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Computer Science 61 and E61
Systems Programming and Machine Organization
This is the 2013 version of the course. Main site

Assignment 3: Binary Bomb

  • Assigned Tue 10/15
  • Due Sun 10/27 11:59pm (1 day later for extension)
  • We recommend that students attempt to complete their own bombs, with discussion help from their partners. However, a pair of students may choose to submit one of their bombs (rather than both). If a team submits one bomb, the following provisos will apply:
    • Full credit for a shared bomb requires completing 7 phases. It is hard to find the seventh phase!
    • Any “explosions” from the non-submitted bomb will be deducted from the shared bomb grade. (So you can’t “sacrifice” a bomb.)
  • This assignment is self-grading. There is no explicit need to store your binary bomb in your code.seas.harvard.edu git repository, though it wouldn't hurt. We will have you enter partners in the grading server.
  • Collaboration policy: Academic honesty is expected, as always. For this assignment, academic honesty requires that you (and your partner) solve your bomb, and that you not disable the connection the bomb makes to our checking server. If you appear to have disabled this connection we will interpret your results as cheating. You may of course discuss your work with other students in the class.


The nefarious Dr. Evil is going to tickle us to death unless we defuse a huge number of “binary bombs” he's planted on our class server. A binary bomb is a program that consists of a sequence of phases. Each phase expects you to type a particular string on the standard input. If you type the correct string, then the phase is defused and the bomb proceeds to the next phase. Otherwise, the bomb explodes by printing "BOOM!!!" and then terminating. The bomb is defused when every phase has been defused.

There are too many bombs for us to deal with, so we are giving each student a different bomb to defuse. Your mission, which you have no choice but to accept, is to defuse your bomb before the due date. Good luck!


Obtain your bomb by pointing your Web browser here:


Enter your code.seas.harvard.edu username into the form and hit Submit. The server will return your bomb in a tar file called bombk.tar, where k is the unique number of your bomb.

Save the bombk.tar file to a (protected) directory in which you plan to do your work. This must be on a 32-bit Linux host, such as a CS 50 Appliance. Then give the command: tar -xvf bombk.tar. This will create a directory called ./bombk with the following files:

  • README: Identifies the bomb and its owners.
  • bomb: The executable binary bomb.
  • bomb.c: Source file with the bomb’s main routine and a friendly greeting from Dr. Evil.

If you lose the bomb, no problem; just go back to http://cs61.seas.harvard.edu:6161/ and request it again.


Your job is to defuse your bomb. This involves supplying it with just the right input.

The bombs seem to be tamper-proofed in a couple ways. For one, they can only be defused when the computer is connected to the Internet. Running the bomb on a machine without Internet connectivity won’t do anything. There are several other tamper-proofing devices built into the bomb as well, we hear!

You can use many tools to help you defuse your bomb. Probably the best way is to use your favorite debugger to step through the disassembled binary.

Each time your bomb explodes it notifies Dr. Evil, who tells us, and you lose 1/2 point (up to a max of 20 points) in the final score for the lab. So there are consequences to exploding the bomb. You must be careful!

The first four phases are worth 10 points each. Phases 5 and 6 are a little more difficult, so they are worth 15 points each. The maximum score you can get is 70 points.

Although phases get progressively harder to defuse, the expertise you gain as you move from phase to phase should offset this difficulty. However, the last phase will challenge everyone, so please don’t wait until the last minute to start.

The bomb ignores blank input lines. If you run your bomb with a command line argument, for example,

 % ./bomb psol.txt

then it will read the input lines from psol.txt until it reaches the end, and then switch over to stdin. In a moment of weakness, Dr. Evil added this feature so you don’t have to keep retyping the solutions to phases you have already defused.

To avoid accidentally detonating the bomb, you will need to learn how to single-step through the assembly code and how to set breakpoints. You will also need to learn how to inspect both registers and memory state. One of the nice side effects of doing the lab is that you will get very good at using a debugger!


The bomb notifies us automatically of your progress as you work on it. You can keep track of how you are doing, and compare (anonymously) with everyone else, by looking at the class scoreboard at:


This web page is kept updated to show the progress for each bomb. It may take up to a minute for new explosions and defusings to show up on the scoreboard.


There are many ways of defusing your bomb. Hypothetically, you could even figure out the bomb without ever running the program, just from the machine code (and various tools like objdump). But it's much easier to run the bomb under a debugger, watch what it does step by step, and reverse-engineer the input it wants.

There are many tools which are designed to help you figure out both how programs work, and what is wrong when they don’t work. Here is a list of some of the tools you may find useful in analyzing your bomb, and hints on how to use them.

Understanding instructions
There are lots of ways to puzzle out instruction meanings: lecture, the book, even the examples distributed as part of our lectures. (For example, if you're curious about the leal instruction, go to the cs61-lectures repository, and try “grep leal */*.s”. This reports a match in l09/f36.s, so look at l09/f36.c.)
Also try searching for the instruction name on Google: “movl instruction”. But be careful. There are two syntaxes used for x86 assembly language. We use “AT&T syntax” in class and in the book, but many online references use “Intel syntax,” which switches the order of arguments and is different in other annoying ways. For instance, Intel calls the %eax register EAX (all caps, no percent). Read about the differences in syntaxes in the Aside on p166 of CS:APP2e, or here or here.
The GNU debugger is a command line debugger tool available on virtually every platform. You can trace through a program line by line, examine memory and registers, look at both the source code and assembly code (we are not giving you the source code for most of your bomb), set breakpoints, set memory watch points, and write scripts. The CS:APP2e web site has a handy single-page gdb summary (PDF) that you can print out and use as a reference. Here are some other tips for using gdb:
  • To keep the bomb from blowing up every time you type in a wrong input, you’ll want to learn how to set breakpoints.
  • Some critical gdb commands for this pset are r (of course), c, b, disas, x (for instance, try x/5i $pc and x/20xw $eax—gdb names registers with initial dollar signs), and si. The s command is sometimes useful and sometimes dangerous. Many of the related commands on these pages might also be useful. Check out, for example, finish, info reg, and display. And do read the manual for these commands! It contains lots of helpful time-saving hints. To exit gdb use q.
  • Consider creating a file called .gdbinit in your BOMBDIR. gdb automatically executes all commands listed in this file every time it starts up. The command set confirm off is useful here (if you get tired of questions like “Quit anyway? (y/n)”). For this lab, a breakpoint or two would be super useful too!! But:
  • On the appliance, your BOMBDIR/.gdbinit may not be loaded by default. (Check this by reading gdb’s startup messages. If you see an error about “auto-loading has been declined,” then your BOMBDIR/.gdbinit was not loaded.). This is an annoying security precaution. To get around it, create a file named .gdbinit in your home directory, containing either “add-auto-load-safe-path [BOMBDIR]”, or, assuming the bomb is located somewhere in your home directory, “add-auto-load-safe-path ~”. More on auto-load-safe-path
  • For online documentation, type “help” at the gdb command prompt, or type “man gdb” or “info gdb” at a Unix prompt. Some people also like to run gdb under gdb-mode in emacs.
objdump -t
This will print out the bomb’s symbol table. The symbol table includes the names of all functions and global variables in the bomb, the names of all the functions the bomb calls, and their addresses. You may learn something by looking at the function names!
objdump -d (or objdump -S)
Use this to disassemble all of the code in the bomb. You can also just look at individual functions.
Although objdump -d gives you a lot of information, it doesn’t tell you the whole story. Calls to system-level functions are displayed in a cryptic form. For example, a call to sscanf might appear as:
 8048c36: e8 99 fc ff ff               call 80488d4 <_init+0x1a0>
To determine that the call was to sscanf, you would need to disassemble within gdb.
This utility will display the printable strings in your bomb.

For more, don’t forget your friends the commands man and info, and the amazing Google and Wikipedia. In particular, info gas has more than you might ever want to know about assembler.

This lab was originally created for CMU’s CS:APP course.