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Vulnserver Reverse Engineering

The devil is in the details

By Andres Roldan | July 06, 2020

In previous posts, we have been able to exploit several vulnerabilities on Vulnserver, a VbD (Vulnerable-by-Design) application in which you can practice Windows exploit development.

Each article described a technique used to exploit certain Vulnserver command, and the write-up followed along with the creation of the exploit.

All of those articles had something in common in the way the vulnerabilities were discovered: the use of fuzzing.

In this post, we will use reverse engineering to find the vulnerable commands in Vulnserver and some details that may be overlooked during the fuzzing phase.

Although vulnserver source code is fully accessible, we will assume a black-box scenario on which we don’t have access to the code.

Vulnserver first analysis

The first thing to do is a binary reconnaissance of vulnserver.exe. The tools we’ll be using during this article are a debugger (x64dbg) and a reverse engineering framework (radare2), the latter using the Cutter GUI.

To check the initial characteristics of vulnserver.exe, we can load it into Cutter:

Basic info

As you can see, there’s some information about the file, namely the type, the class (PE32), OS information, etc.

Among the things to notice are the libraries used by vulnserver.exe. They are the following:

  1. essfunc.dll

  2. kernel32.dll

  3. msvcrt.dll

  4. ws2_32.dll

That means that vulnserver.exe uses functions which are located directly or indirectly in those libraries. That information is retrieved from the IAT (Import Address Table) of the PE (Portable Executable) header.

To see the functions used by vulnserver.exe in Cutter, we can go to the Imports tab:


Look at that. Some functions were marked as Unsafe by Cutter. Those functions are commonly the cause of vulnerabilities like Buffer Overflow. We will check that later.

We must also check what the security characteristics of the executable modules of vulnserver.exe are. By checking that, we should be able to anticipate restrictions for our exploitation phase.

To check that information, we can use our debugger. We will load vulnserver.exe to x64dbg and use the checksec plugin:

Modules security
Modules security

As you can see, we have different columns here:

  1. SafeSEH: Safe Structured Exception Handling enabled

  2. DEP: Data Execution Prevention enabled

  3. ASLR: Address Space Layout Randomization enabled

  4. /GS: Buffer Security Check enabled

  5. CFG: Control Flow Guard enabled

You can notice that both the executable vulnserver.exe and the essfunc.dll modules have all those security features disabled, which means that we can harness instructions on those files when creating our exploits.

We can now make a simple request to vulnserver to see how it behaves:

aroldan@balrog:~$ telnet 9999
Connected to
Escape character is '^]'.
Welcome to Vulnerable Server! Enter HELP for help.
Valid Commands:
STATS [stat_value]
RTIME [rtime_value]
LTIME [ltime_value]
SRUN [srun_value]
TRUN [trun_value]
GMON [gmon_value]
GDOG [gdog_value]
KSTET [kstet_value]
GTER [gter_value]
HTER [hter_value]
LTER [lter_value]
KSTAN [lstan_value]

It seems that all the commands receive a single parameter on the form <command> <value>. For example, a request to the TRUN command would be TRUN something.

We can see this behavior in Cutter:

Command iteration

As you see, when the recv() call is executed, it will iterate over what’s received and check for every command.

When the command string is found, it will stop iterating and will execute whatever the command does.

With that information, we can start checking for the vulnerabilities. For the sake of this exercise, I will be reversing only the KSTET and TRUN commands.

Reversing KSTET command

On the main loop, vulnserver checks if the received buffer contains KSTET, and if it does, it will divert the loop and will enter the KSTET flow:


The KSTET execution is lineal and simple:

  1. It will allocate 0x64 or 100 bytes of dynamic memory.

  2. The pointer to that region is saved in a var I renamed to KstetBuffer.

  3. Then strncpy() will copy up to 100 bytes from the ReceivedBuffer to KstetBuffer. If ReceivedBuffer is more than 100 bytes long, strncpy() will discard the remaining bytes.

  4. Then the 0x1000 or 4096 bytes of ReceivedBuffer is set to 0 using memset().

  5. Then a pointer to KstetBuffer is put at ESP as a parameter for Function2.

  6. When Function2 returns, the string KSTET_SUCCESSFUL is sent back.

Now, let’s check what Function2 does:

  1. After the function prologue, it will allocate 0x58 or 88 bytes to the stack.

  2. The *dest variable will be at ebp-0x48.

  3. The argument on ESP, which is a pointer to KstetBuffer, will be used as *src variable.

  4. Now strcpy(dest, src) is executed.

That means that, as *dest is located at ebp-0x48, if we want to overflow the KSTET command, we must inject 72 - len('KSTET ') = 66 or more bytes to start overflowing the stack:

Reversed Function2 stack frame
             *dest                      Saved EBP         Saved EIP
       epb-0x48 (72 bytes)           ebp+0 (4 bytes)   ebp+0x4 (4 bytes)

Let’s check it:


Great! We were able to overwrite EBP and EIP registers with our values. That was an easy one.

Reversing TRUN command

When the vulnserver receives the TRUN <value>, it will divert the execution flow:

TRUN is found

To get clear references later, I renamed the s1 parameter to ReceivedPayloadPtr:

TRUN is found

The first thing it does is allocate 3000 bytes of dynamic memory using malloc and then set those 3000 bytes to 0:

TRUN memory alloc

Also, at the end, a new variable var_480h is set to value 5. I will rename it to LoopCounter. It is set to 5 because at that place is where the buffer after TRUN<space> will start:


Then, a loop is created:

TRUN loop

The first node will move the LoopCounter to EAX and compare that value with the recv() buffer length. If it’s greater or equal, the loop will finish:

TRUN loop 2

If not, it will move the pointer to where the TRUN buffer command was set and put the pointer 5 bytes forward to remove the TRUN<space> part. Then it compares the current position to 0x2e, which is the hex representation of a dot (.):

TRUN loop 3

If the dot is found in the buffer, then it will copy the entire ReceivedPayloadPtr to a new variable called dest up to 3000 bytes, using strncpy.

Then, a pointer to dest is put on the stack and Function3 is called:

TRUN loop 4

Inside Function3, we can see that 0x7e8 or 2024 bytes are allocated on the stack, and the *dest variable will be at ebp-0x7d8. Now a pointer is set to ESP to make it the dest parameter of strcpy(). Then the pointer to ReceivedPayloadPtr is set to ESP+4 to refer to the *src parameter of strcpy(), then strcpy() is called:

strcpy on TRUN

All that means is, to overflow the TRUN parameter, we must:

  1. Inject a dot somewhere on the payload to trigger the strcpy() call.

  2. As *dest is located at ebp-0x7d8, we must inject 2008 - len('TRUN ') = 2003 or more bytes to start overflowing the stack. Let’s check it:

Payload of 2000 bytes without a dot
$ echo -n "$(python3 -c "print('TRUN ' + 'A'*2000)")" | nc 9999
Welcome to Vulnerable Server! Enter HELP for help.
Payload of 2010 bytes without a dot
$ echo -n "$(python3 -c "print('TRUN ' + 'A'*2010)")" | nc 9999
Welcome to Vulnerable Server! Enter HELP for help.
Payload of 2001 bytes plus a dot
$ echo -n "$(python3 -c "print('TRUN .' + 'A'*2001)")" | nc 9999
Welcome to Vulnerable Server! Enter HELP for help.
Payload of 2002 bytes plus a dot
$ echo -n "$(python3 -c "print('TRUN .' + 'A'*2002)")" | nc 9999
Welcome to Vulnerable Server! Enter HELP for help.

As you can notice, with the last command with a payload of 2002 A chars plus a dot, vulnserver stopped working and we got an Access Violation exception on our debugger:

Access violation

That means that we started to overwrite the saved EBP which is next to the saved EIP on the Function3 stack frame:

Reversed Function3 stack frame
             *dest                      Saved EBP         Saved EIP
      epb-0x7d8 (2008 bytes)         ebp+0 (4 bytes)   ebp+0x4 (4 bytes)

So, if we inject 2016 bytes:

  1. len('TRUN ') = 5

  2. 2002 A chars

  3. 1 dot

  4. 4 B chars

  5. 4 C chars

We should overwrite the saved EBP with 4 B and the saved EIP with 4 C, and when the vulnerable function returns, EBP and EIP will be overwritten by our buffer:

Access violation

Indeed! We were able to identify the vulnerability on the TRUN command.

Inverse approach

The examples above use the known vulnserver command inputs to identify the execution flow and characteristics of the vulnerable commands. That may be the most natural way to approach a reverse engineering session since it’s the way the application processes user input.

However, as we saw at the beginning, it’s possible to get the unsafe functions used by the application:

Unsafe functions

We can work backward from there, searching by cross-references (X refs) to those functions. For instance, if we’d wanted to know the places on where the strcpy() function is used, we can look for the cross-references of that function on Vulnserver. Once we find those references, we can start walking in reverse to see if non-validated user input reaches the call of strcpy():

Cross references

As you can see, we were able to get to the vulnerable KSTET function using cross-references.


Vulnerabilities can be found using static, dynamic and interactive ways. Fuzzing is a dynamic approach to find vulnerabilities, but it is prone to overlook details of vulnerabilities. Using reverse engineering, we apply an interactive approach that, as you see, gives a full detailed view of the vulnerable software. If you take a look at the KSTET and the TRUN articles, you can see that the analysis performed using reverse engineering matched the one using fuzzing, with some additional details. And remember that we use all these approaches at Fluid Attacks to find vulnerabilities!

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