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In this tutorial, we present one use case to demonstrate the usefulness of using Inception for the analysis of a real-world firmware soure-code. The firmware under test is a Web server for the board LPC1850-DB1 from Diolan. This board hosts an NXP LPC1850 chip based on a ARM Cortex-M3. The firmware contains 3 main elements that are:


You can download the code directly from Diolan website, however we recommand you to use our version for two simple reasons. First, we added compilation scripts that avoid installing more than necessary. Second, we modified the source code to add a vulnerability.

git clone

Before going futher in this tutorial, you need to install Inception on your machine natively or through a Docker container. We recommand you to use our Docker container that avoids dependencies issues. This tutorial requires Inception v2 that is not publicly available yet.

First - cross-compilation

To perform its analysis, Inception requires two inputs. A target ELF binary with symbols and a bitcode in LLVM IR. The bitcode is a semantic model in LLVM IR. We use the LLVM frontend for C/C++ code that is Clang. Our Makefile script will automatically build all the required files.

cd lpc18xx-demos

PROJECT=Web make

To get more details about this, we describe below the 3 main steps:

Second - setting the memory model

Remember that Inception, is a re-hosting system. Therefore, it needs some information about the firmware environment. There is different kind of memory for a firmware. For instance, memory mapped registers. When accessing mapped addresses, memory bus transactions are seamlessly forwarded to hardware peripherals. This is a common communication channel between firmware and hardware. In some cases, you may need to keep this interaction while testing on Inception. This is generaly a good way to prune the explored states to realistic cases. In some other, you can decide to randomized or to consider all the possible values during the analysis (i.e. symbolic value). This is generaly the case when inputs come from an untrusted element (e.g. ethernet buffer). To summarize, this feature is by far the most important as it enables you to define the test strategy to follow during the analysis. This strategy is mainly based on modeling the memory model of the firmware that are the programs inputs.

In the purpose of testing the Web server, we will focus on the symbolic strategies but you can find below all the supported configurations.

"memory_model": [
  {"name": 'REGISTER', "base": '0x40000000', "size": '256', "strategy": 'randomized|realistic|forwarded|symbolic'}

Third - setting the interrupt model

One second and important challenge when analyzing firmware programs is the interrupt mechanim. Hardware peripherals uses interrupt signals to notify the firmware that a task completed. To process interrupt, the CPU (Cortex M) stops current code execution, stacks context (registers) on the stack, resolve the interrupt handler address using the interrupt vector and then update the instruction pointer to start executing the interrupt handler. To support interrupt, the analyzer needs to emulate all these parts. Two behaviors are supported:

The example below will generate systick interrupt very 1000 instructions.

    "interrupt_model" : [
      { "id": 15, "frequency" : 1000}

Fourth - starting the analyzer

inception --elf ./lpc18xx-demos/bin.elf --bitcode ./lpc18xx-demos/bin.bc \
--allocate-determ --allocate-determ-start-address 0x90000000 --allocate-determ-size 10000 \
--mem_conf_file ./mem.json --interrupt_conf_file ./irq.json

During the analysis, inception triggers SysTick interrupt every 1000 instructions and print a debug message on the screen.


Note options starting with ‘allocate-determ’ are used to force 32bits address space when interpreting High-IR LLVM IR. This avoids pointer missmatch.

Analysis Results

On the original code, at each SysTick interrupt a counter is incremented. When this timer is above 20, the TCP stack is refreshed. Our synthetic vulnerability arrives at this moment.

After running inception for a few second, it prints an error message that indicates the presence of an out of bound pointer on line 35 in main.c. This experiment demonstrates how Inception can be configured to detect memory corruption on firmware programs using a custom interrupt model. Even simple, this example is representative of issues on real world firmware where bug triger condition are often related to interrupt and hardware i/o.

KLEE: ERROR: lpc18xx-demos/Examples/Web/main.c:35: memory error: out of bound pointer