dan farmer

IPMI: Freight Train to Hell


Intel's Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI), which is implemented and added onto by all server vendors, grant system administrators with a means to manage their hardware in an Out of Band (OOB) or Lights Out Management (LOM) fashion. However there are a series of design, utilization, and vendor issues that cause complex, pervasive, and serious security infrastructure problems.

The BMC is an embedded computer on the motherboard that implements IPMI; it enjoys an asymmetrical relationship with its host, with the BMC able to gain full control of memory and I/O, while the server is both blind and impotent against the BMC. Compromised servers have full access to the private IPMI network

The BMC uses reusable passwords that are infrequently changed, widely shared among servers, and stored in clear text in its storage. The passwords may be disclosed with an attack on the server, over the network network against the BMC, or with a physical attack against the motherboard (including after the server has been decommissioned.)

IT's reliance on IPMI to reduce costs, the near-complete lack of research, 3rd party products, or vendor documentation on IPMI and the BMC security, and the permanent nature of the BMC on the motherboard make it currently very difficult to defend, fix or remediate against these issues.


Imagine trying to secure an important group of servers that are essentially black boxes: not only are they full of old code and attack points, but there isn't any documentation on how they operate; you're unable to login, patch or fix problems; you're unable to run any server-based defensive, anti-malware, or audit software; and to top it off all the servers share reusable passwords that are stored in clear text. These insecure servers are not only pervasive but allow stealth control and monitoring over all the other servers on your network. Welcome to the 3rd millennium.

There are at least twice as many servers in your data center and networks than you might think. Modern servers have an embedded computer called the Baseboard Management Controller (BMC), which has its own CPU, RAM, storage, and physical network interface that all operate independently of the main server. The BMC was designed to facilitate out of band (OOB) operations and implement the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI), a standard created by Intel and a consortium of large server vendors; today nearly 200 computer manufacturers are on Intel's Adopter's List [1].

IPMI is mostly used for low-level tasks like rebooting servers, monitoring physical sensors (e.g. temperature, memory health, fan speed, etc.), providing virtual remote consoles and so on. However, due to its design, IPMI could also provide a mechanism to spy, control, and modify data and network traffic in a fashion that is about as close to invisible as can be imagined. To top it off IPMI access is governed by a clear text (i.e. unencrypted) set of passwords stored on the motherboard between all servers in a management group.

That thanks to IPMI and a widespread confluence of issues - including vendor design and architectural decisions, the standards and resulting implications on operations and security, how it is used operationally within organizations, and an almost complete lack of awareness or dialogue or research on the subject -we've dug ourselves a serious digital hole about as large as the Grand Canyon. To compound matters it's not a single problem - none of them individually are showstoppers - but due to the cascading nature of issues the problems add up to something more. Unfortunately all these factors take a bit of explanation, hence the length of this document (I've also written a Reader's Digest version, but it might give more questions than answers depending on your knowledge level.)

I must note up front that this paper's title is a bit unfair to IPMI, which does have its own issues, but those are greatly amplified by factors that have nothing to do with the specification. But in an attempt at clarity and simplicity I'll be using "IPMI" as a catchall phrase for several things - the specification, the BMC, how customers actually utilize it, the vendor and how they add features on top of the spec, etc. I hope the IPMI experts will forgive me for potentially slandering pure IPMI, and I'll try to distinguish who is the root cause of the various issues.

The severity of the situation mainly depends on three factors: the amount of servers in IPMI management groups, the amount of time between password changes within groups, and the difficulty of exploiting or abusing the BMC or the IPMI interface. If I'm off the mark on any of these it could be much less damaging than I claim. This is further clouded because hard data is perniciously difficult to get on such sensitive subject matter. In any case this paper details my analysis to date.

Those that are familiar with IPMI can safely skip or skim section I. I cover some architecture and implementation details of the BMC in section II; IPMI usage and deployment in the wild in III; section IV has a list of specific security problems, and then I end with a summary and some thoughts on where we might go from here.

There are so many different implementations, versions, vendors, and ambiguities I've tried to make the writing clearer by putting many of the caveats and one-offs in footnotes out of the path of general reading. And while I thank some people for help and reviewing my work (see the acknowledgements at the end), any omissions, errors, falsehoods or whatnot are solely my responsibility. It's a sprawling topic, far too big to cover in these pages, so I've also placed some additional background data, notes on vendors and specific implementations, along with links, references, and the like at my web site, http://fish2.com/ipmi.


I'd like to emphasize that I'm not an IPMI expert. I'd never used IPMI, and knew about as much as most people (e.g. nothing) until a couple of months ago when I got curious. I'm doing this completely on my own free time, although I did leverage three servers that are for my DARPA based Cyber Fast Track program research.[2] This handful of servers along with some network scanning, a variety of conversations with knowledgeable people, and a whole lot of reading is what I base the entire paper on.

I did contact CERT and some vendors about the issues in this paper but no one has been interested in any sort of formal response or communication. Indeed, there is a definite sense that the situation isn't as dire as I proclaim. However, I'll note that this all has been implemented and expanded by vendors with absolutely no scrutiny or oversight from the security community and researchers, which hasn't traditionally been a metric for security success. Finally: this isn't meant to be a scientific paper with measurements and hypothesis and results; given the breadth of the topic it's more of a porky watercolor, a sketch, or essay that attempts to draw fairly broad conclusions on a bit of disconcerting evidence. I'll stand by my work and am content to disagree with the world at large (as is my wont), but will remain open to discourse if anything comes of this, and will be happy to change my mind as I learn more.

Table of Contents

Abstract................................................................................... 1
Introduction............................................................................... 1
Disclaimer................................................................................. 2
I. IPMI.................................................................................... 3
II. The BMC................................................................................ 5
III. IPMI in the Wild......................................................................10
IV. Security Proclamations.................................................................12
V. Into You Like a Train (Conclusion)..................................................... 16
I'd like to thank…...................................................................21


By far the most popular OOB protocol today is the Intelligent Platform Management Interface, aka IPMI, which communicates to a server via the service processor or baseboard management controller (BMC.)

The IPMI system is actually composed of three specifications: the "Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI), Intelligent Platform Management Bus (IPMB) and Intelligent Chassis Management Bus (ICMB)."[3] It was initially developed by Intel, Dell, HP, and other large corporations; version 1.0 specifications published in 1998. Version 1.5, which is still in fairly wide use, came out in 2001, and 2.0 was rolled out in 2004 (the last revisions being published June 2009.) 2.0's main security contribution was to introduce the option of network encryption.

Server and firmware vendors add features and use a variety of names; Dell calls theirs iDRAC, Hewlett Packard iLO, IBM IMM, etc, but in the end it's all IPMI under the hood. Intel launched a similar effort for personal computers called Active Management Technology ( AMT) that shares many features with IPMI, but while hazardous I don't personally view it to be as threatening as IPMI.

IPMI was designed to be resilient - the BMC is able to communicate with its server or with other computers even when the network is down, the server power is off, the operating system or disks crash, or when other catastrophic failures happen (which is pretty cool if you think of it.)

The BMC essentially provides a data abstraction layer to the server's physical hardware via an IPMI programming interface. This makes it simple for monitoring tools such as Nagios, Cacti, etc. to extract this information on an ongoing basis via IPMI rather than mucking around with the firmware or sensors directly.

The most common use of IPMI is to monitor server physical health and status via its sensors; temperature, memory errors, disk health, fan speeds, and the like may be captured and associated alarms triggered when something is amiss. IPMI can also reboot the system upgrading the BIOS, install an operating system, or other low-level management tasks.

As IPMI's popularity grew, users and marketing folks naturally started asking for more features, and even more naturally vendors were happy to supply. As a result more and more functionality has been stuffed into the BMC, with most vendors supply at least a dozen or more different services including web, mail, and SNMP servers.

There seem to be three or more vendors involved with any given computer's implementation: the chip maker, the one or more firmware adder-onners, and the final server vendor who may add their own functionality and possibly an additional management interface for the end users.

Commonly the BMC is physically connected to the South Bridge, a core component on a motherboard that controls most I/O. The IPMI specification also defines interfaces used to enable and talk directly to other subsystems such as management controllers, add-in cards, various busses such as SMBus, I2C etc.

Figure 1, courtesy of the Intel Development Forum, might help illustrate IPMI's place in the management stack - traditional management systems deal with the higher level concepts of applications, operating systems, and the like - and something was needed to deal with the low-level hardware issues (IPMI is also used by supercomputers, virtual controllers, clustered computers, etc. to spin up and down new resources on demand.) Through efforts such as the Common Information Model (CIM) IPMI is providing its services to higher and higher levels of abstractions in an effort to provide a unified administrative interface. Support for popular scripting languages and web interfaces are de rigueur.

From the start OOB was meant to communicate when the bits hit the fan; initially people skipped the normal user to server communication channels and used such reliable but slow or pricey technology like analogue POTS lines, dedicated Internet connections or other independent networking technologies; the important part was that it was separate from the main network to be protected from the same outages that might bring down the network. This also gave an important amount of security separation, making it very difficult for anyone but insiders to know anything about the OOB machinery for a given network or datacenter. As time went on, interaction was deemed more desirable (e.g. video, mouse, etc.), cost cutting became more important, and the communication separation became less frequent; these days instead of having a network completely devoted to OOB its more common to segregate traffic with

VLANs or share a non-routable network with 3rd tier database or other non-internet facing servers.

If you're only worried about the one-password for all those machines, the IPMI specification itself does offer some help of sorts in the RMCP+ Authenticated Key-Exchange Protocol, or RAKP. Cacote & Masi describe[4] using this to create new passwords every day for every system, but it was only used on about 2,000 managed hosts, and it seems to involve some very complicated machinery. RAKP has flaws as well, however, including allowing people to use null passwords (making it useless), along with the fact that the IPMI specification says that it doesn't have "a secure, confidential mechanism for installing and distributing user keys between BMCs and remote consoles", which dampens my enthusiasm. Search engines show very little documentation or examples of use, which probably means not a lot of people use it.

IPMI is a flexible specification that allows a lot of different configurations, and like most systems some are less desirable than others, security-wise, and yet there's almost no community, research, or help for users wanting to secure their systems. There's a real need for security checklists, articles, a security FAQ, software tools, and discussion about the implications of IPMI and all it entails.

I've placed some additional technical security notes as well as pointers to other resources on my site.


There is a wealth of information out there about the functionality of IPMI, but it's hard to find much at all about the BMC or the various vendor implementations. It's a real server with a real OS and some fairly complex interactions with its host server and the outside world. So this is a high level gloss is primarily based on explorations with my lab machines along with BMC flash upgrades from other vendors. If you're keenly interested you might read a slightly expanded version[5] I wrote with some additional details.

Figure 2 shows a high-level hardware architectural diagram of a fairly typical BMC, in this case a Winbond WPCM450:

Text Box: Figure 2

Obviously implementations will vary, but the BMC is hooked up to the Southbridge, the area on a motherboard and responsible for the server's I/O. The BMC is a small computer running a minimalistic OS (Linux being common[6]) with an independent CPU (often RISC/ARM-based), RAM, storage, and Ethernet adaptor (although it can share its server's network interfaces as well.) There are just a handful or two of major subsystem vendors that design and manufacture the IPMI ecosystem and add-on firmware for the major server vendors, seemingly all made in China [7].

The ARM 926EJ's datasheet, used by Nuvoton, the manufacturer of one of my BMCs, said it cruises along at about 200 MFLOPS - faster than the first Cray super computer. Since the BMC actually does anything useful about 1% of 1% of the time perhaps we could start harnessing them for SETI or use them as failover servers for light duties. A few hundred million Crays just lying around; perhaps IPMI is simply a missed opportunity to better our world?

Open source and in particular GPL'd software is heavily leveraged - the kernel, OS, boot loader[8], most of the network services, etc., so in theory the vendors should be sharing the details of their implementations; unfortunately I've not been very successful at finding many details or how to pry such things loose.

The BMC isn't a mere parasite: it runs independently of the main operating system and is always running as long as any power is supplied to the computer. Other than the standard IPMI interfaces used to query its data I know of no software method that would discover activity or details within a BMC unless you're logged into the BMC; physical monitoring via JTAG or other instrumentation might prove fruitful. All communication is handled by the BMC's kernel and supporting programs, so even the most elemental of requests could return false data.

The IPMI specification explicitly mentions how useful System Management Interrupts (SMIs) can be for IPMI, although they're not officially part of the specification. SMI's are the highest priority non-maskable interrupts on a computer, and when asserted the processors are shifted into System Management Mode (SMM[9]) and the SMI handler - simply a bit of code by the vendor - is free to fold, spindle, or mutilate the server in any way desired in a nearly invisible fashion. At this point the IPMI specification puts it succinctly - the BMC has "full access to system memory and I/O space[10]."

After scanning lots of hardware literature, marketing material, and vendor documentation it seems as though the BMC usually seems to have the ability to use SMI handlers to enter SMM mode. Even if it didn't, however, with its low-level hardware connections and existing power over its host it would be hard to stop it from doing anything it wants.


There are four main ways of communicating to the BMC directly: there's an interactive shell, a web interface, various command line tools (like ipmitools; by default this is on UDP port 623), and finally via series of network services (e.g. virtual media, remote consoles, SNMP, etc.) that can be used either interactively or via automated tools to manage or query as to the health and well-being of the BMC and its host. Ultimately most, if not all of these capabilities are implemented just like on a normal Linux server: as a daemon or agent on the BMC's OS. Not all of these features are actually in the IPMI specification but are nearly universally on the BMC and packaged up as part of the vendors OOB offering.

Most of the time IPMI must be explicitly turned on[11] via the BIOS/UEFI/system firmware or as part of a special vendor custom order (there are stories of some vendors having it turned on by default, which is a serious risk), but it requires no configuration or special software on the host OS to be running (although you have to configure the server in order to communicate with the BMC.) Many servers have a dedicated management port for IPMI, but it can also share the network adaptor of the host OS[12]. Once a power cord is plugged in the BMC will start up, whether or not the host system has been activated.


IPMI authentication is handled via a small set (usually from 10-16) of local IPMI users can be created on each channel of the BMC. They can be given passwords of up to 16 (IPMI 1.5) or 20 (IPMI 2.0) characters, which are both stored in clear text[13]. Because the client never sends the password (cryptographic hashes are used instead; see the end of the previous section) IPMI also can't use out-of-the-box standard network authentication; while most vendors claim to support the usual suspects like LDAP, AD, RADIUS, etc. they have to resort to some sort of hackery (there are rumors that in some cases they simply append the plain text password as an attribute, not quite what you might want; in any case it's different than what one might expect.) But even if network authentication is used you still want that native, host-based fallback mechanism so you'll have console access during emergencies - for instance when the network or RADIUS or AD servers are down; indeed some vendors don't let you disable the BMC based authentication at all to prevent you from locking yourself out.

Most IPMI actions explicitly require a password to be entered. There are a few special cases, however.

If you're logged into a server with an administrative account you enjoy a special relationship with IPMI; you can perform any IPMI-related action (including enabling IPMI) on that local server and BMC without any authentication whatsoever. This means that if a server is compromised local IPMI passwords or accounts may be modified, deleted, or created, network services enabled, etc. If cipher zero (0) is enabled any user may be logged into without any password. It's usually possible to store SSH certificates on the BMC to allow a password free login (with the appropriate private key, of course.) This may be problematic from a management standpoint; who knows if that SSH key is valid, or whom it's really from? You also need to ensure a process is in place to register all locations that have the key along with a removal strategy after a user is terminated or their system is compromised (which would then allow free access to all of the BMCs and IPMI managed systems her key is on.) Some vendors also support single-sign on authentication; if that is hijacked or the user's normal network authentication can be compromised then all IPMI managed servers would be in trouble as well.

The IPMI passwords have to stored somewhere on the BMC's subsystem. Some vendors just stick it in a file [14] in plain sight, but it appears that most try to at least nominally hide it.

Network Services

A BMC generally runs a half-dozen or so network services out-of-the-box, but a dozen or more are typically available through the web or command line interfaces. Among the usual cast of characters there's web (HTTP and HTTPS), SSH, telnet, SMTP Virtual KVM/Keyboard/Mouse, Network USB and/or Virtual Media, SOL (Serial over Lan), VNC, WS-MAN, DHCP, SNMP and more - often vendors have a variety of ports for their undocumented special purpose software. And while not listening to network ports they also have various client programs that talk to the network like AD, LDAP, RADIUS, DNS, mail (SMTP) and more.

Of particular and perhaps visceral notice is that most BMCs now offer hooks to Microsoft's RDP/Terminal Services and VNC for a better view of the server side. Text or graphical screenshots or even video recording console activity are common features (the images or movies are stored on the BMC's flash file system.)

Virtual Media/USB

Along with the remote console feature, virtual media is one of the main reasons people really like OOB management. While it's not in the IPMI specification I don't think any vendor doesn't offer the feature on the BMC, although sometimes only with their advanced or enterprise version (for an additional fee, of course.)

Using the virtual media feature you can mount Disk images, USB sticks, DVDs/CDs, and the like from anywhere on the net and they'll appear immediately as a file system on thje host exactly like their physical counterparts (beware of autorun![15]) Virtual media is heavily used for provisioning or bootstrapping new servers or applications, remotely installing or reinstalling the OS, deploying diagnostic tools, etc.

A few security notes

I won't go too far into the security possibilities here (see section IV for more on that) but it's worth mentioning that a fair bit of the BMC's capabilities aren't found anywhere but a BMC; virtual media, SOL, sensor data handling, the IPMI protocol, etc. The BMC is constructed with many millions of lines of code; a mixture of moderately popular open source blended with propriety code from a small number of vendors. I haven't found any non-vendor studies or efforts to audit or test for security issues. This is what they call in the biz a green field opportunity, and there is a virtual certainty there are many, many vulnerabilities yet to be uncovered. A few areas ripe for exploitation: