Live patching QEMU for VENOM mitigation

Vincent Bernat

CVE-2015-3456, also known as VENOM, is a security vulnerability in QEMU virtual floppy controller:

The Floppy Disk Controller (FDC) in QEMU, as used in Xen […] and KVM, allows local guest users to cause a denial of service (out-of-bounds write and guest crash) or possibly execute arbitrary code via the FD_CMD_READ_ID, FD_CMD_DRIVE_SPECIFICATION_COMMAND, or other unspecified commands.

Even when QEMU has been configured with no floppy drive, the floppy controller code is still active. The vulnerability is easy to test:1

#define FDC_IOPORT 0x3f5
#define FD_CMD_READ_ID 0x0a

int main() {
    ioperm(FDC_IOPORT, 1, 1);
    for (size_t i = 0;; i++)
        outb(0x42, FDC_IOPORT);
    return 0;

Once the fix is installed, all processes still have to be restarted for the upgrade to be effective. It is possible to minimize the downtime by leveraging virsh save.

Another possibility would be to patch the running processes. The Linux kernel attracted a lot of interest in this area, with solutions like Ksplice (mostly killed by Oracle), kGraft (by SUSE) and kpatch (by Red Hat) and the inclusion of a common framework in the kernel. The userspace has far fewer out-of-the-box solutions.2

I present here a simple and self-contained way to patch a running QEMU to remove the vulnerability without requiring any sensible downtime. Here is a short demonstration:

Proof of concept#

First, let’s find a workaround that would be simple to implement through live patching: while modifying running code text is possible, it is easier to modify a single variable.


Looking at the code of the floppy controller and the patch, we can avoid the vulnerability by not accepting any command on the FIFO port. Each request would be answered by “Invalid command” (0x80) and a user won’t be able to push more bytes to the FIFO until the answer is read and the FIFO queue reset. The floppy controller would be rendered useless in this state, but who cares?

The list of commands accepted by the controller on the FIFO port is contained in the handlers[] array:

static const struct {
    uint8_t value;
    uint8_t mask;
    const char* name;
    int parameters;
    void (*handler)(FDCtrl *fdctrl, int direction);
    int direction;
} handlers[] = {
    { FD_CMD_READ, 0x1f, "READ", 8, fdctrl_start_transfer, FD_DIR_READ },
    { FD_CMD_WRITE, 0x3f, "WRITE", 8, fdctrl_start_transfer, FD_DIR_WRITE },
    /* […] */
    { 0, 0, "unknown", 0, fdctrl_unimplemented }, /* default handler */

To avoid browsing the array each time a command is received, another array is used to map each command to the appropriate handler:

/* Associate command to an index in the 'handlers' array */
static uint8_t command_to_handler[256];

static void fdctrl_realize_common(FDCtrl *fdctrl, Error **errp)
    int i, j;
    static int command_tables_inited = 0;

    /* Fill 'command_to_handler' lookup table */
    if (!command_tables_inited) {
        command_tables_inited = 1;
        for (i = ARRAY_SIZE(handlers) - 1; i >= 0; i--) {
            for (j = 0; j < sizeof(command_to_handler); j++) {
                if ((j & handlers[i].mask) == handlers[i].value) {
                    command_to_handler[j] = i;
    /* […] */

Our workaround is to modify the command_to_handler[] array to map all commands to the fdctrl_unimplemented() handler (the last one in the handlers[] array).

Testing with gdb#

To check if the workaround works as expected, we test it with gdb. Unless you have compiled QEMU yourself, you need to install a package with debug symbols. Unfortunately, on Debian, they are not available, yet. On Ubuntu, you can install the qemu-system-x86-dbgsym package after enabling the appropriate repositories.

Update (2018-11)

Automatic debug packages are available since Debian Stretch. Like for Ubuntu, a dedicated repository needs to be enabled.

The following function for gdb maps every command to the unimplemented handler:

define patch
  set $handler = sizeof(handlers)/sizeof(*handlers)-1
  set $i = 0
  while ($i < 256)
   set variable command_to_handler[$i++] = $handler
  printf "Done!\n"

Attach to the vulnerable process (with attach), call the function (with patch) and detach of the process (with detach). You can check that the exploit is not working anymore. This could be easily automated.


Using gdb has two main limitations:

  1. It needs to be installed on each host to be patched.
  2. The debug packages need to be installed as well. Moreover, it can be difficult to fetch previous versions of these packages.

Writing a custom patcher#

To overcome these limitations, we can write a customer patcher using the ptrace() system call without relying on debug symbols being present.

Finding the right memory spot#

Before being able to modify the command_to_handler[] array, we need to know its location. The first clue is given by the symbol table. To query it, use readelf -s:

$ readelf -s /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/09/95121eb46e2a4c13747ac2bad982829365c694.debug | \
>   sed -n -e 1,3p -e /command_to_handler/p

Symbol table '.symtab' contains 27066 entries:
   Num:    Value          Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
  8485: 00000000009f9d00   256 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT   26 command_to_handler

This table is usually stripped out of the executable to save space, as shown below:

$ file -b /usr/bin/qemu-system-x86_64 | tr , \\n
ELF 64-bit LSB shared object
 version 1 (SYSV)
 dynamically linked
 interpreter /lib64/
 for GNU/Linux 2.6.32

If your distribution provides a debug package, the debug symbols are installed in /usr/lib/debug. Most modern distributions are now relying on the build ID3 to map an executable to its debugging symbols, like the example above. Without a debug package, you need to recompile the existing package without stripping debug symbols in a clean environment.4 On Debian, this can be done by setting the DEB_BUILD_OPTIONS environment variable to nostrip.

We have now two possible cases:

  • the easy one; and
  • the hard one.

The easy case#

On x86, here is the standard layout of a regular Linux process in memory:5

Memory layout of a regular process on x86
Memory layout of a regular process on Linux x86 with ASLR.

The random gaps (ASLR) are here to prevent an attacker from reliably jumping to a particular exploited function in memory. On x86-64, the layout is quite similar. The important point is that the base address of the executable is fixed.

The memory mapping of a process is also available through /proc/PID/maps. Here is a shortened and annotated example on x86-64:

$ cat /proc/3609/maps
00400000-00401000         r-xp 00000000 fd:04 483  not-qemu [text segment]
00601000-00602000         r--p 00001000 fd:04 483  not-qemu [data segment]
00602000-00603000         rw-p 00002000 fd:04 483  not-qemu [BSS segment]
[random gap]
02419000-0293d000         rw-p 00000000 00:00 0    [heap]
[random gap]
7f0835543000-7f08356e2000 r-xp 00000000 fd:01 9319 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f08356e2000-7f08358e2000 ---p 0019f000 fd:01 9319 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f08358e2000-7f08358e6000 r--p 0019f000 fd:01 9319 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f08358e6000-7f08358e8000 rw-p 001a3000 fd:01 9319 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f08358e8000-7f08358ec000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f08358ec000-7f083590c000 r-xp 00000000 fd:01 5138 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f0835aca000-7f0835acd000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f0835b08000-7f0835b0c000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f0835b0c000-7f0835b0d000 r--p 00020000 fd:01 5138 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f0835b0d000-7f0835b0e000 rw-p 00021000 fd:01 5138 /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f0835b0e000-7f0835b0f000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
[random gap]
7ffdb0f85000-7ffdb0fa6000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0    [stack]

With a regular executable, the value given in the symbol table is an absolute memory address:

$ readelf -s not-qemu | \
>   sed -n -e 1,3p -e /command_to_handler/p

Symbol table '.dynsym' contains 9 entries:
   Num:    Value          Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
    47: 0000000000602080   256 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT   25 command_to_handler

So, the address of command_to_handler[], in the above example, is 0x602080.

The hard case#

To enhance security, it is possible to load some executables at a random base address, just like a library. Such an executable is called a Position Independent Executable (PIE). An attacker won’t be able to rely on a fixed address to find some helpful function. Here is the new memory layout:

Memory layout of a PIE process on x86
Memory layout of a PIE process on Linux x86 with ASLR.

With a PIE process, the value in the symbol table is now an offset from the base address.

$ readelf -s not-qemu-pie | sed -n -e 1,3p -e /command_to_handler/p

Symbol table '.dynsym' contains 17 entries:
   Num:    Value          Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
    47: 0000000000202080   256 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT   25 command_to_handler

If we look at /proc/PID/maps, we can figure out where the array is located in memory:

$ cat /proc/12593/maps
7f6c13565000-7f6c13704000 r-xp 00000000 fd:01 9319  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c13704000-7f6c13904000 ---p 0019f000 fd:01 9319  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c13904000-7f6c13908000 r--p 0019f000 fd:01 9319  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c13908000-7f6c1390a000 rw-p 001a3000 fd:01 9319  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c1390a000-7f6c1390e000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f6c1390e000-7f6c1392e000 r-xp 00000000 fd:01 5138  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c13b2e000-7f6c13b2f000 r--p 00020000 fd:01 5138  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c13b2f000-7f6c13b30000 rw-p 00021000 fd:01 5138  /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
7f6c13b30000-7f6c13b31000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f6c13b31000-7f6c13b33000 r-xp 00000000 fd:04 4594  not-qemu-pie [text segment]
7f6c13cf0000-7f6c13cf3000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f6c13d2e000-7f6c13d32000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0
7f6c13d32000-7f6c13d33000 r--p 00001000 fd:04 4594  not-qemu-pie [data segment]
7f6c13d33000-7f6c13d34000 rw-p 00002000 fd:04 4594  not-qemu-pie [BSS segment]
[random gap]
7f6c15c46000-7f6c15c67000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0     [heap]
[random gap]
7ffe823b0000-7ffe823d1000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0     [stack]

The base address is 0x7f6c13b31000, the offset is 0x202080 and therefore, the location of the array is 0x7f6c13d33080. We can check with gdb:

$ print &command_to_handler
$1 = (uint8_t (*)[256]) 0x7f6c13d33080 <command_to_handler>

Patching a memory spot#

Once we know the location of the command_to_handler[] array in memory, patching it is quite straightforward. First, we start tracing the target process:

/* Attach to the running process */
static int
patch_attach(pid_t pid)
    int status;

    printf("[.] Attaching to PID %d...\n", pid);
    if (ptrace(PTRACE_ATTACH, pid, NULL, NULL) == -1) {
        fprintf(stderr, "[!] Unable to attach to PID %d: %m\n", pid);
        return -1;

    if (waitpid(pid, &status, 0) == -1) {
        fprintf(stderr, "[!] Error while attaching to PID %d: %m\n", pid);
        return -1;
    assert(WIFSTOPPED(status)); /* Tracee may have died */

    if (ptrace(PTRACE_GETSIGINFO, pid, NULL, &si) == -1) {
        fprintf(stderr, "[!] Unable to read siginfo for PID %d: %m\n", pid);
        return -1;
    assert(si.si_signo == SIGSTOP); /* Other signals may have been received */

    printf("[*] Successfully attached to PID %d\n", pid);
    return 0;

Then, we retrieve the command_to_handler[] array, modify it, and put it back in memory.6

static int
patch_doit(pid_t pid, unsigned char *target)
    int ret = -1;
    unsigned char *command_to_handler = NULL;
    size_t i;

    /* Get the table */
    printf("[.] Retrieving command_to_handler table...\n");
    command_to_handler = ptrace_read(pid,
    if (command_to_handler == NULL) {
        fprintf(stderr, "[!] Unable to read command_to_handler table: %m\n");
        goto out;

    /* Check if the table has already been patched. */
    /* […] */

    /* Patch it */
    printf("[.] Patching QEMU...\n");
    for (i = 0; i < QEMU_COMMAND_TO_HANDLER_SIZE; i++) {
        command_to_handler[i] = QEMU_NOT_IMPLEMENTED_HANDLER;
    if (ptrace_write(pid, target, command_to_handler,
           QEMU_COMMAND_TO_HANDLER_SIZE) == -1) {
        fprintf(stderr, "[!] Unable to patch command_to_handler table: %m\n");
        goto out;
    printf("[*] QEMU successfully patched!\n");
    ret = 0;

    return ret;

Since ptrace() only allows one to read or write a word at a time, ptrace_read() and ptrace_write() are wrappers to read or write arbitrary large chunks of memory.7 Here is the code for ptrace_read():

/* Read memory of the given process */
static void *
ptrace_read(pid_t pid, void *address, size_t size)
    /* Allocate the buffer */
    uword_t *buffer = malloc((size/sizeof(uword_t) + 1)*sizeof(uword_t));
    if (!buffer) return NULL;

    /* Read word by word */
    size_t readsz = 0;
    do {
        errno = 0;
        if ((buffer[readsz/sizeof(uword_t)] =
                ptrace(PTRACE_PEEKTEXT, pid,
                       (unsigned char*)address + readsz,
                       0)) && errno) {
            fprintf(stderr, "[!] Unable to peek one word at address %p: %m\n",
                    (unsigned char *)address + readsz);
            return NULL;
        readsz += sizeof(uword_t);
    } while (readsz < size);
    return (unsigned char *)buffer;

Putting the pieces together#

The patcher is provided with the following information:

  • the PID of the process to be patched;
  • the command_to_handler[] offset from the symbol table; and
  • the build ID of the executable file used to get this offset (as a safety measure).

The main steps are:

  1. Attach to the process with ptrace().
  2. Get the executable name from /proc/PID/exe.
  3. Parse /proc/PID/maps to find the address of the text segment (it’s the first one).
  4. Do some consistency checks:
    • check there is an ELF header at this location (4-byte magic number),
    • check the executable type (ET_EXEC for regular executables, ET_DYN for PIE), and
    • get the build ID and compare with the expected one.
  5. From the base address and the provided offset, compute the location of the command_to_handler[] array.
  6. Patch it.

You can find the complete patcher on GitHub.

$ ./patch --build-id 0995121eb46e2a4c13747ac2bad982829365c694 \
>         --offset 9f9d00 \
>         --pid 16833
[.] Attaching to PID 16833...
[*] Successfully attached to PID 16833
[*] Executable name is /usr/bin/qemu-system-x86_64
[*] Base address is 0x7f7eea912000
[*] Both build IDs match
[.] Retrieving command_to_handler table...
[.] Patching QEMU...
[*] QEMU successfully patched!

  1. The complete code for this test is on GitHub↩︎

  2. An interesting project seems to be Katana. But there are also some insightful hacking papers on the subject. ↩︎

  3. The Fedora Wiki contains the rationale behind the build ID↩︎

  4. If the build is incorrectly reproduced, the build ID won’t match. The information provided by the debug symbols may or may not be correct. Debian currently has a reproducible builds effort to ensure that each package can be reproduced. ↩︎

  5. Anatomy of a program in memory is a great blog post explaining in more detail how a program lives in memory. ↩︎

  6. Being an uninitialized static variable, the variable is in the BSS section. This section is mapped to a writable memory segment. If it wasn’t the case, with Linux, the ptrace() system call is still allowed to write. Linux will copy the page and mark it as private. ↩︎

  7. With Linux 3.2 or later, process_vm_readv() and process_vm_writev() can be used to transfer data from/to a remote process without using ptrace() at all. However, ptrace() would still be needed to reliably stop the main thread. ↩︎