Brussels / 1 & 2 February 2020


SaBRe: Load-time selective binary rewriting


Binary rewriting is a technique that consists in disassembling a program to modify its instructions, with many applications, e.g. monitoring, debugging, reverse engineering and reliability. However, existing solutions suffer from well-known shortcomings in terms of soundness, performance and usability.

We present SaBRe, a novel load-time framework for selective binary rewriting. SaBRe rewrites specific constructs of interest — mainly system calls and function prologues — when the program is loaded into memory. This enables users to intercept those constructs at runtime via a modular architecture allowing custom plugins to be linked with SaBRe using a simple and flexible API. We also discuss the theoretical underpinnings of disassembling and rewriting, including conditions for coverage, accuracy, and correctness; and how they affect SaBRe.

We developed two backends for SaBRe — one for x86_64 and one for RISC-V — which were in turn used to implement two open-source plugins: a fast system call tracer and a fault injector. Our evaluation shows that SaBRe imposes little performance overhead, between 0.2% and 4.3% on average. In addition to explaining the architecture of SaBRe and demonstrating its performance, we also show on a concrete example how easy creating a new plugin for SaBRe is.

SaBRe is a free open-source software released under the GPLv3 license and originally developed as part of the Software Reliabilty Group at Imperial College London.


The goal of binary rewriting is to add, delete and replace instructions in binary code. There are two main types of binary rewriting techniques: static and dynamic. In static binary rewriting, the binary file is statically rewritten on disk, while in dynamic binary rewriting it is rewritten in memory, as the program executes.

Static binary rewriting has the advantage that the rewriting process does not incur any overhead during execution, as it is performed before the program starts running. However, static binary rewriting is hard to get right: creating a valid modified executable on disk is challenging, and correctly identifying all the code in the program is error-prone in the presence of variable-length instructions and indirect jumps.

By contrast, dynamic binary rewriting modifies the code in memory, during program execution. This is typically accomplished by translating one basic block at a time and caching the results, with branch instructions modified to point to already translated code. Since translation is done at runtime, when the instructions are issued and the targets of indirect branches are already resolved, dynamic binary rewriting does not encounter the challenges discussed above for static binary rewriting. However, the translation is heavyweight and incurs a large runtime overhead.

In this presentation, we introduce SaBRe, a system that implements a novel design point for binary rewriting. Unlike prior techniques, SaBRe operates at load-time, after the program is loaded into memory, but before it starts execution. Like static binary rewriting techniques, SaBRe rewrites the code in-place, but the translation is done in memory, as for dynamic binary rewriting. To achieve a high level of both performance and reliability, SaBRe relies by default on trampolines, which are extremely efficient and can be used more than 99.99% of the time, and only falls back on illegal instructions triggering a signal handler for pathological cases.

The main limitation of SaBRe is that it is designed to rewrite only certain types of constructs, namely system calls (including vDSO), function prologues and some architecture- specific instructions (e.g. RDTSC in x86). However, as we illustrate later on, this is enough to support a variety of tasks, with much lower overhead than with dynamic binary rewriting and without incurring the precision limitations of static binary rewriting.

We implemented two binary rewriters based on this design: one for x86 64 and one for RISC-V code. Both rewriters feature a flexible API, which we used to implement three different plugins: a fast system call tracer, a multi-version execution system (not open-sourced yet) and a fault injector. In summary, our main contributions are: 1. A new design point for selective binary rewriting which translates code in memory in-place at load time, before the program starts execution. 2. An implementation of this approach for two architectures, one for x86 64 and the other for RISC-V. 3. A comprehensive evaluation using two open-source plugins: a fast strace-like system call tracer and a fault injector. 4. An extremely simple API that can be leveraged by users to implement and integrate their own plugins.


Photo of Paul-Antoine Arras Paul-Antoine Arras