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3.1. Computer Architecture Dependency

Most computer viruses do spread in executable, binary form (also called compiled form). For instance, a boot virus will replicate itself as a single or couple of sectors of code and takes advantage of the computer's boot sequence. Among the very first documented virus incidents was Elk Cloner on the Apple II, which is also a boot virus. Elk Cloner modified the loaded operating system with a hook to itself so that it could intercept disk access and infect newly inserted disks by overwriting their system boot sectors with a copy of its own code and so on. Brain, the oldest known PC computer virus, was a boot sector virus as well, written in 1986. Although the boot sequences of the two systems as well as the structures of these viruses show similarities, viruses are highly dependent on the particularities of the architecture itself (such as the CPU dependency described later on in this chapter) and on the exact load procedure and memory layout. Thus, binary viruses typically depend on the computer architecture. This explains why one computer virus for an Apple II is generally unable to infect an IBM PC and vice versa.

In theory, it would be feasible to create a multi-architecture binary virus, but this is no simple task. It is especially hard to find ways to execute the code made for one architecture to run on another. However, it is relatively easy to code to two independent architectures, inserting the code for both in the same virus. Then the virus must make sure that the proper code gets control on the proper architecture. In March of 2001, the PeElf virus proved that it was possible to create a cross-platform binary virus.

Virus writers found another way to solve the multi-architecture and operating system issue by translating the virus code to a pseudoformat and then translating it to a new architecture. The Simile.D virus (also known as Etap.D) of Mental Driller uses this strategy to spread itself on Windows and Linux systems on 32-bit Intel (and compatible) architectures.

It is interesting to note that some viruses refrain from replication in particular environments. Such an attempt was first seen in the Cascade virus, written by a German programmer in 1987. Cascade was supposed to look at the BIOS of the system, and if it found an IBM copyright, it would refrain from infecting. This part of the virus had a minor bug, so the virus infected all kinds of systems. Its author repeatedly released new versions of the virus to fix this bug, but the newer variants also had bugs in this part of the code8.

Another kind of computer virus is dependent on the nature of BIOS updating. On so-called flashable or upgradeable BIOS systems, BIOS infection is feasible. There have been published attempts to do this by the infamous Australian virus-writer group called VLAD.

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