1 - Introduction

Ncrack is a high-speed network authentication cracking tool with a modularized architecture that allows for easy development of additional protocol modules. This guide has been written to provide a quick overview of Ncrack's architecture and is meant to help programmers develop and contribute their own modules. It is advised that one first gets accustommed with Ncrack's general usage and examples, by consulting the man page. First we are going to take a look at the main constituents of Ncrack and then delve into the analysis of its core engine which should make a lot of things clear about Ncrack's overall versatility. Then we are going to present a step-by-step walkthrough of constructing a simple FTP module from scratch. This can serve as a general guideline for building your own modules.

2 - Ncrack Architecture Overview

Ncrack is based on a modularized architecture, where each protocol/service corresponds to the equivalent module that handles all the authentication steps. Ncrack's architecture is thus built in a way so that a module is separated as much as possible from the more low level details of timing and connection management which are handled by the core engine. Ncrack utilizes the venerable Nsock, a library which was originally written by Fyodor a long time ago and has since then been refined and tested thoroughly. Nsock is a parallel sockets library which internally uses select(2) to poll through the registered socket descriptors and which upon a new network event (read/write/timeout etc) jumps to a preregistered callback handler which is responsible for doing something about that particular event. This is more or less an event-driven API. Ncrack's core engine resides in ncrack.cc which includes definitions for all these callback handlers:

void ncrack_connect_handler(nsock_pool nsp, nsock_event nse, void *mydata);
void ncrack_write_handler(nsock_pool nsp, nsock_event nse, void *mydata);
void ncrack_read_handler(nsock_pool nsp, nsock_event nse, void *mydata);
void ncrack_timer_handler(nsock_pool nsp, nsock_event nse, void *mydata);
void ncrack_module_end(nsock_pool nsp, void *mydata);
void ncrack_connection_end(nsock_pool nsp, void *mydata);

After main() finishes parsing the user's host specifications and options, it stores all the information it needs inside a ServiceGroup object (ServiceGroup.h).

2.1 - ServiceGroup / Service

The ServiceGroup object holds all services (which are actually Service objects) that are going to be cracked. The Service (Service.h) class consists of variables that hold timing and statistical information, user-specified options that apply to that particular service/host, a pointer to a Target object (that is nearly the same as the known Target class from Nmap - only stripped of some unneeded fields like those that are related to network interfaces), functions that handle the username/password list iteration and a list of the active connections taking place at that moment.

2.2 - Connection

A connection (Connection.h) is an instance that holds information pertaining to that particular TCP session between us and the service we are trying to crack. A connection must always belong to a Service class for obvious reasons. Usually, during a connection more than one authentication attempts are going to be carried out, depending on the service.

2.3 - Module_State_Machine

The most important thing about a connection, is the 'state' it currently is in. The 'state' actually describes a specific step of the authentication procedure that is needed by the service we are cracking. Thus the number and names of states are defined in each module separately. For example, the authentication step, where at the beginning of a connection we need to wait and read the initial banner of the service, is specified by a particular 'state'. Another example, is the 'state' where we just need to write the password on the wire or the 'state' where in a service like telnet we have to make the option negotiation. It is pretty important that each 'state' performs a micro-action of the authentication procedure which will usually involve a certain Nsock event to be registered. However, this might not be always possible to happen (see telnet).

3 - Ncrack Core Engine

We are now going to analyse the brains of Ncrack, namely its core engine. Note that this reading is not of vital importance for developing your own modules, but it will definitely give you a deeper understanding of what happens behind the scenes. You can skip or skim this section at will. The main Nsock loop resides in function ncrack() @ ncrack.cc and it is responsible for polling for new events that result in calling back one of the registered handlers mentioned above. ncrack_probes() is called in the end of every loop iteration and checks if it can initiate new connections against any one of the targets in ServiceGroup. To understand how ncrack_probes() work, we first need to see the way that ServiceGroup handles its services lists. In the beginning, every user-specified service is stored inside the 'services_active' list. For every service residing there, we can automatically initiate a new connection at will. ServiceGroup keeps a lot more additional lists which hold services that for one reason or another cannot perform additional actions (like start a new connection) except for the connections having already started. For example, 'services_full' holds all services that cannot start another connection due to the fact that the total number of active connections taking place at that moment has reached the maximum allowed limit (connection limit). The list 'services_wait' keeps all services that need to wait a time of 'connection_delay' (usually specified by the user) before they can send another connection probe. The list 'services_finished' keeps all services that have been marked as finished, either because a critical error has occured (like we got an RST at the first connection attempt or we kept getting too many timeouts for a prolonged time) or the username/password list iteration finished. The notion of keeping separate lists whose name imply the reason that the elements of the list are there, is also used (although to a lesser and simpler extent) by Nmap's service scanning engine.

3.1 - ncrack_probes

ncrack_probes() iterates the ServiceGroup 'services_active' list, initiating new connections until every service has been moved inside a different ServiceGroup list. Note that it doesn't wait for any connection to actually finish the 3way handshake, since Nsock uses non-blocking connect(2)s and ncrack only needs to register the event and the callback handler (ncrack_connect_handler).

3.2 - ncrack_connect_handler

Upon connection success ncrack_connect_handler() gives control to call_module() which calls the service module function corresponding to the particular service this connection is up against. If the connection times out or we get an RST and this is our first connection attempt, then we mark the service as 'dead' moving it to 'services_finished' list. This is particularly useful when the user specifies the targets in a wildmask or netmask notation, blindly searching for services to crack. It is very probable that some hosts will not even have that service listening and thus we will cease trying to crack them. It is important to note that this first connection probe (boolean 'just_started' @ Service class) also collects valuable timing information like how many authentication attempts the server allows to make per connection. That is why ncrack doesn't open more than 1 connection probes against a service before that first timing probe finishes its job (which will entail exhausting all allowed authentication attempts during that connection).

3.3 - ncrack_write_handler

The write handler is probably the simplest one. The only thing it needs to do is check the Nsock return status and report on us in case of error. The case of a write failing is the most improbable one. It can happen though in case we write on a closed socket (which won't normally happen since we always check if the socket is still active or the peer closed on us) or if the kernel's socket buffers are full (which can only occur on very old systems with a small amount of RAM).

3.4 - ncrack_read_handler

The read handler is responsible for filling in the Connection's auxiliary buffer upon a successful Nsock read event. We also use a trick to check whether or not the peer is still active or it has sent us a FIN closing the connection. Whenever the boolean 'check_closed' is true, if Nsock produces a TIMEOUT instead of an EOF error, then it means we are still online. This happens because the caller that wants to check the connection state, registers a read event with a very small timeout. This is a hack that allows us to check in a portable way if we have moved to the CLOSE_WAIT state from ESTABLISHED.

3.5 - ncrack_module_end

This function should be called by a module whenever it knows that it has completely finished an authentication attempt. It updates statistical variables for the service, like how many attempts in total have been made and also currently implements part of the dynamic timing engine. Every 500 msecs it checks whether the current authentication rate is less than the last calculated one and takes appropriate steps to increase it. Since the 'ideal_parallelism' variable which is the dominating connection metric can change, we also check if we can move our service from 'services_full' to 'services_active' and call ncrack_probes() to potentially initiate new connections. Finally, if we need to check if our peer is alive (variable 'peer_alive' is false), we do the read timeout trick mentioned above.

3.6 - ncrack_connection_end

One of the most complex functions. It takes all necessary actions whenever a connection is ended - either normally or by an error. Firstly, it checks if we received a FIN from our peer, in which case one of the following could have happened:

  • i) The peer might have closed on us 'unexpectedly': this happens with services like telnet that can close the connection immediately after giving the final results of the last authentication attempt. For services like these we need to always set the variable 'peer_might_close' inside the module immediately after the state that is responsible for writing the password on the wire and before the state that registers the next read call. If we are the first 'timing' probe then we increase the number of supported authentication attempts per connection for this service.
  • ii) The peer might have closed on us normally in which case we don't do anything.
  • iii) The peer might have closed on us in the middle of the authentication. This shouldn't normally happen and it is an indication of a really strange error, usually due to extreme network conditions.

If the above or just a timeout in the middle of the authentication happens, then we adapt the dynamic timing engine to drop the 'ideal_parallelism' limit.

Next, if we are the first timing probe, depending on the timing template, we calculate our initial ideal parallelism. We also update the authentication rate meters accordingly.

In the end of the function we also call ncrack_probes() since we might have changed 'ideal_parallelism'.

4 - Building a Module

This section will serve as a walkthrough for constructing a simple Ncrack module from scratch. Our study will focus on the module for the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), the authentication phase of which is one of the easiest.

4.1 - A Macroscopic View

The source code for the FTP module resides at ncrack/modules/ncrack_ftp.cc. For your convenience, some parts of the code that is going to be analysed, will be included in this text. A holistic view of the module source code follows:

[Licence Header]
[Library Inclusions]
[Function Declarations]
[Auxiliary Functions]
[Main Module Function]

These are the main sections of every module. Explanations follow.

-- [Licence Header] --

This is the Nmap licence copyright notice that is included in every Ncrack file. The first line also serves as a mini-description of the file's purpose. For example, in ncrack_ftp.cc we have:

 * ncrack_ftp.cc -- ncrack module for the FTP protocol                     *
 *                                                                         *
 ***********************IMPORTANT NMAP LICENSE TERMS************************
 *                                                                         *
-- [Library Inclusions] --

The files which every module must include are:

#include "ncrack.h"
#include "nsock.h"
#include "NcrackOps.h"
#include "Service.h"
#include "modules.h"

The rest of the inclusions depend on the individual needs of each module. For example, the SSH module includes the "opensshlib.h" interface additionally to other crypto-relevant/OpenSSH files.

-- [Function Declarations] --

In this section, all the module's functions are declared. Note that by convention, we also put an 'extern' reference for all Ncrack's core functions that can be called by the module. These are:

extern void ncrack_read_handler(nsock_pool nsp, nsock_event nse, void *mydata);
extern void ncrack_write_handler(nsock_pool nsp, nsock_event nse, void *mydata);
extern void ncrack_module_end(nsock_pool nsp, void *mydata);

We also enum-erate the states of the module state machine. For FTP we only have:

enum states { FTP_INIT, FTP_USER, FTP_FINI };
-- [Auxiliary Functions] --

These are helper functions for the module and vary greatly depending on each protocol's needs. Among them, there is usually a routine for reading protocol-specific data. This is important, because Nsock is protocol-agnostic. It only deals with TCP and is responsible for transfering network data from the kernel to Ncrack's incoming buffers (Connection::inbuf). The rest of the parsing work must be done by each module individually. For example, ftp_loop_read() is responsible for parsing incoming data from Nsock and deducing what kind of FTP return code we got.

-- [ Main Module Function] --

This is the core engine of each module, holding its state machine and the main steps needed to complete and evaluate the authentication phase of the protocol. Essentially, it is a large switch statement, with each case corresponding to one of the module's states. Each state must end with a call to a core function of Ncrack, as described above. This is important, in order for Nsock's event-driven design to work. These lead to either a read or write operation from the network (nsock_write, nsock_read) or the notification that the authentication phase for this round ended (ncrack_module_end). In rare cases, the module can issue a call ncrack_timer_handler (through nsock_timer_create) to register a timeout event. This is used as a trick to immediately jump to the next state immediately, by passing a tiny timeout value. The current state of the module is held in the Connection::state variable and is usually changed to point to the next one a little before this phase is finished.

4.2 - FTP module in-depth

Keeping the above in mind, let's now walk through the code of the FTP module.


The code of the first state 'FTP_INIT' is responsible for reading the FTP server's banner if one exists and getting the 3-digit code mentioning that everything is OK (Code 220). Note that the above operation must only be done at the beginning of each new connection, thus the Connection-specific variable 'login_attempts' is checked. If it is 0, meaning we just opened this connection, then procede with the reading operation. If we, on the other hand, have already completed one or more authentication attempts in the current connection, this step should be ommitted. Otherwise the module would wait for data that would never arrive. The description of the behaviour is largely-dependent on the way FTP is designed (and also the way almost all FTP servers work) where the initial banner greeting is only done once at the beginning of a new connection.

/* Wait to read banner only at the beginning of the connection */
     if (!con->login_attempts) {

       if (ftp_loop_read(nsp, con, ftp_code) < 0)

       /* ftp_loop_read already takes care so that the inbuf contains the
        * 3 first ftp digit code, so you can safely traverse it that much */
       if (strncmp(ftp_code, "220", FTP_DIGITS)) {

         if (o.debugging > 6)
           error("%s Not ftp or service was shutdown\n", hostinfo);
         return ncrack_module_end(nsp, con);

Note the use of the auxiliary function ftp_loop_read which hides a repetitive nature. It is responsible for parsing incoming data that are placed in Connection::inbuf by Ncrack, and issues nsock_read calls if there aren't enough yet. This is a frequent case with FTP servers that greet verbosely spewing multiple-line banners at you. Observe, that whenever a read event is registered, ftp_loop_read returns with a negative value which is then checked by ncrack_ftp and makes it return too, halting the module until the necessary data arrive. The module will then return temporarily and be called again by ncrack_read_handler() which appends the new data in Connection::inbuf as they are being read by Nsock.

By this way, a reading loop is created and almost all modules use this approach to get incoming data correctly. Each protocol has some special way of notifiying the peer that the current stream of data ended. For example, in FTP this is the "\r\n" characters. It is imperative that each module takes account of all these protocol-specific issues.

A very useful function, that you will probably need in many cases, is memsearch (residing at utils.h). It conducts a case insensitive memory search by combining the functinonality of memmem and strcasestr, thus allowing you to search for any kind of character in a given buffer regardless of whether it is upper or lower case.

Then, we change the state of the module to point to 'FTP_USER', which is the next one. We didn't do this until now, because if ftp_loop_read returned with a negative value before, meaning it needed more data to arrive, it would have to be executed again by landing in this state ('FTP_INIT') one more time.

Important Note: each call to ncrack_read_handler makes Ncrack append, not overwrite, new data to Connection::inbuf. If you want to only get the new data, then your module must first delete the inbuf, before issuing the read call:

      delete con->inbuf;
      con->inbuf = NULL;

Afterwards, a new egress data buffer is created and filled in with the username for this authentication attempt.

Important Note: Ncrack differentiates between incoming and outcoming network data and thus a different buffer (Connection::outbuf) is used for sending data. Ncrack uses the Buf (Buf.h) class for buffer manipulation. It has been derived from the buffer system in OpenSSH and provides many facilities, like its own snprintf, which is extensively used by our modules for filling in data.

This phase is finished by issuing a call to nsock_write which registers a network write event, sending our new data (the username) to the server. We have already changed the Connection::state, so when ncrack_write_handler is executed whenever Nsock notifies Ncrack that the data were sent out successfully, ncrack_ftp() will land in 'FTP_USER'.


We now check for the FTP code "331" which signifies that a password is needed in order to proceed. A call to ftp_loop_read is needed for this first. If everything is alright, then we continue by setting the next state ('FTP_FINI') and preparing the next outgoing buffer holding the password for this phase. Another call to an Nsock write event and we can move on to the last phase.

Notice that the module doesn't need to do anything about the username/password list iteration. This is automatically being taken care of by the Ncrack engine. The module only needs to access the Connection::user and Connection::pass to access the current username and password accordingly.


Reading the server's reply in this phase is vital for realizing if we have succeeded in our authentication attempt or not. If the returned FTP code is "230" then our guess was correct and we must inform Ncrack about this by setting the Connection::auth_success to true. Since most FTP servers allow more than one authentication attempt per connection, we set the state to 'FTP_INIT' again. The call to ncrack_module_end() is necessary to allow Ncrack to process our results so far and decide whether or not to call our module again for this connection. It should be called whenever an error has occurred or the authentication phase has finished.

Importat Note: The module itself can't tear up the connection (this is accomplished by ncrack_connection_end which a module should NEVER call), but can inform Ncrack in the rare case that it wants to force-close it by setting the Connection::force_close boolean variable.

4.3 - Final Steps

Now that you have completed writing your own module, you should include it in the Ncrack framework by following the steps below:

a) modules.h inclusion

ncrack/modules/modules.h should contain the declaration of the main module function whose naming scheme follows the convention of ncrack_. For example, currently the modules.h file has:

void ncrack_ftp(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_telnet(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_ssh(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_http(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_pop3(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_smb(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_rdp(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);
void ncrack_vnc(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con);

b) Proper source code split-up

Everything that is related to the protocol/module should reside in a file under ncrack/modules/ whose name is ncrack_<protocol-name>.cc. If you happen to use functions that were needed for your module but are generic in nature, then they should probably be placed inside ncrack/utils.cc or if they are crypto related in ncrack/crypto.cc.

c) ncrack-services

The file ncrack/ncrack-services contains all the protocols supported by Ncrack along with their default port numbers. You should add the protocol name, for which your module is responsible, in this format:

<service_name> <port_number>/<protocol>

For example:

ftp 21/tcp

Note the case of SSL-supporting protocols where an 's' follows the protocol name, i.e https 443/tcp

d) ncrack.cc::call_module

The call_module function inside ncrack/ncrack.cc should hold an additional 'else-if' case which calls your main module function. For example:

  if (!strcmp(name, "ftp"))
    ncrack_ftp(nsp, con);
  else if (!strcmp(name, "telnet"))
    ncrack_telnet(nsp, con);
  else if (!strcmp(name, "your-own-protocol"))
    ncrack_<protocol_name>(nsp, con);

e) configure.ac

Finally, include your module filename in ncrack/configure.ac at the MODULES_SRCS and MODULES_OBJS statements:
MODULES_SRCS="$MODULES_SRCS ncrack_ftp.cc ncrack_telnet.cc ncrack_http.cc \
ncrack_pop3.cc ncrack_yourprotocol.cc"
MODULES_OBJS="$MODULES_OBJS ncrack_ftp.o ncrack_telnet.o ncrack_http.o \
ncrack_pop3.o ncrack_yourprotocol.o"

The autoconf tool will need to be run again after changing "configure.ac" to create the new "configure" file. Run it by typing "autoconf" in the root ncrack dir.

You can now test your new module by recompiling Ncrack using:

$ ./configure
$ make

4.4 - More Module details

This section provides some more advanced information on module construction.

a) Keeping additional module state information

For many modules, a need for keeping protocol-session data inside a connection arises. For example, the SSH module needs to reference the encryption keys for the connection, the Telnet module needs to know the current session's options and so on. The Connection::misc_info void* variable exists for this reason. Each module casts it to a special struct tailored for its own individual needs. This struct is usually dynamically allocated in the first module state and destroyed upon the end of the connection. If it contains data that have been dynamically allocated, then these must be individually freed, which brings us to our next topic:

b) Freeing module-specific dynamic data

This pertains to situations like the one described just before, where a module has allocated a special struct with stateful information and more dynamic allocations have occurred inside it. For example, the SSH keys are created this way, since their length isn't known beforehand. While the Connection::misc_info struct itself is automatically freed by the Connection class' destructor, when the connection is terminated, things like the SSH keys or other similar dynamically allocated data must be manually freed by the module when it finishes. Ncrack provides an easy-to-use facility for making all module-specific deallocations: Connection::ops_free. This is a function pointer to the special handler that is registered by each module individually and that is responsible for deallocating all internal struct members of misc_info. The module needs to register the function upon the beginning of each invocation. For example, the SSH module does this:

ncrack_ssh(nsock_pool nsp, Connection *con)
  nsock_iod nsi = con->niod;
  Service *serv = con->service;
  void *ioptr;
  u_int buflen;
  ncrack_ssh_state *info = NULL;
  con->ops_free = &ssh_free;

and the ssh_free function is defined inside ncrack_ssh.cc:

static void
ssh_free(Connection *con)
  ncrack_ssh_state *p;
  if (!con->misc_info)

  p = (ncrack_ssh_state *)con->misc_info;

  if (p->kex) {
    if (p->kex->peer.alloc > 0)
    if (p->kex->my.alloc > 0)
    if (p->kex->session_id)

c) Printing error/debugging info

Proper care should be taken for printing relevant debugging information to the user depending on the level of verbosity he has chosen. This can be regulated by accessing the NcrackOps struct's 'o.verbose' and 'o.debugging' variables. Print only necessary information using the log_write() facility (output.cc) and always use the Service::HostInfo() before every message so that the user knows from which service it comes from.

5 - Final Notes

This document should serve as an overview of Ncrack's design and a general guideline for creating modules on it. For additional discussion and help, the best place is always the community mailing list