As part of independent research into healthcare software, I (Zachary Minneker) started looking into implementations of M, a high-performance database and programming language. M is a widely used language in healthcare and banking due to its speed in handling large databases and its extreme flexibility as a language. M-based applications may handle more than half of patient records in the United States. Of course, this led me to YottaDB, an open-source implementation of the language with several benefits that has found its home in a large number of contexts.

After finding and disclosing bugs, we contacted YottaDB to help them bootstrap their fuzzing efforts. KS Bhaskar and his team also collaborated with me on the following blog post about the basics of fuzzing, the process of fuzzing YottaDB, and a bit of what we found and fixed!

This post was originally published on their blog, which can be found here.

-Zachary Minneker, Senior Security Engineer, Security Innovation


Every day, we find fault with our software, so that you don't!

Robustness in software is a mark of quality that's often easy to lose in development.

Thanks to Zachary Minneker of Security Innovation, Inc., we are implementing fuzz testing to make our software even more robust. Fuzz testing provides us with one more way to generate test cases to test that the software does not do what it is not supposed to do. As expected from a new form of testing, we discovered bugs that we did not know existed, and no user reported to us.

By: KS Bhaskar, President, YottaDB and Zachary Minneker, Senior Security Engineer, Security Innovation


The word "fuzz" is hundreds of years old. More recently, it has been used in music for deliberate distortion, typically guitar sounds. Fuzzing as a test method is relatively recent. At its most basic, fuzzing involves running a piece of software repeatedly with generated inputs, usually invalid, while attempting to exercise as much code as possible. As fuzzing has developed and state of the art has changed, fuzzing techniques have grown more elaborate and now involve complex tooling and processes.

Rejection of invalid input by the software, discarding it, rejecting it, or reporting it, are all appropriate behaviors, depending on the software specification. Behavior such as process termination (unless that is the specified behavior for invalid input), inconsistent internal state (such as overwriting memory), or worse yet, undesirable behavior are bugs to be fixed.

Fuzzing YottaDB

Zachary Minneker from Security Innovation tested YottaDB by feeding the compiler manipulated M code. While it is possible to input randomly generated bytes, most of the input would be rejected by the parser. Fuzzing would not be efficient, even though it would, in theory, eventually expose every issue with the software (see the Infinite Monkey Theorem). Zachary started with a corpus of M source code from the YottaDB automated test suite to fuzz efficiently. He made minor changes to YottaDB to make unexpected behavior more easily detected. Then a 24-core machine running the prepared fuzzing harness and corpus fuzzed YottaDB for several days over several months.

He used AFL++ to generate fuzzed input to YottaDB. AFL++ works by using special tracing instrumentation that marks conditional paths through YottaDB. The exact path taken through the code is found during execution by noting which conditional paths are taken using a mutated input. If an input causes new paths to be taken, it is added to the corpus for further fuzzing, increasing the number of code paths taken.

Since YottaDB has signal handlers for normal operation and to catch signals to shut down cleanly, he commented out the signals as they would interfere with the testing. In some cases, he used AddressSanitizer, a tool that makes otherwise difficult-to-detect memory bugs crash the application.

Fuzz testing YottaDB results readout for software security vulnerabilities.

YottaDB can respond to input M code in different ways:

  • Flag a syntax error. Since YottaDB is expected to generate syntax errors for syntactically incorrect code, this input is not very interesting from a testing point of view.

  • Run the code. This is also not very interesting from a fuzz testing point of view: even if the code adds 2 and 2 to get 5, that should be caught by normal functional testing.

  • A YottaDB built with the address sanitizer reports an address error. This is YottaDB failure to be captured.

  • Crash. This is potentially a YottaDB failure because except in cases such as a process sending itself a signal with $ZSIGPROC(), processes should not terminate abnormally.

  • Hang. A hang by itself does not tell the fuzz tester much because the fuzzed code might include a syntactically correct infinite loop. But a hang might indicate a memory bug.

There are multiple ways in which some bugs can be triggered. Zachary eliminated duplicates, created minimal inputs for each failure, and performed root cause analysis. After months of work, he identified failures captured as CVEs and as a YottaDB Issue against which our development team is creating fixes.

Practical Implications

As a practical matter:

  • The failures are caused by code that is syntactically correct but functionally useless in the context of an application. Any YottaDB deployment is controlled code that has gone through developers and is tested: your YottaDB application certainly would not execute code from the web without validating it.

  • Exploiting any vulnerabilities requires modifying the M code that your system is executing, which requires login access to the system.

  • Except for process crashes, where the crash itself is the exploit, vulnerabilities are chinks in the armor, not exploits. Turning these vulnerabilities into an exploit (which requires the execution of M code) would require an order of magnitude, or more, of effort.

Controlling access to your system, and validating M code executed, are two key layers of defenses against all vulnerabilities.

What Next?

Since security is a journey, not a destination:

  • We are accelerating the YottaDB r1.34 release with fixes identified by Zachary's fuzzing and expect to release it in mid Q1 2022 rather than later in the year; this means other issues targeted for r1.34 will be deferred until r1.36.

  • Unlike tests in our automated test suites, where you can run a test and have it pass or fail, fuzz testing is a type of random walk that you continuously run until you find something interesting. We will dedicate hardware to continuous fuzzing. As it finds issues, we will fix them in future releases of YottaDB.

  • We will start fuzz testing Octo.

In Conclusion

Although perfection does not exist in this universe, you can be assured of our continued commitment to your YottaDB experience being as rock-solid, lightning-fast, and secure as we can make it.

In closing, we would like to reiterate our thanks to Zachary Minneker and Security Innovation for introducing us to fuzz testing.

Security Innovation helped apply fuzzing to open-source YottaDB and found unknown vulnerabilities. 

About Zachary Minneker, Senior Security Engineer
Zachary Minneker is a security researcher and senior security engineer at Security Innovation. Prior to Security Innovation, he worked in health care IT, configuring EMRs and administrating clinical environments. At Security Innovation, his work has included hacking robots for kids, fuzzing multimedia encoders, and breaking car dashboards. His research topics have included in-memory fuzzing macOS IPC mechanisms, vulnerability discovery in widely used health care protocol libraries, and vulnerability discovery in widely used health care databases. Connect with him on Linkedin.