreter, a Ruby extension, or a Ruby gem.
    • If that buggy native code can be “tricked” into executing arbitrary code, a malicious user can elevate the process up from nobody to root in just 8 bytes. Those 8 bytes are: \x31\xdb\x8d\x43\x17\x99\xcd\x80 – which is a binary representation of setuid(0).
    • At this point, a malicious user can execute arbitrary code as the root user

    Let’s take a look at an (abbreviated) code snippet (full here):

    ## we’re using a buggy gem
    require ‘badgem’

    # do some special operations here as the privileged user

    # ok, now let’s (incorrectly) drop to nobody
    Process.euid = Etc.getpwnam("nobody").uid

    # let’s take some user input
    s = MyModule::GetUserInput

    # let’s assume the user is malicious and supplies something like:
    # "\x6a\x17\x58\x31\xdb\xcd\x80\x6a\x0b\x58\x99\x52" +
    # "\x68//sh\x68/bin\x89\xe3\x52\x53\x89\xe1\xcd\x80"
    # as the string.
    # That string is x86_32 linux shellcode for running
    # setuid(0); and execve("/bin/sh", 0, 0) !

    # pass that to a buggy Ruby Gem

    # the user is now sitting in a root shell!!

    This is obviously NOT GOOD.

  5. How to change the real, effective, and saved IDs
  6. In the list below, I’m going to list the functions as syscall - RubyFunction

    • setuid(uid_t uid) - Process::Sys.setuid(integer)
    • This pair of functions always sets the real, effective, and saved user IDs to the value passed in. This is a useful function for permanently dropping privileges, as we’ll see soon. This is a POSIX function. Use this when possible.

    • setresuid(uid_t ruid, uid_t euid, uid_t suid) - Process::Sys.setresuid(rid, eid, sid)
    • This pair of functions allows you to set the real, effective, saved User IDs to arbitrary values, assuming you have a privileged effective ID. Unfortunately, this function is NOT POSIX and is not portable. It does exist on Linux and some BSDs, though.

    • setreuid(uid_t ruid, uid_t eid) - Process::Sys.setreuid(rid, eid)
    • This pair of functions allows you to set the real and effective user IDs to the values passed in. On Linux:

      • A process running with an unprivileged effective ID will only have the ability to set the real ID to the real ID or to the effective ID.
      • A process running with a privileged effective ID will have its saved ID set to the new effective ID if the real or effective IDs are set to a value which was not the previous real ID.

      This is a POSIX function, but has lots of cases with undefined behavior. Be careful.

    • seteuid(uid_t eid) - Process::Sys.seteuid(eid)
    • This pair of functions sets the effective ID of the process but leaves the real and saved IDs unchanged. IMPORTANT: Any process (including those with unprivileged effective IDs) may change their effective ID to their real or saved ID. This is exactly the behavior we saw with the Ruby script in #2 above. This is a POSIX function.

  7. How to correctly and permanently drop privileges
  8. You should use either the:

    • setuid(uid_t uid) - Process::Sys.setuid(integer)
    • or

    • setresuid(uid_t ruid, uid_t euid, uid_t suid) - Process::Sys.setresuid(rid, eid, sid)

    pair of functions to set the real, effective, and saved IDs to the lowest privileged ID possible. On many systems, this is the ID of the user nobody.

    For the truly paranoid, it is recommended to check that dropping privileges was actually successful before continuing. For example:

    require ‘etc’

    def test_drop
      rescue Errno::EPERM

    uid = Etc.getpwnam("nobody").uid

    if !test_drop
      puts "Failed!"
      #handle error


*nix user and group ID management is confusing, difficult, and extremely error prone. It is a difficult system with many nuances, gotchas, and caveats. It is no wonder so many people make mistakes when trying to write secure code. The major things to keep in mind from this article are:

  • Avoid Process.euid= at all costs.
  • Drop privileges as soon as possible in your application.
  • Drop those privileges permanently.
  • Ensure that privileges were correctly dropped.
  • Carefully read and re-read man pages when using the functions listed above.

Written by Joe Damato

April 13th, 2009 at 12:06 pm