Analysis of Linux Kernel TCP MSS Mechanism

Knownsec 404 team
9 min readJul 1, 2019


Author: Hcamael@Knownsec 404 Team
Chinese Version:


Last Week, Linux fixes 4 kernel CVE vulnerabilities[1]. Among them, CVE-2019–11477 makes me feel like a very powerful Dos vulnerability. However, because there are other things interrupted, my research progress is slower. For now, there have been some related analysis article in the Internet.[2][3]

In the process of trying to reproduce the CVE-2019–11477 vulnerability, I encountered a problem in setting the MSS in the first step, and I could not achieve the expected results. However, the current published analytical article did not elaborate on this part. So this article will analyze the MSS mechanism of TCP through the Linux kernel source code.

Test Environment

1. Targets with Vulnerabilities

OS: Ubuntu 18.04

Kernel: 4.15.0–20-generic

IP address:

Kernel Source Code:

$ sudo apt install linux-source-4.15.0
$ ls /usr/src/linux-source-4.15.0.tar.bz2

Kernel Binary with symbols:

$ cat /etc/apt/sources.list.d/ddebs.list
deb bionic main
deb bionic-updates main
$ sudo apt install linux-image-4.15.0-20-generic-dbgsym
$ ls /usr/lib/debug/boot/vmlinux-4.15.0-20-generic

Close Kernel Address Space Layout Randomization(KALSR):

# because the Kernel is started by grup,we can modify grup config to add "nokaslr" to kernel started argv.
$ cat /etc/default/grub |grep -v "#" | grep CMDLI
$ sudo update-grub

Use Nginx for testing:

$ sudo apt install nginx

2. Host


Wireshark: Capture traffic

VM: VMware Fusion 11

Use VM to Deubg Linux:

$ cat ubuntu_18.04_server_test.vmx|grep debug
debugStub.listen.guest64 = "1"

Compile gdb:

$ ./configure --build=x86_64-apple-darwin --target=x86_64-linux --with-python=/usr/local/bin/python3
$ make
$ sudo make install
$ cat .zshrc|grep gdb
alias gdb="~/Documents/gdb_8.3/gdb/gdb"

Use gdb for remote debug:

$ gdb vmlinux-4.15.0-20-generic
$ cat ~/.gdbinit
define gef
source ~/
define kernel
target remote :8864

3. Attacker

OS: Linux

IP Address:

If you’re accustomed to Python, install a Scapy to send TCP package.

Customize SYN MSS Option

There are three ways to set the MSS value of the TCP SYN packet.

1. iptable

# Add rules
$ sudo iptables -I OUTPUT -p tcp -m tcp --tcp-flags SYN,RST SYN -j TCPMSS --set-mss 48
# delete rules
$ sudo iptables -D OUTPUT -p tcp -m tcp --tcp-flags SYN,RST SYN -j TCPMSS --set-mss 48

2. ip route

# show router information
$ route -ne
$ ip route show dev ens33 proto kernel scope link src metric 100
# modify route table
$ sudo ip route change dev ens33 proto kernel scope link src metric 100 advmss 48

3. use scapy to send packet

PS: Using Scapy to send TCP packet needs ROOT permissions.

from scapy.all import *ip = IP(dst="")
tcp = TCP(dport=80, flags="S",options=[('MSS',48),('SAckOK', '')])

The “S” in the flags option indicates “SYN”; “A” indicates “ACK” and “SA” indicates “SYN, ACK”.

The TCP options table that can be set via Scapy is as follows:

TCPOptions = (
0 : ("EOL",None),
1 : ("NOP",None),
2 : ("MSS","!H"),
3 : ("WScale","!B"),
4 : ("SAckOK",None),
5 : ("SAck","!"),
8 : ("Timestamp","!II"),
14 : ("AltChkSum","!BH"),
15 : ("AltChkSumOpt",None),
25 : ("Mood","!p"),
254 : ("Experiment","!HHHH")

But there will be a problem after sending a SYN package with Python: kernel will automatically send a RST packet. After checking some papers, it’s found out that:

Since you haven’t completed the full TCP handshake, your operating system might try to take control and start sending RST(reset) packets.

The solution is to use iptable to filter the RST package:

$ sudo iptables -A OUTPUT -p tcp --tcp-flags RST RST -s -j DROP

In-depth Research of the MSS Mechanism

The details of the vulnerability have been analyzed in many other articles. Here is a brief summary that the vulnerability is a uint16 integer overflow:

tcp_gso_segs uint16tcp_set_skb_tso_segs:
tcp_skb_pcount_set(skb, DIV_ROUND_UP(skb->len, mss_now));
skb->len the largest value is 17 * 32 * 1024
mss_now minimum value is 8
>>> hex(17*32*1024//8)
>>> hex(17*32*1024//9)

Therefore, an integer overflow will occur only when mss_now is less than or equal to 8.

Having conducted the following test, I met a problem.

Having set the MSS value to 48 via iptables/iproute command , the attack machine uses curl to request the HTTP service of the Target machine, and then the Host use wireshark to capture traffic. It is found that the HTTP packet returned by the server is divided into small blocks, but it's only as small as 36, and my expected value is 8.

At this time, I chose to analyse and debug Linux Kernel source code to sort out the reason why the MSS failed to reach my expected value, and what happened during the process of setting the MSS value in the SYN packet to mss_now in the code.

Backtrack the overflow function tcp_set_skb_tso_segs:

tcp_set_skb_tso_segs <- tcp_fragment <- tso_fragment <- tcp_write_xmitFinally, it is found that the 'mss_now' passed to the 'tcp_write_xmit' function is calculated by the 'tcp_current_mss' function.

Analyse tcp_current_mss function and the key code is as follows:

# tcp_output.c
tcp_current_mss -> tcp_sync_mss:
mss_now = tcp_mtu_to_mss(sk, pmtu);
/* Subtract TCP options size, not including SACKs */
return __tcp_mtu_to_mss(sk, pmtu) -
(tcp_sk(sk)->tcp_header_len - sizeof(struct tcphdr));
if (mss_now < 48)
mss_now = 48;
return mss_now;

Having read the part of the source code, we will have a deeper understanding of the meaning of MSS. Firstly, we need know the TCP protocol.

The TCP protocol includes protocol headers and data. The protocol header includes fixed-length 20-byte and 40-byte optional parameters. That is to say, the TCP protocol header has a maximum length of 60 bytes and a minimum length of 20 bytes.

The mss_now in the __tcp_mtu_to_mss function is the MSS set for SYN package, from which we can see that the minimum MSS is 48. Through the understanding of the TCP protocol as well as the code, we can know about the MSS in the SYN packet. The minimum value of 48 bytes indicates that the TCP header optional parameter has a maximum length of 40 bytes and the minimum length of data is 8 bytes.

But mss_now in the source code represents the length of the data, then let's look at the calculation formula of the value.

tcphdr struct:

struct tcphdr {
__be16 source;
__be16 dest;
__be32 seq;
__be32 ack_seq;
__u16 res1:4,
#elif defined(__BIG_ENDIAN_BITFIELD)
__u16 doff:4,
#error "Adjust your <asm/byteorder.h> defines"
__be16 window;
__sum16 check;
__be16 urg_ptr;

This structure is a 20-byte TCP fixed protocol header.

The variable tcp_sk(sk)->tcp_header_len indicates the length of the TCP packet header sent by the local machine.

Therefore, we can get the formula for calculating mss_now: the MSS value set by the SYN packet - (The length of the TCP packet header sent by the local machine - the fixed length of the TCP header is 20 bytes)

So, if the value of tcp_header_len can reach a maximum of 60, then mss_now can be set to 8. So in the kernel code, is there any way to make tcp_header_len reach the maximum length? Then we backtrack this variable:

# tcp_output.c
tp->tcp_header_len = sizeof(struct tcphdr);
if (sock_net(sk)->ipv4.sysctl_tcp_timestamps)
tp->tcp_header_len += TCPOLEN_TSTAMP_ALIGNED;
if (tp->af_specific->md5_lookup(sk, sk))
tp->tcp_header_len += TCPOLEN_MD5SIG_ALIGNED;

Therefore, in the Linux 4.15 kernel, the kernel does not send TCP packets with a header size of 60 bytes without user intervention, which resulted in that the MSS cannot be set to a minimum of 8, thus ultimately prevented the vulnerability from being exploited.


Let’s summarize the whole process:

  1. Attacker constructs a SYN packet, and the optional TCP header optional parameter has a value of 48 for the MSS.
  2. After the Target(vulnerable devices) receives the SYN request, it saves the data in the SYN packet in the memory and returns to the ‘SYN” and the “ACK’ packets.
  3. Attacker returns an ACK packet.

Complete the 3-way handshake process.

Then according to different services, the target actively sends data to the attacker or sends the data to the attacker after receiving the attacker request. Here, it is assumed to be an Nginx HTTP service.

(This part is the original version, which needs to be deleted.)

1. The attacker sends a request to the target: GET / HTTP/1.1.

2. After receiving the request, the target firstly calculates tcp_header_len, which is equal to 20 bytes by default. When the kernel parameters sysctl_tcp_timestamps is enabled, 12 bytes are added. If you selected CONFIG_TCP_MD5SIG when compiling the kernel, another 18 bytes will be added, which means that the maximum length of tcp_header_len is 50 bytes.

3. Then you will calculate mss_now = 48–50 + 20 = 18

It is assumed that the vulnerability might be exploited successfully under such circumstances: there is a TCP service that sets the TCP optional parameters to the full 40 bytes, then it is possible for an attacker to perform a Dos attack on the service by constructing the MSS value in the SYN packet.

I audited the Linux kernel from 2.6.29 to the present version, and the calculation formula of mss_now is the same. The length of tcp_header_len will only add 12 bytes of the timestamp and 18 bytes of the md5 value.

— — — 2019/07/03 UPDATE — — -

Thanks for @riatre to correct me. I found that the above analysis of the tcp_current_mss function had missed an important piece of code:

# tcp_output.c
tcp_current_mss -> tcp_sync_mss:
mss_now = tcp_mtu_to_mss(sk, pmtu);
header_len = tcp_established_options(sk, NULL, &opts, &md5) +
sizeof(struct tcphdr);
if (header_len != tp->tcp_header_len) {
int delta = (int) header_len - tp->tcp_header_len;
mss_now -= delta;

In the code of the tcp_established_options function, apart from the 12-byte timestamp and the 20-byte md5, there is still the calculation of the SACK length. If the length does not exceed the 40-byte limit of the tcp option, the formula is: Size = 4 + 8 * opts->num_sack_blocks.

eff_sacks = tp->rx_opt.num_sacks + tp->rx_opt.dsack;
if (unlikely(eff_sacks)) {
const unsigned int remaining = MAX_TCP_OPTION_SPACE - size;
opts->num_sack_blocks =
min_t(unsigned int, eff_sacks,
opts->num_sack_blocks * TCPOLEN_SACK_PERBLOCK;

So the method of getting 40 bytes tcp options is: 12-byte timestamp + 8 * 3 (opts->num_sack_blocks).

The variable opts->num_sack_blocks indicates the number of packets lost from the peer.

So here the process of the last three steps in the summary are modified as follows:

The attacker sends a normal HTTP request to the drone.

After receiving the request, the target will send a HTTP response packet. As shown in the screenshot above, the response packet will be divided into multiple segments according to the length of 36 bytes.

The attacker constructs a serial queue with a missing ACK packet (the ACK packet needs to carry some data).

After receiving the unordered ACK packet, the server finds that packet loss has occurred. Therefore, in the subsequent data packet, the SACK option is brought to tell the client that those packets are lost until the TCP link is disconnected or a packet receives a response sequence.

Results are shown below:

Because the timestamp is counted, the TCP SACK option can only contain up to 3 sequence numbers, so you can set the MSS to 8 by sending 4 ACK packets.

Part of the scapy code is as follows:

data = "GET / HTTP/1.1\nHost:\r\n\r\n"
ACK = TCP(sport=sport, dport=dport, flags='A', seq=SYNACK.ack, ack=SYNACK.seq+1)
ACK.options = [("NOP",None), ("NOP",None), ('Timestamp', (1, 2))]
dl = len(data)
test = "a"*10
ACK.seq += dl + 20
ACK.ack = SYNACK.seq+73
ACK.seq += 30
ACK.ack = SYNACK.seq+181
ACK.seq += 30
ACK.ack = SYNACK.seq+253

Now having satisfied the premise of mss_now=8, I will conduct futher analysis to the vulnerability.



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