I/O You Own: Windows 8 Update


At SyScan 2012 last year, I debuted research on how to bypass the Operating System’s normal input/output (I/O) disk driver path and use the crash dump driver stack (i.e., “crash dump I/O path”) to read the master boot record (MBR). This technique subverted the TDL4 rootkit and would be effective against any traditional I/O hooking rootkit/malware.

I recently presented an overhauled version of this presentation at BSides Jackson in Jackson, MS. For this updated presentation, I focused on interesting new changes to the Windows 8 crash dump stack and hinted at a new technique to manipulate this crash dump stack. This blog post will cover technical details of the new Windows 8 technique.

Background: Original Bypass Technique

The Windows operating system maintains two separate I/O paths to the boot device – one for normal system operation, the normal I/O path, which consists of components such as the file system, volume manager, partition manager, and so on; and a second path, the crash dump I/O path, which is used exclusively for writing a crash dump file to the boot device when the system crashes and for writing hibernation data to the hiberfil.sys file when the system hibernates. These two I/O paths are illustrated in Figure 1 below.


Each of these paths consists of a series of layered drivers (or “driver stack”) that pass I/O requests back and forth to complete operations. The crash dump driver stack consists of a dump port driver, a dump miniport driver, one or more crash dump filter drivers, and a special driver named crashdmp.sys that serves as a crash state manager for the kernel (technically, it lives outside the driver stack).

As shown in Figure 1, the crash dump driver stack is almost a mirror copy of the lowest portion of the normal path’s driver stack, with a few twists.  The crash dump port driver, provided by Microsoft as part of the operating system, is a special copy of the normal I/O path’s disk port driver, altered to completely bypass the normal I/O path during a system crash. The crash dump miniport driver, provided by the manufacturer, is pre-programmed to operate in conjunction with this special dump port driver in a restricted crash dump environment.  These two low-level drivers, in conjunction with the kernel and the crashdmp.sys driver, work together to operate the crash dump I/O path completely separate from the normal I/O path.

Only the operating system uses this special “backdoor” path to disk, but I discovered it was possible to use the crash dump driver stack to arbitrarily read or write to disk via a driver that implements a bypass technique. Despite the fact that this bypass technique worked, it involved a few “hackish” feats that made the proof of concept driver less than ideal. As discussed in the SyScan presentation and accompanying whitepaper, the general steps in the technique are:

  1. Identify the Crash Dump Port and Miniport Drivers – Walk the list of memory-resident kernel modules to locate the dump port and miniport drivers. Once located, call their entry points with special arguments to initialize them.
  2. Get Boot Device Information – Send special IO control codes to the normal I/O path drivers to get information about the boot disk, which we will use when sending our own I/O request.
  3. Find StartIo() or DispatchCrb() Routines – Scan the dump port driver’s text section for “magic bytes” that allow us to identify these routines that carry out I/O in crash dump mode.
  4. Find and Initialize the Dump Port Driver’s Device Extension – Locate a pointer to this dump port driver’s internal structure and initialize some fields in it to set up our I/O request.
  5. Instantiate a SCSI/IDE Request Block – Using the boot device information obtained in Step 2, fill in a SCSI_REQUEST_BLOCK (SRB) or IDE_REQUEST_BLOCK (IRB) structure that instructs the disk to read 512 bytes from the first sector on disk.
  6. Call StartIo() or DispatchCrb() – Pass the SRB/IRB from Step 5 to the I/O routine

This technique worked sufficiently well for SCSI transport devices in Windows 2000 through Windows 7, but it could cause stability issues. A similar version of the technique tailored to IDE drives was able to transmit I/O requests, but the requests were not successfully completed. Since this was just a side project at the time, I was not able to devote the time and resources necessary to debug the issues with this technique.

Windows 8 has introduced drastic changes to both the crashdmp.sys driver and the dump port driver itself (a very rare alteration) that break the original technique described above and render many aspects of it unnecessary. The changes in Windows 8 integrate a read capability into the crash dump stack that can be used in a stable way. Before discussing a new technique to use these features, it is necessary to briefly explore some of the important changes to the crash dump stack in Windows 8.

New Crash Dump Features in Windows 8

To decrease system startup time, Windows 8 introduces a new feature called “hybrid boot.” Hybrid boot is a startup method for quickly resuming the operating system after the system goes into sleep/hibernation mode. It is a hybrid between traditional cold boot and resuming from hibernation.

As opposed to normal hibernation, where all user sessions are hibernated to disk, hybrid boot only hibernates the system session. This means that all system drivers, services, plug-and-play devices, and so on, don’t have to be shut down and restarted, providing a much faster resume operation. If you’d like to learn more about hybrid boot, check out this article on the Building Windows 8 blog.

So what does this have to do with the crash dump stack? As previously mentioned, the crash dump stack is responsible not only for writing a crash dump file when a system error occurs, but it also has the task of managing the hibernation file (hiberfil.sys) in conjunction with the kernel and the power manager. Therefore, any changes to how the system hibernates (such as the new hybrid boot feature) will require modifications to the crash dump stack drivers.

Along with extensive changes to the kernel itself and the power manager, the dump port driver and the crashdmp.sys driver were modified to support this new hybrid boot feature. Most importantly, both drivers contain new functions that issue read requests to the boot device when the system is resuming from hibernation. The power manager uses these new read routines when resuming from hibernation to restore hiber context information:

  • Nt!PopRestoreHiberContext()
  • Nt!PopRequestRead()
  • Crashdmp.sys!CrashdmpReadRoutine() 
  • Diskdump.sys!DiskDumpRead()


Prior to Windows 8, the hibernation context information was not retrieved from disk in this manner. Rather, the power manager handled the entire process. Integrating this aspect of the new hybrid boot feature at the dump port driver level results in an extremely fast resume operation.

For the purposes of this research and proof of concept driver, this is an important departure from the crash dump stack in prior versions of Windows, which was only capable of writing to disk (either a crash dump file or hiberfil.sys). In Windows 8, it can now read from disk as well, consequently obsoleting the original bypass technique previously described.

So, how do we use the new read feature in the Windows 8 dump port driver for our own purposes? Keep reading.

Toward a Windows 8 Proof of Concept

With the new read capabilities in the dump stack, Microsoft had to expose it to driver developers so that things like whole-disk encryption software would work properly. Whole-disk encryption software typically includes a crash dump filter driver so that when a dump file is written to disk, the software has an opportunity to encrypt its contents.

Now that data can be additionally read by the crash dump mechanism, Microsoft extended their existing crash dump filter callback API to include a read routine callback. Unfortunately, such a callback has no control over what data is actually being read, so using this approach for our purposes would not work.

The other option is to use one of the new read routines directly, whose prototypes are shown below:

  • Crashdmp.sys!CrashdmpReadRoutine(Type, Offset, Mdl)
  • Diskdump.sys!DumpRead(Type, Offset, Mdl)


As it turns out, the first function is simply a wrapper around the second one with additional code to update the dump state context, which we don’t care about. Therefore, the best option seems to be to attempt to use the second function. Further investigation of this function reveals it is also a wrapper around another internal dump port driver function, DiskDumpIoIssue():

DiskDumpIoIssue() kindly handles all of the aspects of issuing I/O requests to the dump miniport, which the original technique had to hack prior to Windows 8:

  • Initializing a SCSI_REQUEST_BLOCK (SRB) structure to describe the request
  • Mapping an MDL to describe the SRB data buffer, if required
  • Calling the dump port internal I/O function, StartIo(), which calls the dump miniportHwStartIo() routine to actually program the device for the operation
  • Polling to wait on result
  • Retrying failed/pending requests

As is the case with the bypass technique, it is still necessary to do some initialization prior to calling this new function. In addition to initializing the dump stack drivers ourselves, the dump port driver’s device extension must be located and initialized. Since this structure changed significantly in Windows 8, it had to be manually reverse engineered and the initialization techniques changed accordingly.

At this point, there is enough information to piece together the steps required to use the DiskDumpIoIssue() function in Windows 8 (some of the concepts mentioned here will be covered in detail shortly):

  • Locate and initialize the crash dump miniport driver
  • Locate, patch and initialize the crash dump port driver
  • Locate the dump port driver’s new read routine, DiskDumpIoIssue()
  • Disable the normal I/O path
  • Call DiskDumpIoIssue() with a disk offset and an MDL that describes the buffer to store the result.
  • Enable the normal I/O path
  • Unpatch the dump port driver


Putting the System into Crash Dump Mode

As previously mentioned, the system operates in a restricted environment (“crash dump mode”) when a crash is in progress.  This environment, setup by the kernel after a bug check has occurred, severely restricts what operations can be performed on the system and what features are available.  In effect, the system is reduced to a single processor running one uninterruptible thread at the highest possible interrupt request level (IRQL).  Any I/O that might take place is done synchronously and interrupts are disabled.  There are documented mechanisms available to replicate this environment, the most useful of which is Interprocessor Interrupt (IPI) broadcasts.  Each of the steps mentioned above that interact with a driver in the crash dump stack must momentarily “enable” crash dump mode using an IPI broadcast.  This includes calling the dump port and miniport DriverEntry() routines when initializing the drivers and just before sending the  I/O request to the dump port driver.

Disabling/Re-enabling the Normal I/O Path

An issue not addressed in the original bypass technique, using two separate driver stacks that operate on the same underlying hardware is problematic at best, since doing so will almost certainly lead to race conditions. Furthermore, arbitrarily initiating I/O through the crash dump stack will trash any I/O already in progress on the device (initiated from the normal I/O path), which can have a range of possible outcomes, from working without issue to deadlocking the system. Fortunately, it is possible to send a special I/O control code to the normal I/O path port driver, instructing it to flush and lock its internal queue. This mechanism makes it possible to halt the normal I/O path, after which, the system can be placed into restricted crash dump mode and I/O can be issued through the crash dump I/O path.

Patching the Dump Port Driver

Another challenge to overcome was the integration of new hibernation features into the dump port driver. Specifically, the dump port driver’s DriverEntry() calls an internal function MarkHiberBootPhase(), which marks certain memory pages to be included in the hibernation file via nt!PoSetHiberRange().

Unfortunately there is no way to sidestep this function call from within the dump port driver’s DriverEntry(), and attempts to trick the operating system into thinking it is in a hibernation state before calling it failed (it can almost be accomplished via nt!ZwPowerInformation() with the SystemReserveHiberFile information type).

The issue here is that a special hibernation context structure internal to the kernel must be allocated before any hiber functions (such as nt!PoSetHiberRange()) are called, and the only way to trigger this allocation is to actually set the system into a hibernation state by calling nt!NtSetSystemPowerState(). This is not an acceptable solution, as we want to make as few changes to the system as possible.

There are two ways to get around this unfortunate restriction. The first option is to not call DriverEntry() at all. This means more upfront work before it is possible to send I/O to the dump port driver. It also means the solution is less portable to future operating systems, because of the need to use static structure offsets which are painstakingly cherry-picked from reverse engineering various drivers.

The other option is to simply patch the dump port driver’s DriverEntry() function to disable the call to MarkHiberBootPhase(). Despite my abhorrence of anything patching/hooking related (I can see all of my teammates cringing in disgust), this turned out to be a simple 0x15-byte patch that could be immediately restored after sending the I/O request. And since the system is manually forced into crash dump mode (single processor, single thread, uninterruptible, synchronous I/O, high IRQL), there are no synchronization issues.

But just to be sure it was impractical, I actually tried sidestepping DriverEntry() completely. It turned into a half day’s exercise of shoving pointers into various fields in an undocumented device extension structure to learn their purposes, in between system crashes. Clearly the tedium and uncertainty involved in that approach were not worth it, so patching out the call made the most sense.


This blog post has covered a new technique to read arbitrary data from a storage device using the new crash dump stack in Windows 8, which includes an inherent read capability. Several other critical steps necessary for a reliable proof of concept were discussed, such as crash dump mode and toggling the normal I/O path.

I would like to give special thanks to Alex Ionescu for his assistance in making this research possible and to my colleagues on the review team for taking the time to critique this post.

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