Self-modifying code

From Academic Kids

In computer science, self-modifying code is code that modifies itself on purpose. This is straightforward to write when using assembly language and is also supported by some high level language interpreters such as SNOBOL4 or the Lisp programming language. It is more difficult to implement on compilers but compilers such as Clipper and Spitbol make a fair attempt at it. Batch programming scripts often involve self modifying code as well.

Reconfigurable computing could be said to be self-modifying hardware. This technique blurs the border between software and hardware.

Assembly style self-modifying code

The kinds of self-modifying code that are used in assembly can be for various purposes:

  1. Optimisation of a state dependent loop.
  2. Runtime code generation, or specialisation of an algorithm in runtime or loadtime (which is popular, for example in the domain of real-time graphics).
  3. Altering of inlined state of an object, or simulating the high level construction of closures.
  4. Patching of subroutine address calling, as done usually at load time of dynamic libraries. Whether this is regarded 'self-modifying code' or not is a case of terminology.

The second and third types are probably the kinds mostly used also in high-level languages, such as LISP.

Pseudo-code example of type 1:

repeat N times {
  if STATE is 1
   increase A by one
   decrease A by one

  do something with A

Self-modifying code in this case would simply be a matter of rewriting the loop like this:

 repeat N times {

  increase A by one
  do something with A
 when STATE has to switch {
    replace the opcode "increase" above with the opcode to decrease

Note that 2-state replacement of the opcode can be easily written as 'xor var at address with the value "opcodeOf(Inc) xor opcodeOf(dec)".

Choosing this solution will have to depend of course on the value of 'N' and the frequency of state changing.

Some claim that use of self-modifying code is not recommended when a viable alternative exists, because such code can be difficult to understand and maintain.

Others, simply view self-modifying code as something one would be doing while editing code (in the above example, replacing a line, or keyword), only done in run-time.

In some cases self-modifying code executes slower on modern processors. This is because a modern processor will usually try to keep blocks of code in its cache memory. Each time the program rewrites a part of itself, the rewritten part must be loaded into the cache again, which results in a slight delay.

The cache invalidation issue on modern processors usually means that self-modifying code would still be faster only when the modification will occur rarely, such as in the case of a state switching inside an inner loop. This consideration is not unique to processors with code cache, since on any processor rewriting the code never comes for free.

Self-modifying code was used in the early days of computers in order to save memory space, which was limited. It was also used to implement subroutine calls and returns when the instruction set only provided simple branching or skipping instructions to vary the flow of control (this is still relevant in certain ultra-RISC architectures, at least theoretically, e.g. one such system has a sole branching instruction with three operands: subtract-and-branch-if-negative).

Self-modifying code was used to hide copy protection instructions in 1980s DOS based games. The floppy disk drive access instruction 'int 0x13' would not appear in the executable program's image but it would be written into the executable's memory image after the program started executing. Self-modifying code is also sometimes used by programs that do not want to reveal their presence -- such as computer viruses and some shellcodes. Viruses and shellcodes that use self-modifying code mostly does this in combination with polymorphic code. Polymorphic viruses are sometimes called primitive self-mutators. Modifying a piece of running code is also used in certain attacks, such as buffer overflows.

Because of the security implications of self-modifying code, some operating systems go to lengths to rule it out. Recent versions of OpenBSD, for instance, have a feature known as W^X (for "write xor execute", meaning that, for a given memory page, a program can only write, or execute, but not both) which inhibits alteration of memory pages which harbor executable code. Programs which depend upon rewriting their own machine code cannot execute in such an environment.

Most modern processors load the machine code before they execute it, which means that if an instruction that is too near the instruction pointer is modified, the processor will not notice, but instead execute the code as it was before it was modified. See Prefetch Input Queue (PIQ).

Example NASM-syntax self-modifying x86-assembly algorithm that determines the size of the Prefetch Input Queue

   xor cx, cx                  ; zero register cx
   xor ax, ax                  ; zero register ax

   mov dx, cs                  ; change dx to edx for protected mode.
   mov [code_segment], dx      ; "calculate" codeseg in the far jump below (edx here too)

   cmp ax, 1                   ; check if ax has been alterd
   je found_size

   mov [nop_field+cx], 0x90    ; 0x90 = opcode "nop" (NO oPeration)
   inc cx

   db 0xEA                     ; 0xEA = opcode "far jump"
   dw flush_queue              ; should be followed by offset (rm = "dw", pm = "dd")
   dw 0                        ; and then the code segment (calculated above)

   mov [nop_field+cx], 0x40    ; 0x40 = opcode "inc ax" (INCrease ax)

   nop times 256
   jmp around

   ;    register cx now contains the size of the PIQ
   ;    this code is for realmode, but it could easily be changed into 
   ;    running for protected mode as well. just change the "dw" for 
   ;    the offset to "dd". you need also change dx to edx at the top as
   ;    well. (dw and dx = 16 bit addressing, dd and edx = 32 bit addressing)

What this code essentially does is change the execution flow, and determine by brute force how large the PIQ is. "How far away do I have to change the code in front of me for it to affect me?" If it is too near (it is already in the PIQ) the update will not have any affect. If it is far enough, the change of the code will affect the program and the program has then found the size of the processors PIQ. If this code is being executed in protected mode, the operating system must not make any context switch, or else this program may return the wrong value.

Example algorithm (theoretical!)

GOTO Decryption_Code
    lots of encrypted code!!!
    *A = Encrypted
Loop: ( just a label)
    B = *A
    B = B XOR CryptoKey
    *A = B
    A = A + 1
    GOTO Loop IF NOT A = (Decryption_Code - Encrypted)
    GOTO Encrypted

This "program" will decrypt a part of itself and then jump to it.

(*A means "the location to which A points")


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