Operational Assurance (2 of 2)

Time for a tiny bit of client-side operational assurance. We're going to package this chapter's code so that it "just works" in the field.

We want our rcli tool to run on nearly any Linux system, instantly. Just by copying a single executable file. No setup, no pulling in libraries with an OS-specific package manager. We want it to work for every user, every time.

Is this section relevant to red teams?

Potentially. Operational assurance can be thought of as an abstract game played by defenders and attackers. Likewise, native executables can serve different agendas:

  • Defense: Performant, reliable tools for a range of hosts you manage (e.g. "assets").

  • Offense: Portable programs amenable to obfuscation1. For hosts owned by your victims (e.g. "targets").

Building a Free-standing Binary

Static binaries are a tried-and-true way to bundle a program and its dependencies. They provide an alternative to dynamic linking, a default which locates and loads dependencies at runtime. Let's briefly visualize the mechanical distinction.

With dynamic linking, multiple processes use the same copy of a shared dependency (e.g. shared library). The shared functions are "resolved" (address to call into is determined) at runtime. Typically that means on the first call a process makes to a shared function, but it can also be when the process is first "loaded" (e.g. the program is started)2. It's common, but not required, for shared libraries to make systems calls - requests to the OS kernel to interact with hardware. Reading or writing a file requires a system call.

Two dynamically-linked processes with a shared dependency.

Static linking takes all of the executable code needed for a program, including any services typically provided by system libraries, and bakes everything into one larger file. The result is a stand-alone application. No need to resolve anything at runtime. System calls are made directly as necessary.

A statically-linked process and dynamically-linked processes.

Are we making an operational tradeoff?

Yes. For defenders, static linking complicates patching. Typically, an OS's package manager keeps system libraries up to date. And individual programs can link against a single, recent copy of the relevant library.

Static linking means each individual program needs to be replaced to keep its dependencies up to date. We lose the ability to manage centralized copies of certain components.

If multiple processes rely on the same dependency, then a statically linked process may also mean duplicated code and thus higher RAM usage.

But static linking is great for portability and isn't readily supported by many programming languages. So let's see how it's done in Rust.

First, we'll verify that rcli is dynamically linked by default. From the crypto_tool/rcli directory, run:

cargo build --release
ldd ../target/release/rcli

ldd is a Linux command for printing shared library dependencies - those the OS distribution typically manages. So that second command will output something like:

linux-vdso.so.1 (0x00007ffc0196f000)
libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007f09369b9000)
/lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f0936c8e000)
libpthread.so.0 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libpthread.so.0 (0x00007f0936996000)
libgcc_s.so.1 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libgcc_s.so.1 (0x00007f093697b000)
libdl.so.2 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libdl.so.2 (0x00007f0936975000)

Each line represents a shared object (.so file) that the rcli tool expects to be present somewhere on the filesystem in order to function.

The second item (line starting with libc.so.6) is the C standard library. Recall from this chapter's intro that our rcli front-end code links against parts of libc (e.g. for dynamic memory allocation). Although our RC4 library does not (it's a #![no_std] component).

To avoid being reliant on the presence of these libraries, we can compile a static binary that will use musl (a tiny libc alternative3) instead:

rustup target add x86_64-unknown-linux-musl
cargo build --release --target x86_64-unknown-linux-musl
  • The first command adds a new compilation target4, which is generally specified by a "target triple" in the form {Arch}-{Vendor}-{Sys}-{ABI}.

  • The second command builds rcli as before, but this time for the target triple x86_64-unknown-linux-musl.

Now let's try ldd again, this time on the musl-target binary:

ldd ../target/x86_64-unknown-linux-musl/release/rcli

The output should be:

statically linked

Our second build of the rcli executable will "just work" on any x86_64 Linux system! All you need to do is copy over the binary.

Stripping Debug Info

If we want to distribute this executable, we should reduce its size by removing debug information (including symbols that allow matching to source code, something a CLI end-user won't need to do).

We can "strip" the binary of this information by adding the following release profile setting to the workspace's configuration file, crypto_tool/Cargo.toml:

strip = true

The setting applies to any target built with the flag --release (which enables optimizations). We could've also used strip5, a standalone Linux utility, but we leveraged cargo to more cleanly integrate into the build pipeline.

An Alternative to musl

Though leveraging musl is a popular way to build small-ish static binaries, musl has its quirks. Particularly with regard to performance.

To statically link your platform's standard C runtime ("CRT") instead6:

RUSTFLAGS='-C target-feature=+crt-static' cargo build --release --target x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu

Warning: unlike the musl route, the resulting binary might still be dynamic linked against something like vdso7. You can use ldd to verify.


We've demonstrated building a completely free-standing tool. Our binary will run natively, on nearly any client of given OS and ISA8.

That concludes our tour of software assurance! In the next chapter, we'll dig into Rust proper.


hellscape. meme (Archived 2021).


ld.so. Linux manual (Accessed 2022). On Linux, this behavior can be activated by setting the LD_BIND_NOW environment variable to a non-empty string. The advantage of doing shared function resolution at load-time is slightly more predictable runtime performance. May also be useful for process debugging.


musl libc. Rich Felker and contributors (Accessed 2022).


Platform Support. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


strip. Linux manual (Accessed 2022).


RFC 1721. The Rust RFC Book (Accessed 2022).


vdso. Linux manual (Accessed 2022).


Instruction Set Architecture, e.g. x86_64.