Extending proprietary PC embedded controller firmware


I'm still playing with my X210, a device that just keeps coming up with new ways to teach me things. I'm now running Coreboot full time, so the majority of the runtime platform firmware is free software. Unfortunately, the firmware that's running on the embedded controller (a separate chip that's awake even when the rest of the system is asleep and which handles stuff like fan control, battery charging, transitioning into different power states and so on) is proprietary and the manufacturer of the chip won't release data sheets for it. This was disappointing, because the stock EC firmware is kind of annoying (there's no hysteresis on the fan control, so it hits a threshold, speeds up, drops below the threshold, turns off, and repeats every few seconds - also, a bunch of the Thinkpad hotkeys don't do anything) and it would be nice to be able to improve it.

A few months ago someone posted a bunch of fixes, a Ghidra project and a kernel patch that lets you overwrite the EC's code at runtime for purposes of experimentation. This seemed promising. Some amount of playing later and I'd produced a patch that generated keyboard scancodes for all the missing hotkeys, and I could then use udev to map those scancodes to the keycodes that the thinkpad_acpi driver would generate. I finally had a hotkey to tell me how much battery I had left.

But something else included in that post was a list of the GPIO mappings on the EC. A whole bunch of hardware on the board is connected to the EC in ways that allow it to control them, including things like disabling the backlight or switching the wifi card to airplane mode. Unfortunately the ACPI spec doesn't cover how to control GPIO lines attached to the embedded controller - the only real way we have to communicate is via a set of registers that the EC firmware interprets and does stuff with.

One of those registers in the vendor firmware for the X210 looked promising, with individual bits that looked like radio control. Unfortunately writing to them does nothing - the EC firmware simply stashes that write in an address and returns it on read without parsing the bits in any way. Doing anything more with them was going to involve modifying the embedded controller code.

Thankfully the EC has 64K of firmware and is only using about 40K of that, so there's plenty of room to add new code. The problem was generating the code in the first place and then getting it called. The EC is based on the CR16C architecture, which binutils supported until 10 days ago. To be fair it didn't appear to actually work, and binutils still has support for the more generic version of the CR16 family, so I built a cross assembler, wrote some assembly and came up with something that Ghidra was willing to parse except for one thing.

As mentioned previously, the existing firmware code responded to writes to this register by saving it to its RAM. My plan was to stick my new code in unused space at the end of the firmware, including code that duplicated the firmware's existing functionality. I could then replace the existing code that stored the register value with code that branched to my code, did whatever I wanted and then branched back to the original code. I hacked together some assembly that did the right thing in the most brute force way possible, but while Ghidra was happy with most of the code it wasn't happy with the instruction that branched from the original code to the new code, or the instruction at the end that returned to the original code. The branch instruction differs from a jump instruction in that it gives a relative offset rather than an absolute address, which means that branching to nearby code can be encoded in fewer bytes than going further. I was specifying the longest jump encoding possible in my assembly (that's what the :l means), but the linker was rewriting that to a shorter one. Ghidra was interpreting the shorter branch as a negative offset, and it wasn't clear to me whether this was a binutils bug or a Ghidra bug. I ended up just hacking that code out of binutils so it generated code that Ghidra was happy with and got on with life.

Writing values directly to that EC register showed that it worked, which meant I could add an ACPI device that exposed the functionality to the OS. My goal here is to produce a standard Coreboot radio control device that other Coreboot platforms can implement, and then just write a single driver that exposes it. I wrote one for Linux that seems to work.

In summary: closed-source code is more annoying to improve, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Also, strange Russians on forums make everything easier.