Making sense of the Supermicro motherboard attack

By Theo Markettos

There has been a lot of ‘fog of war’ regarding the alleged implantation of Trojan hardware into Supermicro servers at manufacturing time. Other analyses have cast doubt on the story. But do all the pieces pass the sniff test?

In brief, the allegation is that an implant was added at manufacturing time, attached to the Baseboard Management Controller (BMC). When a desktop computer has a problem, common approaches are to reboot it or to reinstall the operating system. However in a datacenter it isn’t possible to physically walk up to the machine to do these things, so the BMC allows administrators to do them over the network.

Crucially, because the BMC has the ability to install the operating system, it can disrupt the process that boots the operating system – and fetch potentially malicious implant code, maybe even over the Internet.

The Bloomberg Businessweek reports are low on technical details, but they do show two interesting things. The first is a picture of the alleged implant. This shows a 6-pin silicon chip inside a roughly 1mm x 2mm ceramic package – as often used for capacitors and other so-called ‘passive’ components, which are typically overlooked.

The other is an animation highlighting this implant chip on a motherboard. Extracting the images from this animation shows the base image is of a Supermicro B1DRi board. As others have noted, this is mounted in a spare footprint between the BMC chip and a Serial-Peripheral Interface (SPI) flash chip that likely contains the BMC’s firmware. Perhaps the animation is an artist’s concept only, but this is just the right place to compromise the BMC.

SPI is a popular format for firmware flash memories – it’s a relatively simple, relatively slow interface, using only four signal wires. Quad SPI (QSPI), a faster version, uses seven wires for faster transmission. The Supermicro board here appears to have a QSPI chip, but also a space for an SPI chip as a manufacturing-time option. The alleged implant is mounted in part of the space where the SPI chip would go. Limited interception or modification of SPI communication is something that a medium complexity digital chip (a basic custom chip, or an off-the-shelf programmable CPLD) could do – but not to a great extent. Six pins is enough to intercept the four SPI wires, plus two power. The packaging of this implant would, however, be completely custom.

What can an implant attached to the SPI wires do? The BMC itself is a computer, running an operating system which is stored in the SPI flash chip. The manual for a MBI-6128R-T2 server containing the B1DRi shows it has an AST2400 BMC chip.

The AST2400 uses a relatively old technology – a single-core 400MHz ARM9 CPU, broadly equivalent to a cellphone from the mid 2000s. Its firmware can come via SPI.

I downloaded the B1DRi BMC firmware from the Supermicro website and did some preliminary disassembly. The AST2400 in this firmware appears to run Linux, which is plausible given it supports complicated peripherals such as PCI Express graphics and USB. (It is not news to many of us working in this field that every system already has a Linux operating system running on an ARM CPU, before power is even applied to the main Intel CPUs — but many others may find this surprising).

It is possible that the implant simply replaces the entire BMC firmware, but there is another way.

In order to start its own Linux, AST2400 boots using the U-Boot bootloader. I noticed one of the options is for the AST2400 to pick up its Linux OS over the network (via TFTP or NFS). If (and it’s a substantial if) this is enabled in the AST2400 bootloader, it would not take a huge amount of modification to the SPI contents to divert the boot path so that the BMC fetched its firmware over the network (and potentially the Internet, subject to outbound firewalls).

Once the BMC operating system is compromised, it can then tamper with the main operating system. An obvious path would be to insert malicious code at boot time, via PCI Option ROMs. However, after such vulnerabilities came to light, defenses have been increased in this area.

But there’s another trick a bad BMC can do — it can simply read and write main memory once the machine is booted. The BMC is well-placed to do this, sitting on the PCI Express interconnect since it implements a basic graphics card. This means it potentially has access to large parts of system memory, and so all the data that might be stored on the server. Since the BMC also has access to the network, it’s feasible to exfiltrate that data over the Internet.

So this raises a critical question: how well is the BMC firmware defended? The BMC firmware download contains raw ARM code, and is exactly 32MiB in size. 32MiB is a common size of an SPI flash chip, and suggests this firmware image is written directly to the SPI flash at manufacture without further processing. Additionally, there’s the OpenBMC open source project which supports the AST2400. From what I can find, installing OpenBMC on the AST2400 does not require any code signing or validation process, and so modifying the firmware (for good or ill) looks quite feasible.

Where does this leave us? There are few facts, and much supposition. However, the following scenario does seem to make sense. Let’s assume an implant was added to the motherboard at manufacture time. This needed modification of both the board design, and the robotic component installation process. It intercepts the SPI lines between the flash and the BMC controller. Unless the implant was designed with a very high technology, it may be enough to simply divert the boot process to fetch firmware over the internet, and all the complex attacks build from there — possibly using PCI Express and/or the BMC for exfiltration.

If the implant is less sophisticated than others have assumed, it may be feasible to block it by firewalling traffic from the BMC — but I can’t see many current owners of such a board wanting to take that risk.

So, finally, what do we learn? In essence, this story seems to pass the sniff test. But it is likely news to many people that their systems are a lot more complex than they thought, and in that complexity can lurk surprising vulnerabilities.

Dr A. Theodore Markettos is a Senior Research Associate in hardware and platform security at the University of Cambridge, Department of Computer Science and Technology.