Supercon: Ruth Grace Wong And Firmware From The Firehose

Firmware and software are both just code, right? How different could the code that runs Internet-scale distributed web stuff be from the code that runs a tiny microcontroller brain inside a personal hydroponics device? Night and day!

Ruth Grace Wong works in the former world, but moonlights as a manufacturing engineer with some friends. Their product had pre-existing firmware that contained (at least) one bug, and Ruth’s job was to find it. The code in question was written by the Chinese PCB engineer, who knew the electronics intimately but who had no software background, providing Ruth an opportunity to jump head-first into the rawest of raw embedded programming. Spoiler alert: she found the bug and learned a lot about firmware along the way. This talk follows her along the adventure.

“The code is very well documented, in Chinese” but the variable names are insanely non-descriptive. Similarly, while the PCB engineer knows full well what a 24C02 is, if you’re a software geek that might as well be Chinese. As you’d expect, web searches came to the rescue on both fronts.

The bug ended up hiding in a logical flaw in the PWM-setting code inside an interrupt service routine, and it kept the fan from ever coming full on. Once found, it was easily fixed. But getting to the point where you understand the codebase deeply enough to know where to look is four-fifths of the battle. Heck, setting up the toolchain alone can take a day or two.

If you’re a fellow software type, Ruth’s talk (embedded below) will give you a quick glimpse into the outer few layers of the onion that is embedded firmware development, from a familiar viewpoint. Give her quick and value-packed talk a watch! Grizzled hardware veterans will nod along, and maybe even gain a little insight into how our code looks to “them”.

Continue reading “Supercon: Ruth Grace Wong And Firmware From The Firehose”

Ask Hackaday: Is There A Legit Use For Operator Precedence?

Computing is really all about order. If you can take data, apply an operation to it, and get the same result every single time, then you have a stable and reliable computing system.

So it makes total sense that there is Operator Precedence. This is also called Order of Operations, and it dictates which computations will be performed first, and which will be performed last. To get the same results every time, you must perform addition, multiplication, power functions, bitwise math, and all other calculations in a codified order.

The question I’ve had on my mind lately is, does this matter to us or just the compiler?

Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Is There A Legit Use For Operator Precedence?”

Warnings On Steroids – Static Code Analysis Tools

A little while back, we were talking about utilizing compiler warnings as first step to make our C code less error-prone and increase its general stability and quality. We know now that the C compiler itself can help us here, but we also saw that there’s a limit to it. While it warns us about the most obvious mistakes and suspicious code constructs, it will leave us hanging when things get a bit more complex.

But once again, that doesn’t mean compiler warnings are useless, we simply need to see them for what they are: a first step. So today we are going to take the next step, and have a look at some other common static code analysis tools that can give us more insight about our code.

You may think that voluntarily choosing C as primary language in this day and age might seem nostalgic or anachronistic, but preach and oxidate all you want: C won’t be going anywhere. So let’s make use of the tools we have available that help us write better code, and to defy the pitfalls C is infamous for. And the general concept of static code analysis is universal. After all, many times a bug or other issue isn’t necessarily caused by the language, but rather some general flaw in the code’s logic.

Continue reading “Warnings On Steroids – Static Code Analysis Tools”

Warnings Are Your Friend – A Code Quality Primer

If there’s one thing C is known and (in)famous for, it’s the ease of shooting yourself in the foot with it. And there’s indeed no denying that the freedom C offers comes with the price of making it our own responsibility to tame and keep the language under control. On the bright side, since the language’s flaws are so well known, we have a wide selection of tools available that help us to eliminate the most common problems and blunders that could come back to bite us further down the road. The catch is, we have to really want it ourselves, and actively listen to what the tools have to say.

We often look at this from a security point of view and focus on exploitable vulnerabilities, which you may not see as valid threat or something you need to worry about in your project. And you are probably right with that, not every flaw in your code will lead to attackers taking over your network or burning down your house, the far more likely consequences are a lot more mundane and boring. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about them.

Buggy, unreliable software is the number one cause for violence against computers, and whether you like it or not, people will judge you by your code quality. Just because Linus Torvalds wants to get off Santa’s naughty list, doesn’t mean the technical field will suddenly become less critical or loses its hostility, and in a time where it’s never been easier to share your work with the world, reliable, high quality code will prevail and make you stand out from the masses.

Continue reading “Warnings Are Your Friend – A Code Quality Primer”

It’s All In The Libs – Building A Plugin System Using Dynamic Loading

Shared libraries are our best friends to extend the functionality of C programs without reinventing the wheel. They offer a collection of exported functions, variables, and other symbols that we can use inside our own program as if the content of the shared library was a direct part of our code. The usual way to use such libraries is to simply link against them at compile time, and let the linker resolve all external symbols and make sure everything is in place when creating our executable file. Whenever we then run our executable, the loader, a part of the operating system, will try to resolve again all the symbols, and load every required library into memory, along with our executable itself.

But what if we didn’t want to add libraries at compile time, but instead load them ourselves as needed during runtime? Instead of a predefined dependency on a library, we could make its presence optional and adjust our program’s functionality accordingly. Well, we can do just that with the concept of dynamic loading. In this article, we will look into dynamic loading, how to use it, and what to do with it — including building our own plugin system. But first, we will have a closer look at shared libraries and create one ourselves.

Continue reading “It’s All In The Libs – Building A Plugin System Using Dynamic Loading”

Directly Executing Chunks Of Memory: Function Pointers In C

In the first part of this series, we covered the basics of pointers in C, and went on to more complex arrangements and pointer arithmetic in the second part. Both times, we focused solely on pointers representing data in memory.

But data isn’t the only thing residing in memory. All the program code is accessible through either the RAM or some other executable type of memory, giving each function a specific address inside that memory as entry point. Once again, pointers are simply memory addresses, and to fully utilize this similarity, C provides the concept of function pointers. Function pointers provide us with ways to make conditional code execution faster, implement callbacks to make code more modular, and even provide a foothold into the running machine code itself for reverse engineering or exploitation. So read on!

Function Pointers

In general, function pointers aren’t any more mysterious than data pointers: the main difference is that one references variables and the other references functions. If you recall from last time how arrays decay into pointers to their first element, a function equally decays into a pointer to the address of its entry point, with the () operator executing whatever is at that address. As a result, we can declare a function pointer variable fptr and assign a function func() to it: fptr = func;. Calling fptr(); will then resolve to the entry point of function func() and execute it.

Admittedly, the idea of turning a function into a variable may seem strange at first and might require some getting used to, but it gets easier with time and it can be a very useful idiom. The same is true for the function pointer syntax, which can be intimidating and confusing in the beginning. But let’s have a look at that ourselves.

Continue reading “Directly Executing Chunks Of Memory: Function Pointers In C”

When 4 + 1 Equals 8: An Advanced Take On Pointers In C

In our first part on pointers, we covered the basics and common pitfalls of pointers in C. If we had to break it down into one sentence, the main principle of pointers is that they are simply data types storing a memory address, and as long as we make sure that we have enough memory allocated at that address, everything is going to be fine.

In this second part, we are going to continue with some more advanced pointer topics, including pointer arithmetic, pointers with another pointer as underlying data type, and the relationship between arrays and pointers. But first, there is one particular pointer we haven’t talked about yet.

The one proverbial exception to the rule that pointers are just memory addresses is the most (in)famous pointer of all: the NULL pointer. Commonly defined as preprocessor macro (void *) 0, we can assign NULL like any other pointer.

Continue reading “When 4 + 1 Equals 8: An Advanced Take On Pointers In C”