Reverse engineer’s toolkit

If you’re planning on reverse engineering something (or debugging unfaimilar code), then it’s important to have the right tools for the job. This is a short list of some of the various tools that I find useful for this line of work (some are free, others are not; they are good tools, though, so I would encourage you to support the authors); if I am going to be doing extensive reversing (or debugging) work on a system, I’ll typically install most (or all) of these tools:

  • WinDbg (Debugging Tools for Windows); the de-facto debugger for Windows NT-based systems (and it’s freely available). Although there are other good debuggers out there (such as OllyDbg), it’s hard to beat the fact that Microsoft develops the debugger, and the designers have a great deal of information about and experience with the internals of the operating system. WinDbg comes with a plethora of plugin modules (extensions) that automate and improve many common tasks, and it has a well-documented and powerful interface to allow third parties (such as yourself) to program new extension modules for customized tasks. Additionally, WinDbg supports a (relatively crude, but effective nevertheless) scripting language. WinDbg can be used on 32-bit and 64-bit (IA64 and x64) targets in both user mode and kernel mode, and is the only supported facilities for debugging problems at customer sites or debugging certain specialized scenarios (like certain infrastructure processes, or fullscreen processes). The Debugging Tools for Windows distribution also includes ntsd, cdb, and kd, which are different (command-line) front-ends to the same debugger engine used by WinDbg. It also includes various other useful utilities, such as Logger (an API call spy program).
  • IDA Pro, or the Interactive Disassembler. IDA is the most full-featured disassembler (by a huge margin) out there that I know of, and it supports a wide variety of target architectures and operating systems to boot (although its support for x86 is probably the most full-featured of all the target architectures that you can use it on). IDA automates many of the aspects of disassembly and reverse engineering that have historically been tedious and error-prone, such as stack variable tracking. The full version of IDA is relatively pricey (on the order of $500..$900 or so, depending on whether you need x64 support), but if you’re serious about reverse engineering, it’s a good investment. For the casual reverse engineer, DataRescue has released a previous version, IDA 4.30, for free. If you are just working with x86 or simply want to get your feet wet with reversing, the free version is a good place to start. Although tools like WinDbg include a built-in disassembler, IDA’s advanced code analysis and interactive aspects (such as allowing the user to describe and annotate types, names, and variables in a structured fashion) make it far superior for non-trivial reverse engineering projects.
  • HIEW (Hacker’s vIEW) is a powerful (console-based) hex editor / disassembler / assembler for 16-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit (x64) targets. It understands the various Windows image formats, but it can also be used on raw binary files as well. In addition to serving all of your hex editor needs, HIEW is just the perfect tool to use when you need to make quick on-disk patches to executables (and the integrated disassembler and assembler makes creating and applying such patches on-the-fly a walk in the park compared to traditional hex editors, which wourld require you to manually build the opcodes yourself, a pain for non-trivial patches). HIEW includes some additional power-features as well, such as a way to create and run simple programs to decrypt sections in a file (very useful if you’re working on something that is self-decrypting, and you know how to decrypt it but don’t have a program to do so already). It also includes a fairly simple plugin extension interface to allow custom actions to be integrated with the HIEW user interface. HIEW isn’t free, although it is fairly reasonably priced (and there is a (limited) demo that you can play around with).
  • The Windows Vista SDK is an essential tool for many reverse engineering tasks. It includes extensive documentation (as well as headers) for all public Win32 APIs, and it also includes several useful utilities as well (such as link.exe /dump, otherwise known as dumpbin.exe, which can be used to quickly extract various bits of information from a binary (like a list of imports) without having to load it up into a full-featured disassembler tool). The Vista SDK also includes OleView, which can be useful for inspecting a third-party COM library, as it has integrated support for turning a type library into MSIL (which can be trivially converted to a C header as needed).
  • Process Monitor, from SysInternals, is a great utility for quickly inspecting what file and registry operations a program is making. Depending on what you are trying to figure out when analyzing a program, simply looking at its file and registry activity can often save you hours of wading through disassembly or working with a debugger. Process Monitor allows you to perform (potentially filtered) in-depth logging of low-level file and registry activity, including operations that fail and the data returned by successful operations in some circumstances. Process Monitor is freely available from Microsoft’s website.
  • Process Explorer, formerly known as HandleEx, is another freely available tool from SysInternals. It allows quick and easy searching of open handles and loaded modules within a process, which is handy for initial information gathering (such as finding which process uses a DLL that you might be interested in). The ability to quickly check active processes for a DLL is also quite handy if you are trying to track down where a shared DLL (like a Windows hook DLL) is getting loaded in as a precursor to in-depth analysis.
  • SDbgExt is a WinDbg extension that I’ve developed (shameless plug). It provides a number of features that are useful for analyzing unfamiliar targets, such as the ability to import map files and create symbolic names out of them (particularly useful in conjunction with IDA’s export map file feature, if you want to synchronize your process between IDA and WinDbg), support for identifying writable function pointers within a process address space, and support for locating and displaying x64 exception/unwind handlers. SDbgExt presently only supports the 32-bit version of WinDbg. It is freely available (see the link above), and requires that WinDbg and the VC2005 CRT be installed.

There are other useful utilities out there (this is hardly an all-inclusive list), but these are the ones that I use the most often in a wide variety of situations.

One Response to “Reverse engineer’s toolkit”

  1. […] to the extended registers don’t work properly), so I had to use a separate assembler (HIEW, [Hacker’s vIEW]) and manually patch in the opcode bytes for the detour sequence (mov rax, ; jmp […]

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