FLARE IDA Pro Script Series: Simplifying Graphs in IDA
We’re proud to release a new plug-in for IDA Pro users –
SimplifyGraph – to help automate creation of groups of nodes in the
IDA’s disassembly graph view. Code and binaries are available from the
repo. Prior to this release we submitted it in the href="https://www.hex-rays.com/contests/2017/index.shtml">2017
Hex-Rays plugin contest, where it placed third overall.
My personal preference is to use IDA’s graph mode when doing the
majority of my reverse engineering. It provides a graphical
representation of the control flow graph and gives visual cues about
the structure of the current function that helps me better understand
Graph mode is great until the function becomes complex. IDA is often
forced to place adjacent nodes relatively far apart, or have edges in
the graph cross and have complex paths. Using the overview graph
becomes extremely difficult due to the density of nodes and edges, as
seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1: An annoying function
IDA has a built-in mechanism to help simplify graphs: creating
groups of nodes, which replaces all of the selected nodes with a new
group node representative. This is done by selecting one or more
nodes, right-clicking, and selecting “Group nodes”, as shown in Figure
2. Doing this manually is certainly possible, but it becomes tedious
to follow edges in complex graphs and correctly select all of the
relevant nodes without missing any, and without making mistakes.
Figure 2: Manual group creation
The SimplifyGraph IDA Pro plug-in we’re releasing is built to
automate IDA’s node grouping capability. The plug-in is
source-compatible with the legacy IDA SDK in 6.95, and has been ported
to the new SDK for IDA 7.0. Pre-built binaries for both are available
on the Releases tab
for the project repository.
The plug-in has several parts, which are introduced below. By
combining these together it’s possible to isolate parts of a control
flow graph for in-depth reverse engineering, allowing you to look at
Figure 3 instead of Figure 1.
Figure 3: Isolated subgraph to focus on
Create Unique-Reachable (UR) Subgraph
Unique-Reachable nodes are all nodes reachable in the graph from a
given start node and that are not reachable from any nodes not
currently in the UR set. For example, in Figure 4, all of the
Unique-Reachable nodes starting at the green node are highlighted in
blue. The grey node is reachable from the green node, but because it
is reachable from other nodes not in the current UR set it is pruned
prior to group creation.
Figure 4: Example Unique Reachable selection
The plug-in allows you to easily create a new group based on the UR
definition. Select a node in IDA's graph view to be the start of the
reachable search. Right click and select "SimplifyGraph ->
Create unique-reachable group". The plug-in performs a graph
traversal starting at this node, identifies all reachable nodes, and
prunes any nodes (and their reachable nodes) that have predecessor
nodes not in the current set. It then prompts you for the node text to
appear in the new group node.
If you select more than one node (by holding the Ctrl key when
selecting nodes) for the UR algorithm, each additional node acts as a
sentry node. Sentry nodes will not be included in the new group, and
they halt the graph traversal when searching for reachable nodes. For
example, in Figure 5, selecting the green node first treats it as the
starting node, and selecting the red node second treats it as a sentry
node. Running the “Create unique-reachable group” plug-in option
creates a new group made of the green node and all blue nodes. This
can be useful when you are done analyzing a subset of the current
graph, and wish to hide the details behind a group node so you can
concentrate on the rest of the graph.
Figure 5: Unique reachable with sentry
The UR algorithm operates on the currently visible graph, meaning
that you can run the UR algorithm repeatedly and nest groups.
Switch Case Groups Creation
Switch statements implemented as jump tables appear in the graph as
nodes with a large fan-out, as shown in Figure 6. The SimplifyGraph
plug-in detects when the currently selected node has more than two
successor nodes and adds a right-click menu option “SimplifyGraph
-> Create switch case subgraphs”. Selecting this runs the
Unique-Reachable algorithm on each separate case branch and
automatically uses IDA’s branch label as the group node text.
Figure 6: Switch jumptable use
Figure 7 shows a before and after graph overview of the same
function when the switch-case grouping is run.
Figure 7: Before and after of switch
Running Edit -> Plugins -> SimplifyGraph brings up a new
chooser named "SimplifyGraph - Isolated subgraphs" that
begins showing what I call isolated subgraphs of the current graph, as
seen in Figure 8.
Figure 8: Example isolated subgraphs chooser
A full definition appears later in the appendix including how these
are calculated, but the gist is that an isolated subgraph in a
directed graph is a subset of nodes and edges such that there is a
single entrance node, a single exit node, and none of the nodes (other
than the subgraph entry node) is reachable by nodes not in the subgraph.
Finding isolated subgraphs was originally researched to help
automatically identify inline functions. It does this, but it turns
out that this graph construct occurs naturally in code without inline
functions. This isn’t a bad thing as it shows a natural grouping of
nodes that could be a good candidate to group to help simplify the
overall graph and make analysis easier.
Once the chooser is active, you can double click (or press Enter) on
a row in the chooser to highlight the nodes that make up the subgraph,
as seen in Figure 9.
Figure 9: Highlighted isolated subgraph
You can create a group for an isolated subgraph by:
- Right-clicking on the
chooser row and selecting "Create group", or pressing
Insert while a row is selected.
- Right-clicking in a
highlighted isolated subgraph node and selecting "SimplifyGraph
-> Create isolated subgraph".
Doing either of these prompts you for text for the new graph node to create.
If you manually create/delete groups using IDA you may need to
refresh the chooser's knowledge of the current function groups
(right-click and select "Refresh groups" in the chooser).
You can right click in the chooser and select "Clear
highlights" to remove the current highlights. As you navigate to
new functions the chooser updates to show isolated subgraphs in the
current function. Closing the chooser removes any active highlights.
Any custom colors you applied prior to running the plug-in are
preserved and reapplied when the current highlights are removed.
Isolated subgraph calculations operates on the original control flow
graph, so isolated subgroups can't be nested. As you create groups,
rows in the chooser turn red indicating a group already exists, or
can't be created because there is an overlap with an existing group.
Another note: this calculation does not currently work on functions
that do not return (those with an infinite loop). See the Appendix for details.
Creating groups to simplify the overall control flow graph is nice,
but it doesn’t help understand the details of a group that you create.
To assist with this, the last feature of the plug-in hides everything
but the group you’re interested in allowing you to focus on your
reverse engineering. Right clicking on a collapsed group node, or a
node that that belongs to an uncollapsed group (as highlighted by IDA
in yellow), brings up the plug-in option “Complement & expand
group” and “Complement group”, respectively. When this runs the
plug-in creates a group of all nodes other than the group you’re
interested in. This has the effect of hiding all graph nodes that you
aren’t currently examining and allows you to better focus on analysis
of the current group. As you can see, we’re abusing group creation a
bit so that we can avoid creating a custom graph viewer, and instead
stay within the built-in IDA graph disassembly view which allows us to
continue to markup the disassembly as you’re used to.
Complementing the graph gives you the view seen in Figure 10, where
the entire graph is grouped into a node named “Complement of group X”.
When you’re done analyzing the current group, right click on the
complement node and select IDA’s “Ungroup nodes” command.
Figure 10: Group complement
As an example that exercises the plug-in, let’s revisit the function
in Figure 1. This is a large command-and-control dispatch function for
a piece of malware. It contains a large if-else-if series of inlined
strcmp comparisons that branch to the logic for each command when the
input string matches the expected command.
- Find all of the inline
strcmp’s and create groups for those. Run Edit -> Plugins ->
SimplifyGraph to bring up the plug-in chooser. In this function
nearly every isolated subgraph is a 7-node inlined strcmp
implementation. Go through in the chooser to verify, and create a
group. This results in a graph similar to Figure 11.
Figure 11: Grouped strcmp
- When an input string matches a command string, the
malware branches to code that implements the command. To further
simplify the graph and make analysis easier, run the
Unique-Reachable algorithm on each separate command by right
clicking on the first node after each string-comparison and
selecting SimplifyGraph -> Create unique-reachable group. After
this we now have a graph as in Figure 12.
Figure 12: Grouped command logic
- Now perform your reverse engineering on each
separate branch in the dispatch function. For each command handler
group node that we created, right click that node and select
“SimplifyGraph -> Complement & expand group”. A result of
complementing a single command handler node is shown in Figure 13,
which is much easier to analyze.
Figure 13: Group complement
- When done analyzing the current command handler,
delete the complement group by right clicking the “Complement of
group X” node and use IDA’s built-in “Ungroup nodes” command. Repeat
for the remaining command handler grouped nodes.
You can tweak some of the configuration by entering data in a file
named %IDAUSR%/SimplifyGraph.cfg, where %IDAUSR% is typically
%APPDATA%/Hex-Rays/IDA Pro/ unless explicitly set to something else.
All of the config applies to the isolated subgraph component. Options:
* SUBGRAPH_HIGHLIGHT_COLOR: Default 0xb3ffb3: The color to apply to
nodes when you double click/press enter in the chooser to show nodes
that make up the currently selected isolated subgraph. Not everyone
agrees that my IDA color scheme is best, so you can set your own
highlight color here.
* MINIMUM_SUBGRAPH_NODE_COUNT: Default 3: The minimum number of
nodes for a valid isolated subgraph. If a discovered subgraph has
fewer nodes than this number it is not included in the shown list.
This prevents trivial two-node subgraphs from being shown.
* MAXIMUM_SUBGRAPH_NODE_PERCENTAGE: Default 95: The maximum percent
of group nodes (100.0 *(subgroup_node_count /
total_function_node_count)) allowed. This filters out isolated
subgraphs that make up (nearly) the entire function, which are
typically not interesting.
Example SimplifyGraph.cfg contents
I came across semi-related work while working on this: href="https://github.com/lallousx86/GraphSlick">GraphSlick from
Hex-Rays contest. That plug-in had different goals to
automatically identifying (nearly) identical inline functions via CFG
and basic block analysis, and patching the program to force mock
function calls to the explicit function. It had a separate viewer to
present information to the user.
SimplifyGraph is focused on automating tasks when doing manual
reverse engineering (group creation) to reduce the complexity of
disassembly in graph mode. Future work may incorporate the same
prime-products calculations to help automatically identify isolated subgraphs.
Prebuilt Windows binaries are available from the href="https://github.com/fireeye/SimplifyGraph">Releases tab of the
GitHub project page. The ZIP files contain both IDA 32 and IDA
64 plug-ins for each of the new IDA 7.0 SDK and for the legacy IDA
6.95 SDK. Copy the two plug-ins for your version of IDA to the
This plug-in & related files were built using Visual Studio 2013
Environment Variables Referenced by project:
* IDASDK695: path to the extracted IDA 6.95 SDK. This should have
`include` and `lib` paths beneath it.
* IDASDK: path to the extracted IDA 7.0 (or newer) SDK. This Should
have `include` and `lib` paths beneath it.
* BOOSTDIR: path to the extracted Boost library. Should have `boost`
and `libs` paths beneath it.
The easiest way is to use the Microsoft command-line build tools:
* For IDA7.0: Launch VS2013 x64 Native Tools Command Prompt, then run:
msbuild SimplifyGraph.sln /property:Configuration=ReleaseIDA70_32 /property:Platform=x64
msbuild SimplifyGraph.sln /property:Configuration=ReleaseIDA70_64 /property:Platform=x64
* For IDA6.95: Launch VS2013 x86 Native Tools Command Prompt, then run:
msbuild SimplifyGraph.sln /property:Configuration=ReleaseIDA695_32 /property:Platform=Win32
msbuild SimplifyGraph.sln /property:Configuration=ReleaseIDA695_64 /property:Platform=Win32
I hope this blog has shown the power of automatically grouping nodes
within a disassembly graph view, and viewing these groups in isolation
to help with your analysis. This plug-in has become a staple of my
workflow, and we’re releasing it to the community with the hope that
others find it useful as well.
Appendix: Isolated Subgraphs
Finding isolated subgraphs relies on calculating the immediate
dominator and immediate post-dominator trees for a given function graph.
A node d dominates n if every path to n must go through d.
The immediate dominator p of node n is basically the closest
dominator to n, where there is no node t where p dominates t, and t
A node z post-dominates a node n if every path from n to the exit
node must go through z.
The immediate post-dominator x of node n is the closest
post-dominator, where there is no node t where t post-dominates n and
x post-dominates t.
The immediate dominator relationship forms a tree of nodes, where
every node has an immediate dominator other than the entry node.
The Lengauer-Tarjan algorithm can efficiently calculate the
immediate dominator tree of a graph. It can also calculate the
immediate post-dominator tree by reversing the direction of each edge
in the same graph.
The plug-in calculates the immediate dominator tree and immediate
post-dominator tree of the function control flow graph and looks for
the situations where the (idom[i] == j) and (ipdom[j] == i). This
means all paths from the function start to node i must go through node
j, and all paths from j to the function terminal must go through i. A
candidate isolated subgraph thus starts at node j and ends at node i.
For each candidate isolated subgraph, the plug-in further verifies
only the entry node has predecessor nodes not in the candidate
subgraph. The plug-in also filters out candidate subgraphs by making
sure they have a minimum node count and cover a maximum percentage of
nodes (see MINIMUM_SUBGRAPH_NODE_COUNT and
MAXIMUM_SUBGRAPH_NODE_PERCENTAGE in the config section).
One complication is that functions often have more than one terminal
node – programmers can arbitrarily return from the current function at
any point. The immediate post-dominator tree is calculated for every
terminal node, and any inconsistencies are marked as indeterminate and
are not possible candidates for use. Functions with infinite loops do
not have terminal nodes, and are not currently handled.
For a simple example, consider the graph in Figure 14. It has the
following immediate dominator and post-dominator trees:
Figure 14: Example graph
Looking for pairs of (idom[i] == j) and (ipdom[j] == i) gives the following:
(0, 8) (1, 3) (3, 6) (6,7)
(0, 8) is filtered because it makes up all of the nodes of the graph.
(1,3) and (6, 7) are filtered out because they contain nodes
reachable from nodes not in the set: for (1, 3) node 2 is reachable
from node 6, and for (6, 7) node 2 is reachable from node 1.
This leaves (3, 6) as the only isolate subgraph in this example,
shown in Figure 15.
Figure 15: Example graph with isolated subgraph
Source: FLARE IDA Pro Script Series: Simplifying Graphs in IDA