This blog contains experience gained over the years of implementing (and de-implementing) large scale IT applications/software.

Is my Azure hosted SLES 12 Linux VM Affected by the BootHole Vulnerability

In July 2020, a GRUB2 bootloader vulnerability was discovered which could allow attackers to replace the bootloader on a machine which has Secure Boot turned on.
The vulnerability is designated CVE-2020-10713 and is rated 8.2 HIGH on the CVSS (see here).

Let’s look at what this is and how it impacts a Microsoft Azure virtual machine running SUSE Enterprise Linux 12, which is commonly used to run SAP systems such as SAP HANA or other SAP products.

What is the Vulnerability?

It is a “Classic Buffer Overflow” vulnerability in the GRUB2 bootloader for versions prior to 2.06.
Essentially, some evil input data can be entered into some part of the GRUB2 program binaries, which is not checked/validated.
The input data causes an overflow of the holding memory area into adjacent memory areas.
By carefully crafting the data that is the overflow, it is possible to cause a specifically targeted memory area to be overwritten.

As described by Eclypsium here (the security company that detected this) “Attackers exploiting this vulnerability can install persistent and stealthy bootkits or malicious bootloaders that could give them near-total control over the victim device“.

Essentially, the vulnerability allows an attacker with root privileges to replace the bootloader with a malicious one, boot into it and then have further capability to effectively set up camp (a backdoor) on the server.
This backdoor would be hard to remove because the bootloader is one of the first things to be booted (anti-virus can’t remove the bootloader if the bootloader boots first and “adjusts” the anti-virus).

What is GRUB2?

GRUB2 is v2 of the GRand Unified Bootloader (see here for the manual).
It is used to load the main operating system of a computer.
Usually on Linux virtual machines, GRUB is used to load Linux. It is possible to install GRUB on machines that then boot into Windows.

What is Secure Boot?

There are commonly two boot methods: “Legacy Boot” and “Secure Boot” (a.k.a UEFI boot).
Until Secure Boot was invented, the bootloader would sit in a designated location on the hard disk and would be executed by the computer BIOS to start the chain of processes for the computer start up.
This is clearly quite insecure, since any program could put itself at the designated location and then be executed at boot up.

With Secure Boot, certificates are used to secure the boot process chain.
As with any certificate based process, at the top (root) level there needs to exist a certificate which is valid for many years and is ultimately trusted – the Certificate Authority (CA).
The next levels in the chain trust that CA certificate implicitly and if any point in the chain is compromised, then the trust is broken and will need re-establishing with new certificates.
Depending which level of the chain is compromised, will dictate the amount of effort needed to fix it.

This BootHole vulnerability means a new CA certificate needs to be implemented in every machine that uses Secure Boot!

But the attackers Need Root?

Yes, the vulnerability is in a GRUB2 configuration text file owned by the root user. Additional text added to the file can cause the buffer overflow.
Once the attacker has used malware to instigate the overflow, and installed a malicious bootloader, they then have a backdoor to the server, which would be executed every time the server is rebooted.
This backdoor would be hard to remove because the bootloader is one of the first things to be booted (anti-virus can’t remove the bootloader if the bootloader boots first and “adjusts” the anti-virus).

NOTE: The flaw also exists if you also use the network boot capability (PXE boot).

What is the Patch?

Due to the complexity of the problem (did you read the prior Eclypsium link?), it needs more than one piece of software to be patched and in different layers of the boot chain.

First off, the vulnerable GRUB2 software needs patching; this is quite easy and will require a reboot of the Linux O/S.
The problem with patching just GRUB2, is that it is still possible for an attacker with root to re-install a vulnerable version of GRUB2 and then use that vulnerable version to compromise the system further.
Remember, the chain of trust is still trusting that vulnerable version of GRUB2.
Therefore, to be able to stop the vulnerable version of GRUB2 being re-installed and used, three things need to happen:

  1. The O/S vendor (SUSE) needs to adjust their code (known as the “shim”) so that it no longer trusts the vulnerable version of GRUB2. Again, this is a software patch from the O/S vendor (SUSE) which will need a reboot.
  2. Since someone with root could simply re-install O/S vendor code (the “shim”) that trusts the vulnerable version of GRUB2, the adjusted O/S vendor code will need signing and trusting by the certificates further up the chain.
  3. The revocation list of Secure Boot needs to be adjusted to prevent the vulnerable version of the O/S vendor code (“shim”) from being called during boot. (This is known as the “dbx” (exclusion database), which will need updating with a firmware update).

What is SUSE doing about it?

There needs to be a multi-pronged patching process because SUSE also found some additional bugs during their analysis.

You can see the SUSE page on CVE-2020-10713 here, which includes the mention of the additional bugs.

They key point is that you *could* start patching, but if it were me, I would be tempted to wait until the SUSE “shim” has been updated with the new chain certificate, patch GRUB2 and then update the “dbx”.

How does this impact Azure VMs?

In the previous paragraphs we found that a firmware update is needed to update the “dbx” exclusion database.
Since Microsoft Azure is using the Hyper-V hypervisor, the “firmware” is actually software in Hyper-v.
See here, which says: “Secure Boot or UEFI firmware isn’t required on the physical Hyper-V host. Hyper-V provides virtual firmware to virtual machines that is independent of what’s on the Hyper-V host.

So the above would indicate that the Virtual Machine contains the necessary code from Hyper-V.
I would imagine that this is included at VM creation time.

If we dig into the VM details a little bit here on the Microsoft sites, we find:

So the above states that “…generation 2 VMs in Azure do not support Secure Boot…“.
The words “…in Azure…” are the key part of this.

OK, then how about Hyper-V in general (on-premise):

The above states “To Secure Boot generation 2 Linux virtual machines, you need to choose the UEFI CA Secure Boot template when you create the virtual machine.“.
BUT this is for Hyper-V in general, not for Azure virtual machines.

So we know that Secure Boot is not available in Azure on any of the generation 1 or generation 2 VMs (as of writing there are only 2).


The BootHole vulnerability is far reaching and will impact many, many devices (servers, laptops, IoT devices, TVs, fridges, cars?).
However, only those devices that actually *use* Secure Boot will truly be impacted, since the devices not using Secure Boot do not need to be patched (it’s fruitless).

If you run SLES 12 on Azure virtual machines, you cannot possibly use Secure Boot, so there is no point patching to fix a vulnerability for which you are not affected.
You are only introducing more risk by patching.

If however, you do decide to patch (even if you don’t need to) then follow the advice from SUSE and patch to fix GRUB2, the “shim” and the other vulnerabilities that were found.

If you are running SLES on Azure, then there is no specific order of patching, because you do not use Secure Boot, so there is no possibility of breaking the trust chain that doesn’t exist.

On a final closing point, you could be running a HANA system in Azure on what is known as “HANA Large Instances” (HLI). These are physical machines. So whilst Virtual Machines can’t use Secure Boot, these physical machines may well do so. You would be wise to contact your Microsoft account representative to establish if they will be patching the firmware.

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