Mac OS Architecture

Mac OS Architecture

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The heart of Mac OS X is the XNU kernel. XNU is basically composed of a Mach core (covered in the next section) with supplementary features provided by Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). Additionally, XNU is responsible for providing an environment for kernel drivers called the I/O Kit. XNU is a Darwin package, so all of the source code is freely available.
From a security researcher’s perspective, Mac OS X feels just like a FreeBSD box with a pretty windowing system and a large number of custom applications. For the most part, applications written for BSD will compile and run without modification on Mac OS X. All the tools you are accustomed to using in BSD are available in Mac OS X. Nevertheless, the fact that the XNU kernel contains all the Mach code means that some day, when you have to dig deeper, you’ll find many differences that may cause you problems and some you may be able to leverage for your own purposes.


Mach was originated as a UNIX-compatible operating system back in 1984. One of its primary design goals was to be a microkernel; that is, to minimize the amount of code running in the kernel and allow many typical kernel functions, such as file system, networking, and I/O, to run as user-level Mach tasks.
In XNU, Mach is responsible for many of the low-level operations you expect from a kernel, such as processor scheduling and multitasking and virtual- memory management.


The kernel also involves a large chunk of code derived from the FreeBSD code base. This code runs as part of the kernel along with Mach and uses the same address space. The FreeBSD code within XNU may differ significantly from the original FreeBSD code, as changes had to be made for it to coexist with Mach. FreeBSD provides many of the remaining operations the kernel needs, including:
  • Processes
  • Signals
  • Basic security, such as users and groups
  • System call infrastructure
  • TCP/IP stack and sockets
  • Firewall and packet filtering
To get an idea of just how complicated the interaction between these two sets of code can be, consider the idea of the fundamental executing unit. In BSD the fundamental unit is the process. In Mach it is a Mach thread. The disparity is settled by each BSD-style process being associated with a Mach task consisting of exactly one Mach thread. When the BSD fork() system call is made, the BSD code in the kernel uses Mach calls to create a task and thread structure. Also, it is important to note that both the Mach and BSD layers have different security models. The Mach security model is based on port rights, and the BSD model is based on process ownership. Disparities between these two models have resulted in a number of local privilege-escalation vulnerabilities. Additionally, besides typical system cells, there are Mach traps that allow user-space programs to communicate with the kernel.

I/O Kit - Drivers

I/O Kit is the open-source, object-oriented, device-driver framework in the XNU kernel and is responsible for the addition and management of dynamically loaded device drivers. These drivers allow for modular code to be added to the kernel dynamically for use with different hardware, for example. They are located in:
  • /System/Library/Extensions
    • KEXT files built into the OS X operating system.
  • /Library/Extensions
    • KEXT files installed by 3rd party software
#Use kextstat to print the loaded drivers
Executing: /usr/bin/kmutil showloaded
No variant specified, falling back to release
Index Refs Address Size Wired Name (Version) UUID <Linked Against>
1 142 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.bsd (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
2 11 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.dsep (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
3 170 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.iokit (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
4 0 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.kasan (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
5 175 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.libkern (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
6 154 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.mach (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
7 88 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.private (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
8 106 0 0 0 com.apple.kpi.unsupported (20.5.0) 52A1E876-863E-38E3-AC80-09BBAB13B752 <>
9 2 0xffffff8003317000 0xe000 0xe000 com.apple.kec.Libm (1) 6C1342CC-1D74-3D0F-BC43-97D5AD38200A <5>
10 12 0xffffff8003544000 0x92000 0x92000 com.apple.kec.corecrypto (11.1) F5F1255F-6552-3CF4-A9DB-D60EFDEB4A9A <8 7 6 5 3 1>
Until the number 9 the listed drivers are loaded in the address 0. This means that those aren't real drivers but part of the kernel and they cannot be unloaded.
In order to find specific extensions you can use:
kextfind -bundle-id com.apple.iokit.IOReportFamily #Search by full bundle-id
kextfind -bundle-id -substring IOR #Search by substring in bundle-id
To load and unload kernel extensions do:
kextload com.apple.iokit.IOReportFamily
kextunload com.apple.iokit.IOReportFamily


A kernel without applications isn’t very useful. Darwin is the non-Aqua, open-source core of Mac OS X. Basically it is all the parts of Mac OS X for which the source code is available. The code is made available in the form of a package that is easy to install. There are hundreds of available Darwin packages, such as X11, GCC, and other GNU tools. Darwin provides many of the applications you may already use in BSD or Linux for Mac OS X. Apple has spent significant time integrating these packages into their operating system so that everything behaves nicely and has a consistent look and feel when possible.
On the other hand, many familiar pieces of Mac OS X are not open source. The main missing piece to someone running just the Darwin code will be Aqua, the Mac OS X windowing and graphical-interface environment. Additionally, most of the common high-level applications, such as Safari, Mail, QuickTime, iChat, etc., are not open source (although some of their components are open source). Interestingly, these closed-source applications often rely on open- source software, for example, Safari relies on the WebKit project for HTML and JavaScript rendering. For perhaps this reason, you also typically have many more symbols in these applications when debugging than you would in a Windows environment.

Universal binaries

Mac OS binaries usually are compiled as universal binaries. A universal binary can support multiple architectures in the same file.
file /bin/ls
/bin/ls: Mach-O universal binary with 2 architectures: [x86_64:Mach-O 64-bit executable x86_64] [arm64e:Mach-O 64-bit executable arm64e]
/bin/ls (for architecture x86_64): Mach-O 64-bit executable x86_64
/bin/ls (for architecture arm64e): Mach-O 64-bit executable arm64e
In the following example, a universal binary for the x86 and PowerPC architectures is created:
gcc -arch ppc -arch i386 -o test-universal test.c
As you may be thinking usually a universal binary compiled for 2 architectures doubles the size of one compiled for just 1 arch.

Mach-o Format

The header contains basic information about the file, such as magic bytes to identify it as a Mach-O file and information about the target architecture. You can find it in: mdfind loader.h | grep -i mach-o | grep -E "loader.h$"
struct mach_header {
uint32_t magic; /* mach magic number identifier */
cpu_type_t cputype; /* cpu specifier (e.g. I386) */
cpu_subtype_t cpusubtype; /* machine specifier */
uint32_t filetype; /* type of file (usage and alignment for the file) */
uint32_t ncmds; /* number of load commands */
uint32_t sizeofcmds; /* the size of all the load commands */
uint32_t flags; /* flags */
  • MH_EXECUTE (0x2): Standard Mach-O executable
  • MH_DYLIB (0x6): A Mach-O dynamic linked library (i.e. .dylib)
  • MH_BUNDLE (0x8): A Mach-O bundle (i.e. .bundle)
Load commands
This specifies the layout of the file in memory. It contains the location of the symbol table, the main thread context at the beginning of execution, and which shared libraries are required. The commands basically instruct the dynamic loader (dyld) how to load the binary in memory.
Load commands all begin with a load_command structure, defined in mach-o/loader.h:
struct load_command {
uint32_t cmd; /* type of load command */
uint32_t cmdsize; /* total size of command in bytes */
A common type of load command is LC_SEGMENT/LC_SEGMENT_64, which describes a segment: A segment defines a range of bytes in a Mach-O file and the addresses and memory protection attributes at which those bytes are mapped into virtual memory when the dynamic linker loads the application.
Common segments:
  • __TEXT: Contains executable code and data that is read-only. Common sections of this segment:
    • __text: Compiled binary code
    • __const: Constant data
    • __cstring: String constants
  • __DATA: Contains data that is writable.
    • __data: Global variables (that have been initialized)
    • __bss: Static variables (that have not been initialized)
    • __objc_* (__objc_classlist, __objc_protolist, etc): Information used by the Objective-C runtime
  • __LINKEDIT: Contains information for the linker (dyld) such as, "symbol, string, and relocation table entries."
  • __OBJC: Contains information used by the Objective-C runtime. Though this information might also be found in the __DATA segment, within various in __objc_* sections.
  • LC_MAIN: Contains the entrypoint in the entryoff attribute. At load time, dyld simply adds this value to the (in-memory) base of the binary, then jumps to this instruction to kickoff execution of the binary’s code.
  • LC_LOAD_DYLIB: This load command describes a dynamic library dependency which instructs the loader (dyld) to load and link said library. There is a LC_LOAD_DYLIB load command for each library that the Mach-O binary requires.
    • This load command is a structure of type dylib_command (which contains a struct dylib, describing the actual dependent dynamic library):
    struct dylib_command {
    uint32_t cmd; /* LC_LOAD_{,WEAK_}DYLIB */
    uint32_t cmdsize; /* includes pathname string */
    struct dylib dylib; /* the library identification */
    struct dylib {
    union lc_str name; /* library's path name */
    uint32_t timestamp; /* library's build time stamp */
    uint32_t current_version; /* library's current version number */
    uint32_t compatibility_version; /* library's compatibility vers number*/
Some potential malware related libraries are:
  • DiskArbitration: Monitoring USB drives
  • AVFoundation: Capture audio and video
  • CoreWLAN: Wifi scans.
A Mach-O binary can contain one or more constructors, that will be executed before the address specified in LC_MAIN. The offsets of any constructors are held in the __mod_init_func section of the __DATA_CONST segment.
The heart of the file is the final region, the data, which consists of a number of segments as laid out in the load-commands region. Each segment can contain a number of data sections. Each of these sections contains code or data of one particular type.
Get the info
otool -f /bin/ls #Get universal headers info
otool -hv /bin/ls #Get the Mach header
otool -l /bin/ls #Get Load commands
otool -L /bin/ls #Get libraries used by the binary
Or you can use the GUI tool machoview.


Basically, a bundle is a directory structure within the file system. Interestingly, by default this directory looks like a single object in Finder. The types of resources contained within a bundle may consist of applications, libraries, images, documentation, header files, etc. All these files are inside <application>.app/Contents/
ls -lR /Applications/Safari.app/Contents
  • Contents/_CodeSignature
    Contains code-signing information about the application (i.e., hashes, etc.).
  • Contents/MacOS
    Contains the application’s binary (which is executed when the user double-clicks the application icon in the UI).
  • Contents/Resources
    Contains UI elements of the application, such as images, documents, and nib/xib files (that describe various user interfaces).
  • Contents/Info.plist The application’s main “configuration file.” Apple notes that “the system relies on the presence of this file to identify relevant information about [the] application and any related files”.


Programs written in Objective-C retain their class declarations when compiled into (Mach-O) binaries. Such class declarations include the name and type of:
  • The class
  • The class methods
  • The class instance variables
You can get this information using class-dump:
class-dump Kindle.app
Note that this names can be obfuscated to make the reversing of the binary more difficult.

Native Packages

There are some projects that allow to generate a binary executable by MacOS containing script code which will be executed. Some examples are:
  • Platypus: Generate MacOS binary executing shell scripts, Python, Perl, Ruby, PHP, Swift, Expect, Tcl, AWK, JavaScript, AppleScript or any other user-specified interpreter.
    • It saves the script in Contents/Resources/script. So finding this script is a good indicator that Platypus was used.
  • PyInstaller: Python
    • Ways to detect this is the use of the embedded string “Py_SetPythonHome” or a a call into a function named pyi_main.
  • Electron: JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.
    • These binaries will use Electron Framework.framework. Moreover, the non-binary components (e.g. JavaScript files) maybe found in the application’s Contents/Resources/ directory, achieved in .asar files. These binaries will use Electron Framework.framework. Moreover, the non-binary components (e.g. JavaScript files) maybe found in the application’s Contents/Resources/ directory, achieved in .asar files. It's possible unpack such archives via the asar node module, or the npx utility: npx asar extract StrongBox.app/Contents/Resources/app.asar appUnpacked\


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