Software that kills hardware

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Who would have guessed that hardware could be killed by a particular packet?

All of our SDPs were identical (including ptime, obviously). All of the source and destination URIs were identical. The only difference was the Call-IDs, tags, and branches. Problem packets had just the right Call-ID, tags, and branches to cause the “2” in the ptime to line up with 0x47f.

BOOM! With the right Call-IDs, tags, and branches (or any random garbage) a “good packet” could turn into a “killer packet” as long as that ptime line ended up at the right address. Things just got weirder.

While generating packets I experimented with various hex values. As if this problem couldn’t get any weirder, it does. I found out that the behavior of the controller depended completely on the value of this specific address in the first received packet to match that address. It broke down to something like this:

Byte 0x47f = 31 HEX (1 ASCII) – No effect
Byte 0x47f = 32 HEX (2 ASCII) – Interface shutdown
Byte 0x47f = 33 HEX (3 ASCII) – Interface shutdown
Byte 0x47f = 34 HEX (4 ASCII) – Interface inoculation



When I say “no effect” I mean it didn’t kill the interface but it didn’t inoculate the interface either (more on that later). When I say the interface shutdown, well, remember my description of this issue – the interface went down. Hard.

With even more testing I discovered this issue with every version of Linux I could find, FreeBSD, and even when the machine was powered up complaining about missing boot media! It’s in the hardware; the OS has nothing to do with it. Wow.

To make matters worse, using Ostinato I was able to craft various versions of this packet – an HTTP POST, ICMP echo-request, etc. Pretty much whatever I wanted. With a modified HTTP server configured to generate the data at byte value (based on headers, host, etc) you could easily configure an HTTP 200 response to contain the packet of death – and kill client machines behind firewalls!

I know I’ve been pointing out how weird this whole issue is. The inoculation part is by far the strangest. It turns out that if the first packet received contains any value (that I can find) other than 1, 2, or 3 the interface becomes immune from any death packets (where the value is 2 or 3). Also, valid ptime attributes are defined in powers (edit: multiples) of 10 – 10, 20, 30, 40. Depending on Call-ID, tag, branch, IP, URI, etc (with this buggy SDP) these valid ptime attributes line up perfectly. Really, what are the chances?!?

All of a sudden it’s become clear why this issue was so sporadic. I’m amazed I tracked it down at all. I’ve been working with networks for over 15 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. I doubt I’ll ever see anything like it again. At least I hope I don’t…

I was able to get in touch with two engineers at Intel and send them a demo unit to reproduce the issue. After working with them for a couple of weeks they determined there was an issue with the EEPROM on our 82574L controllers.

They were able to provide new EEPROM and a tool to write it out. Unfortunately we weren’t able to distribute this tool and it required unloading and reloading the e1000e kernel module, so it wouldn’t be preferred in our environment. Fortunately (with a little knowledge of the EEPROM layout) I was able to work up some bash scripting and ethtool magic to save the “fixed” eeprom values and write them out on affected systems. We now have a way to detect and fix these problematic units in the field. We’ve communicated with our vendor to make sure this fix is applied to units before they are shipped to us. What isn’t clear, however, is just how many other affected Intel ethernet controllers are out there.

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