RC01: Some InconsistenC's

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Note: Commands preceeded with a $ are Linux commands, while commands preeceded with % are macOS commands.

I came across an older CTF writeup of mine - There might be cake from Hacky Holidays 2021. The solution for it was this C program:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <time.h>

int generatePin() { 
    return rand();

int main() {
    printf("%d\n", generatePin());
    return 0;

At the time, I tried running this on my machine (macOS) and received the wrong output.

% gcc -o pin pin.c
% ./pin

One of my teammates happened to solve the challenge. Our programs were the same, but he solved it on a Linux machine.

$ gcc -o pin pin.c
$ ./pin

Same code, different output? I think we attributed the issue to some differences in implementations on different operating systems, I'm not sure. Regardless, I left it there and didn't look into it further.

However, upon seeing the writeup recently, I got curious and decided to figure out why this happened, and if there was a way to get the correct output on macOS.

gcc isn't the issue #

During the search process, I was shocked to find out that Apple actually executes clang whenever you type gcc in the terminal.

% gcc
clang: error: no input files
% gcc --version
Apple clang version 13.1.6 (clang-1316.
Target: arm64-apple-darwin21.5.0
Thread model: posix
InstalledDir: /Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Toolchains/XcodeDefault.xctoolchain/usr/bin

Thinking that this was the issue, I installed gcc on my machine via Homebrew to have the same compiler on both operating systems.

% brew install gcc

The Homebrew version of gcc contains the version number (gcc-13 in this case), most likely to prevent conflict with the built-in gcc executable.

% gcc-13 --version
gcc-13 (Homebrew GCC 13.1.0) 13.1.0
Copyright (C) 2023 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software; see the source for copying conditions.  There is NO

I thought this would solve my issue, but nope, the output is the same.

% gcc-13 -o pin pin.c
% ./pin

The libc looks different #

I was reading through a post from Julia Evans before starting RC - Behind Hello World on Linux - which briefly mentions about libc, the C standard library. These lines stood out:

But there are different libc implementations, and sometimes they behave differently. The two main ones are glibc (GNU libc) and musl libc.

The srand() and rand() functions come from this library, so maybe they're implemented differently in macOS and Linux. This explains why the previous step to change my compiler didn't work.

My Linux VM uses glibc, which I can confirm by running ldd on the binary.

$ ldd pin
    linux-vdso.so.1 (0x00007ffcb23d4000)
    libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007fbc44b9f000)
    /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007fbc44d9b000)

This commands checks for the libraries that a binary needs to load at runtime. libc.so.6 is the glibc file.

For macOS, I used the command otool -L as suggested by Julia at the end of her post.

% otool -L pin
    /usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1311.100.3)

In macOS, libc is part of Apple's system library, called libSystem. It seems to be Apple's own implementation, as I found a link to the libc source code while searching.

So different implementations mean there is no way I could get the same output on both Linux and Mac? That doesn't seem right.

Meet srandom() and random() #

I came across a pair of similar functions in my searches - srandom() and random(). In their man page on macOS, they're termed as the "better random number generator"

    initstate, random, setstate, srandom, srandomdev – better random
    number generator; routines for changing generators

I replaced the functions in my code on macOS, and now I get the correct output!

% gcc-13 -o pin pin.c
% ./pin

So how is it better? According to the man page, while rand() and random() work in a similar way, certain implementations of rand() generate less random numbers:

The random() and srandom() functions have (almost) the same calling 
sequence and initialization properties as the rand(3) and srand(3) 
functions.  The difference is that rand(3) produces a much less 
random sequence — infact, the low dozen bits generated by rand go 
through a cyclic pattern.  All of the bits generated by random()
are usable.  For example, ‘random()&01’ will produce a random 
binary value.

srandom() and random() are also not part of the C Standard. They come from the POSIX Standard, which contains additional functions for C.

Okay, so use srandom() instead of srand() and random() instead of rand() and problem solved, right? Technically yes, but I still had one more question.

I went ahead and tested the newly found functions on Linux, and they return the correct output. While this is expected, why does srand()/rand() return the incorrect output only on macOS?

  srand()/rand() srandom()/random()
macOS 444334282 1376299761
Linux 1376299761 1376299761

I think this is where the standards matter. Here's a snippet of the man pages for srand()/rand() from both operating systems:

  The rand() and srand()
  functions conform to ISO/IEC
  9899:1990 (“ISO C90”).
  The functions rand() and 
  srand() conform to SVr4, 
  4.3BSD, C99, POSIX.1-2001.   

Different standards likely mean different implementations, which explains the difference in output.

The standard mentioned in the macOS code, ISO C90, is an older standard, so the implementation might be outdated, and hence is declared obsolete in the man pages. This isn't the case for the Linux version though, which is interesting.

The man pages also seem to have quite a few differences in both OS's, the major one being that the macOS pages date back to the 1990s, while the Linux ones are from this year.