How to write generic dissectors in Wireshark

Wireshark is a flexible network analyzer, that can also be extended via plugins or dissectors.

A dissector is a kind of plugin that lets Wireshark understand a protocol - in our case, a protocol that is only used by a certain application. There are several reasons to create your own (application-level) protocol over UDP/IP or TCP/IP, such as efficiency (by sending only binary data, formatted in a certain application-specific format).

Wireshark is a very helpful tool during system integration tests, or while developing a networked application. A dissector helps developers and testers check if the applications under test are sending (or receiving) data correctly - if the structure of a certain message is as defined by the protocol, if some fields have invalid values, if an application is sending more (or fewer) messages than expected in a certain timeframe.

WireShark Generic Dissectors - a declarative approach

Wireshark Generic Dissectors (WSGD) is a plugin that lets you define a dissector for your custom protocol, in a declarative manner.

Being declarative is a cool idea - by just saying what the protocol looks like, the content of the dissector is clear to a technical, but non-developer, user. Such protocol descriptions can also be used as documentation, without having to manage different Wireshark API versions (as it may happen with Lua-based dissectors). It's not all fun and games though: this plugin has some (reasonable) limitations, such as not managing text protocols, or requiring an header common to every kind of message described in the protocol.

Let's write a generic dissector

Let's start with the Wireshark Generic Dissector file: it contains some metadata about the protocol. These metadata, consisting of details such as the protocol name, the structure that sketches the header of all messages in the protocol and the main message, are necessary to be efficient when parsing the messages during the capture.

# file custom.wsgd

# protocol metadata
PROTONAME Custom Protocol over UDP

# conditions on which the dissector is applied:
# the protocol will be applied on all UDP messages with port = 8756

# the name of the header structure
MSG_HEADER_TYPE                    T_custom_header
# field which permits to identify the message type.
MSG_ID_FIELD_NAME                  msg_id
# the main message type - usually it is a fake message, built of one
#    of the possible messages
MSG_MAIN_TYPE                      T_custom_switch(msg_id)

# this token marks the end of the protocol description

# refer to the description of the data format
include custom.fdesc;

The second file is the data format description: it described the messages of the protocol we're writing a dissector for.

# file custom.fdesc

# here, we define an enumerated type to list the type of messages
#   defined in our protocol
enum8 T_custom_msg_type
    word_message   0
    number_message 1

# here, we define the structure of the header.
# The header (the same for each message type) must...
struct T_custom_header
    # ... define the order of the data
    byte_order big_endian;
    uint32 counter;
    uint8  size_after_header;
    # ... contain the field defined as MSG_ID_FIELD_NAME
    T_custom_msg_type msg_id;

struct T_word_message
    T_custom_header header;
    uint8           word_len;
    # array of characters
    char[word_len]  word;
    # "word" messages will always have some unused trailing bytes:
    #   they can be marked as raw(*) - the size is calculated at runtime
    raw(*)          spare;

struct T_number_message
    T_custom_header header;
    uint8           number;
    bool8           is_even;

# T_custom_switch is the main message (as defined in the protocol description)
# according to the parameter msg_id (of type T_custom_msg_type), we define
# the main message to be defined by a single message: either T_word_message or T_number_message.
switch T_custom_switch T_custom_msg_type
case T_custom_msg_type::word_message:   T_word_message "";
case T_custom_msg_type::number_message: T_number_message "";

Generating some network traffic...

To verify that the dissector we've written is correct, we are going to build a small client to send some UDP messages to a very simple server.

Let's start with the server: it just receives UDP messages on port 8756, and prints the contents of those messages.

import socketserver

class CustomHandler(socketserver.DatagramRequestHandler):
    def handle(self):
        data = self.request[0].strip()

if __name__ == "__main__":
    serv = socketserver.UDPServer(("", 8756), CustomHandler)

The client sends some data to our server - we just need it to generate some traffic to sniff on Wireshark.

import socket
import struct
import random
import string
import time

HOST, PORT = "localhost", 8756

# SOCK_DGRAM is the socket type to use for UDP sockets
sock = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_DGRAM)

# refer to `pydoc struct`
HEADER_STRUCT = "".join([
    ">",  # network byte order
    "L",  # counter
    "B",  # message size
    "B",  # message type (0: word, 1: number)

    "B",    # word length
    "100s", # string (at most 100 characters)
word_struct = struct.Struct(PAYLOAD_WORD_TYPE)

    "B",  # number
    "B",  # 0: even, 1: odd
number_struct = struct.Struct(PAYLOAD_NUMBER_TYPE)

msg_counter = 0
while True:
    msg_counter += 1

    # prepare data to send
    if random.random() < 0.70:
        num = random.choice(range(256))
        is_even = num & 1
        data = number_struct.pack(msg_counter, 2, 1, num, is_even)
        string_len = random.choice(range(100))
        the_string = bytes("".join(random.choice(string.ascii_letters+" ") for i in range(string_len)), "ascii")
        data = word_struct.pack(msg_counter, 101, 0, string_len, the_string)

    # send the message
    sock.sendto(data, (HOST, PORT))

    # wait 200ms

Set it up

Wireshark Generic Dissector is a binary plugin, distributed as a .so file - please read the installation procedure. I've summarized what I did to install the plugin and the files we've written so far:

# download the plugin - be sure it's the right one for
# the version of Wireshark installed on your system
# extract the file
unzip ./
# install the shared object globally by putting in the right folder
sudo cp  /usr/lib/wireshark/plugins/3.0/epan
# install the dissector files in the right folder - the same of the shared object
sudo cp custom.wsgd /usr/lib/wireshark/plugins/3.0/epan
sudo cp custom.fdesc /usr/lib/wireshark/plugins/3.0/epan

Test drive


As we can see by the screenshot, we are now able to see the content of the messages our application is sending to the server, without writing a single line of code (other than our application, obviously).


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