Yak Shaving: Silicon Labs CP2110 and Linux

One of my favourite passtimes in the past years has been reverse engineering glucometers for the sake of writing an utility package to export data to it. Sometimes, in the quest of just getting data out of a meter I end up embarking in yak shaves that are particularly bothersome, as they are useful only for me and no one else.

One of these yak shaves might be more useful to others, but it will have to be seen. I got my hands on a new meter, which I will review later on. This meter has software for Windows to download the readings, so it’s a good target for reverse engineering. What surprised me, though, was that once I connected the device to my Linux laptop first, it came up as an HID device, described as an “USB HID to UART adapter”: the device uses a CP2110 adapter chip by Silicon Labs, and it’s the first time I saw this particular chip (or even class of chip) in my life.

Effectively, this device piggybacks the HID interface, which allows vendor-specified protocols to be implemented in user space without needing in-kernel drivers. I’m not sure if I should be impressed by the cleverness or disgusted by the workaround. In either case, it means that you end up with a stacked protocol design: the glucometer protocol itself is serial-based, implemented on top of a serial-like software interface, which converts it to the CP2110 protocol, which is encapsulated into HID packets, which are then sent over USB…

The good thing is that, as the datasheet reports, the protocol is available: “Open access to interface specification”. And indeed in the download page for the device, there’s a big archive of just-about-everything, including a number of precompiled binary libraries and a bunch of documents, among which figures AN434, which describe the full interface of the device. Source code is also available, but having spot checked it, it appears it has no license specification and as such is to be considered proprietary, and possibly virulent.

So now I’m warming up to the idea of doing a bit more of yak shaving and for once trying not to just help myself. I need to understand this protocol for two purposes: one is obviously having the ability to communicate with the meter that uses that chip; the other is being able to understand what the software is telling the device and vice-versa.

This means I need to have generators for the host side, but parsers for both. Luckily, construct should make that part relatively painless, and make it very easy to write (if not maintain, given the amount of API breakages) such a parser/generator library. And of course this has to be in Python because that’s the language my utility is written in.

The other thing that I realized as I was toying with the idea of writing this is that, done right, it can be used together with facedancer, to implement the gadget side purely in Python. Which sounds like a fun project for those of us into that kind of thing.

But since this time this is going to be something more widely useful, and not restricted to my glucometer work, I’m now looking to release this using a different process, as that would allow me to respond to issues and codereviews from my office as well as during the (relatively little) spare time I have at home. So expect this to take quite a bit longer to be released.

At the end of the day, what I hope to have is an Apache 2 licensed Python library that can parse both host-to-controller and controller-to-host packets, and also implement it well enough on the client side (based on the hidapi library, likely) so that I can just import the module and use it for a new driver. Bonus points if I can sue this to implement a test fake framework to implement the tests for the glucometer.

In all of this, I want to make sure to thank Silicon Labs for releasing the specification of the protocol. It’s not always that you can just google up the device name to find the relevant protocol documentation, and even when you do it’s hard to figure out if it’s enough to implement a driver. The fact that this is possible surprised me pleasantly. On the other hand I wish they actually released their code with a license attached, and possibly a widely-usable one such as MIT or Apache 2, to allow users to use the code directly. But I can see why that wouldn’t be particularly high in their requirements.

Let’s just hope this time around I can do something for even more people.

2 thoughts on “Yak Shaving: Silicon Labs CP2110 and Linux

  1. But it’s just a serial adapter chip – so you only need to “decrypt” the serial protocoll not the CP2110 protocoll as this is a rather common chip for this kind of taks – you can get serial adapters with this chip even on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B…python should already have a serial libraryso UART/serial adapter/bridges are rather common in microcontroller world, every arduino in this world is using one to get programmed via serialor do miss something in this post?

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  2. You’re missing the part where I called it an HID-to-UART adapter and noted «the glucometer protocol itself is serial-based, implemented on top of a serial-like software interface, which converts it to the CP2110 protocol, which is encapsulated into HID packets, which are then sent over USB…»The device does *not* appear to the Linux kernel as a /dev/ttyUSB device, nor it appears on Windows as a COM device. Which means it’s not your bog standard USB-to-serial adapter, like the WCH I didn’t finish the driver of.And that’s without accounting for the fact that quite a few of the USB-to-serial adapters have complicated USB wire protocol, so unless you can capture the lower-level interaction you still need to have tooling to parse and extract the information. Not everything is as easy as cp210x.

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