Reverse Engineering and Serial Adapter Protocols

In the comments to my latest post on the Silicon Labs CP2110, the first comment got me more than a bit upset because it was effectively trying to mansplain to me how a serial adapter (or more properly an USB-to-UART adapter) works. Then I realized there’s one thing I can do better than complain and that is providing even more information on this for the next person who might need them. Because I wish I knew half of what I know now back when I tried to write the driver for ch314.

So first of all, what are we talking about? UART is a very wide definition for any interface that implements serial communication that can be used to transmit between a host and a device. The word “serial port” probably bring different ideas to mind depending on the background of a given person, whether it is mice and modems connected to PCs, or servers’ serial terminals, or programming interfaces for microcontrollers. For the most part, people in the “consumer world” think of serial as RS-232 but people who have experience with complex automation systems, whether it is home, industrial, or vehicle automation, have RS-485 as their main reference. None of that actually matters, since these standards mostly deal with electrical or mechanical standards.

As physical serial ports on computer stopped appearing many years ago, most of the users moved to USB adapters. These adapters are all different between each other and that’s why there’s around 40KSLOC of serial adapters drivers in the Linux kernel (according to David’s SLOCCount). And that’s without counting the remaining 1.5KSLOC for implementing CDC ACM which is the supposedly-standard approach to serial adapters.

Usually the adapters are placed either directly on the “gadget” that needs to be connected, which expose a USB connector, or on a cable used to connect to it, in which case the device usually has a TRS or similar connectors. The TRS-based serial cables appeared to become more and more popular thanks to osmocom as they are relatively inexpensive to build, both as cables and as connectors onto custom boards.

Serial interface endpoints in operating systems (/dev/tty{S,USB,ACM}* on Linux, COM* on Windows, and so on) do not only transfer data between host and device, but also provides configuration of parameters such as transmission rate and “symbol shape” — you may or may not have heard references to something like “9600n8” which is a common way to express the transmission protocol of a serial interface: 9600 symbols per second (“baud rate”), no parity, 8-bit per symbol. You can call these “out of band” parameters, as they are transmitted to the UART interface, but not to the device itself, and they are the crux of the matter of interacting with these USB-to-UART adapters.

I already wrote notes about USB sniffing, so I won’t go too much into detail there, but most of the time when you’re trying to figure out what the control software sends to a device, you start by taking a USB trace, which gives you a list of USB Request Blocks (effectively, transmission packets), and you get to figure out what’s going on there.

For those devices that use USB-to-UART adapters and actually use the OS-provided serial interface (that is, COM* under Windows, where most of the control software has to run), you could use specialised software to only intercept the communication on that interface… but I don’t know of any such modern software, while there are at least a few well-defined interface to intercept USB communication. And that would not work for software that access the USB adapter directly from userspace, which is always the case for Silicon Labs CP2110, but is also the case for some of the FTDI devices.

To be fair, for those devices that use TRS, I actually have considered just intercepting the serial protocol using the Saleae Logic Pro, but beside being overkill, it’s actually just a tiny fraction of the devices that can be intercepted that way — as the more modern ones just include the USB-to-UART chip straight onto the device, which is also the case for the meter using the CP2110 I referenced earlier.

Within the request blocks you’ll have not just the serial communication, but also all the related out-of-band information, which is usually terminated on the adapter/controller rather than being forwarded onto the device. The amount of information changes widely between adapters. Out of those I have had direct experience, I found one (TI3420) that requires a full firmware upload before it would start working, which means recording everything from the moment you plug in the device provides a lot more noise than you would expect. But most of those I dealt with had very simple interfaces, using Control transfers for out-of-band configuration, and Bulk or Interrupt1 transfers for transmitting the actual serial interface.

With these simpler interfaces, my “analysis” scripts (if you allow me the term, I don’t think they are that complicated) can produce a “chatter” file quite easily by ignoring the whole out of band configuration. Then I can analyse those chatter files to figure out the device’s actual protocol, and for the most part it’s a matter of trying between one and five combinations of transmission protocol to figure out the right one to speak to the device — in glucometerutils I have two drivers using 9600n8 and two drivers using 38400n8. In some cases, such as the TI3420 one, I actually had to figure out the configuration packet (thanks to the Linux kernel driver and the datasheet) to figure out that it was using 19200n8 instead.

But again, for those, the “decoding” is just a matter to filtering away part of the transmission to keep the useful parts. For others it’s not as easy.

0029 <<<< 00000000: 30 12                                             0.

0031 <<<< 00000000: 05 00                                             ..

0033 <<<< 00000000: 2A 03                                             *.

0035 <<<< 00000000: 42 00                                             B.

0037 <<<< 00000000: 61 00                                             a.

0039 <<<< 00000000: 79 00                                             y.

0041 <<<< 00000000: 65 00                                             e.

0043 <<<< 00000000: 72 00                                             r.

This is an excerpt from the chatter file of a session with my Contour glucometer. What happens here is that instead of buffering the transmission and sending a single request block with a whole string, the adapter (FTDI FT232RL) sends short burts, probably to reduce latency and keep a more accurate serial protocol (which is important for device that need accurate timing, for instance some in-chip programming interfaces). This would be also easy to recompose, except it also comes with

0927 <<<< 00000000: 01 60                                             .`

0929 <<<< 00000000: 01 60                                             .`

0931 <<<< 00000000: 01 60                                             .`

which I’m somehow sceptical they come from the device itself. I have not paid enough attention yet to figure out from the kernel driver whether this data is marked as coming from the device or is some kind of keepalive or synchronisation primitive of the adapter.

In the case of the CP2110, the first session I captured starts with:

0003 <<<< 00000000: 46 0A 02                                          F..

0004 >>>> 00000000: 41 01                                             A.

0006 >>>> 00000000: 50 00 00 4B 00 00 00 03  00                       P..K.....

0008 >>>> 00000000: 01 51                                             .Q

0010 >>>> 00000000: 01 22                                             ."

0012 >>>> 00000000: 01 00                                             ..

0014 >>>> 00000000: 01 00                                             ..

0016 >>>> 00000000: 01 00                                             ..

0018 >>>> 00000000: 01 00                                             ..

and I can definitely tell you that the first three URBs are not sent to the device at all. That’s because HID (the higher-level protocol that CP2110 uses on top of USB) uses the first byte of the block to identify the “report” it sends or receives. Checking these against AN434 give me a hint of what’s going on:

  • report 0x46 is “Get Version Information” — CP2110 always returns 0x0A as first byte, followed by a device version, which is unspecified; probably only used to confirm that the device is right, and possibly debugging purposes;
  • report 0x41 is “Get/Set UART Enabled” — 0x01 just means “turn on the UART”;
  • report 0x50 is “Get/Set UART Config” — and this is a bit more complex to parse: the first four bytes (0x00004b00) define the baud rate, which is 19200 symbols per second; then follows one byte for parity (0x00, no parity), one for flow control (0x00, no flow control), one for the number of data bits (0x03, 8-bit per symbol), and finally one for the stop bit (0x00, short stop bit); that’s a long way to say that this is configured as 19200n8.
  • report 0x01 is the actual data transfer, which means the transmission to the device starts with 0x51 0x22 0x00 0x00 0x00 0x00.

This means that I need a smarter analysis script that understands this protocol (which may be as simple as just ignoring anything that does not use report 0x01) to figure out what the control software is sending.

And at the same time, it needs code to know how “talk serial” to this device. Usually the out-of-bad configuration is done by a kernel driver: you ioctl() the serial device to the transmission protocol you need, the driver sends the right request block to the USB endpoint. But in the case of the CP2110 device, there’s no kernel driver implementing this, at least per Silicon Labs design: since HID devices are usually exposed to userland, and in particular to non-privileged applications, sending and receiving the reports can be done directly from the apps. So indeed there is no COM* device exposed on Windows, even with the drivers installed.

Could someone (me?) write a Linux kernel driver that expose CP2110 as a serial, rather than HID, device? Sure. It would require fiddling around with the HID subsystem a bit to have it ignore the original device, and that means it’ll probably break any application built with Silicon Labs’ own development kit, unless someone has a suggestion on how to have both interfaces available at the same time, while it would allow accessing those devices without special userland code. But I think I’ll stick with the idea of providing a Free and Open Source implementation of the protocol, for Python. And maybe add support for it to pyserial to make it easier for me to use it.

  1. All these terms make more sense if you have at least a bit of knowledge of USB works behind the scene, but I don’t want to delve too much into that.

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