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Understanding Log4Shell via Exploitation and Live Patching (CVE-2021-44228 + CVE-2021-45046)

· 6 min read
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Chris Thompson

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Technical Analysis: Understanding the Live Patch

The other day we published a Log4Shell payload that, when used to exploit a server, would patch the server against future exploitation from Log4Shell. You can read through our post explaining why we built it here.

It looks like this:


In this post, we're going to dissect what's going on with this live patch to explain how it works. If you're curious to dig into this more, you can view the code on GitHub too.

The Payload Schema

A simple Log4Shell attack follows a specific structure. We're going to break down our patch payload (above) into its composite parts:

  • ${: The open tag for the log4j "Message Lookup".
  • jndi:: Specifying to log4j to use the "JNDI Manager" to resolve the message.
  • ldap://: Tells the JNDI request to be resolved using the LDAP protocol.
  • The host to resolve via DNS to send the payload towards.
  • :1389: The port to send the request to.
  • /a: The path to send to the server with the request.
  • }: The closing tag for the original log4j "Message Lookup".

Note: There are more advanced payloads, but they all distill down to something similar to this.

High-Level Exploit Steps

To perform the exploit, the following steps are completed in this sequence:

  1. A log is passed to log4j via"${jndi:ldap://}").
  2. A "Message Lookup" is parsed by log4j to be interpreted.
  3. The JNDI Manager is invoked and passed the LDAP URI.
  4. The LDAP Server is queried via the URI.
  5. The response is downloaded and passed to the JNDI Manager.
  6. The JNDI Manager loads the response data as Java bytecode into the Java process.
  7. When loading the Java code, the getObjectInstance method is called since the loaded class is an ObjectFactory (alternatively, the payload code can be wrapped in a static context with static {} which will be triggered upon loading the class).
  8. At this point, an attacker can perform whatever logic they'd like because they have full code execution.

Here is a diagram with roughly the same information, but explained visually (with mitigation info).

log4shell 0day diagram

The LDAP Lookup

Once log4j has parsed the message, the LDAP request is the first leg of the exploit that an attacker must implement in order to attain RCE.

We're going to use the CLI tool ldapsearch to allow us to emulate the request being made from within log4j to the LDAP server. With this tool, we can query the live patch server for its entries:

~ ldapsearch -x -H ldap://
# extended LDIF
# LDAPv3
# base <> (default) with scope subtree
# filter: (objectclass=*)
# requesting: ALL

dn:: Y249bG9nNHNoZWxsLWhvdHBhdGNoLCA=
cn: log4shell-hotpatch
javaClassName: attempting to patch Log4Shell vulnerability with payload hosted
objectclass: javaNamingReference
javaFactory: Log4ShellHotpatch

# search result
search: 2
result: 0 Success

# numResponses: 2
# numEntries: 1

The most important parts of this response data are the javaCodeBase and the javaFactory fields. These tell the JNDI function where to locate the code (, and what remote class to resolve (Log4ShellHotpatch). In Log4j versions >= 2.15.0, javaCodeBase will only be resolved if it is localhost or a whitelisted host, meaning this payload will not execute.

Other Response Values

For the most part, the other response values exist only to pass the LDAP schema validation step, and aren't crucial for the exploit to succeed.

For example, the javaClassName contains a value which will be logged out when running the live patch on a system. This log message will indicate that the second stage Java class file is being downloaded:

We have only added this for debugging to understand if this payload was ever actually executed, but it could be substituted with any string value.

The JNDI Request

With the information now available to tell JNDI where to load the exploit code from, the next request in the exploit chain is fired off. The response from this request contains Java bytecode which enables the actual RCE functionality of this vulnerability.

Java bytecode is easily reversible, and we are not making any attempt to obfuscate the payload. Using a tool such as, you can simply download the payload and then reverse engineer it to understand exactly what code will be run when the exploit is triggered.

Log4Shell live patch payload decompiled

You can alternatively just browse the payload's source on ( GitHub ):

/* ... imports redacted for brevity ... */

public class Log4ShellHotpatch implements ObjectFactory {
public Object getObjectInstance(Object obj, Name name, Context nameCtx, Hashtable<?, ?> environment) {
log("Attempting to apply Log4Shell hotpatch to service...");
try {
// reconfiguring log4j
boolean success = removeJndiFromLog4jContextLookup();
if (success) {
return "Successfully hotpatched Log4Shell vulnerability.";
} catch (Exception e) {
return "Unable to hotpatch Log4Shell vulnerability.";

static boolean removeJndiFromLog4jContextLookup() {
/* ... trimmed code, see GitHub for full example ... */

/* ... other methods trimmed too ... */

The Java Exploit Code

Upon loading the second stage Java class file into the program, the class Log4ShellHotpatch will start performing the in memory patch when the getObjectInstance() function is invoked during object creation by JNDI.

The patch consists of the following steps:

  1. Accesses the current thread's ClassLoader and locates the classes for:
  • org.apache.logging.log4j.core.config.Configurator.
  • org.apache.logging.log4j.core.impl.Log4jContextFactory.
  1. Calls ContextSelector ctxSelector = Log4jContextFactory.getSelector(Configurator.getFactory());.
  2. Grabs all LoggerContext objects with ctxSelector.getLoggerContexts().
  3. Goes through each LoggerContext and removes the jndi entry in each object's lookup map.

The last step of the patch is what prevents further resolution of jndi values during log4j logging calls.

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More Information

We have published a series of posts about Log4Shell on our blog that you might be interested in:

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We're continuously keeping this post up-to-date as new information comes out. If you have any questions, or you're confused about our advice, please file an issue on GitHub.

If you would like to contribute, or notice any errors, this post is an Open Source Markdown file on GitHub.