Indices and tables

Binary Abstraction Layer (BAL)

The Binary Abstraction Layer (BAL) package is a tiny framework for analyzing and manipulating binary data. Its guiding principle is that a tree is a natural representation for binary data. For example a firmware may look as follow:

  • Zip Data

    • ELF

      • Header

      • Code

      • Data

    • Images

    • Config

It defines 3 broad categories of operations on the tree: convert, analyze and modify.

  • Converters handle serializing and deserializing binary data.

  • Analyzers handle extracting information from the tree representation.

  • Modifiers handle arbitrary modification of the binary.


To install the BAL module from the repository, clone the repo and run:

pip install .

To install the BAL package and generate a local copy of its documentation, run:

pip install .[docs]
make html-docs

To install the core BAL module as well as dependencies for the example, run:

pip install .[examples]


Each node in the tree is represented as a DataObject. A DataObject can wrap either an unstructured string of raw binary data or a DataModel (or both). A DataModel is an abstract class defining some sort of structured data. The DataModel is created when deserializing raw binary data. It fits the typical definition of data model.

In addition, the BAL framework defines a few interfaces:

  • bal.context_ioc.AbstractConverter A converter takes care of unpacking bytes into a DataModel (i.e. deserializing) and packing its DataModel into bytes (i.e. serializing). Its method signatures are inflexible so that they may be called directly by the DataObject.

  • bal.context_ioc.AbstractModifier A modifier updates the content of any node within the tree. It may modify the packed or unpacked data. It contains a single modify() method with an undefined signature. It may walk the entire tree, unpacking on the way.

  • bal.context_ioc.AbstractAnalyzer An analyzer extracts data from a tree. The type of the returned data is defined by the concrete analyzer implementation. It contains a single analyze() method with an undefined signature. It may walk the entire tree, unpacking on the way.

  • bal.context_ioc.BALIocContext The IoC context provides a simple implementation of the Inversion of Control pattern. It looks up the implementation of a given interface and returns a new instance. It is used to instantiate an AbstractConverter, AbstractModifier or AbstractAnalyzer.

    • For AbstractModifiers and AbstractAnalyzers, an interface extending the AbstractModifier or AbstractAnalyzer is supplied and an implementation of the interface is returned.

    • For AbstractConverters, an interface extending DataModel is supplied and an AbstractConverter implementation will be returned. This implementation’s pack() method will create an instance of the supplied DataModel interface, and its unpack() method will serialize an instance of the supplied DataModel interface.

    • bal.context_ioc.BALIoCContextFactory Creates a configured instance of the BALIoCContext. It provides methods for the user to register the implementation of interfaces.

    • bal.context.BALContext A new context is created for each tree. It inherits from the BALIoCContext. The context contains a reference to the root DataObject. It may be used as a cache for analyzers that are either expensive or frequently called. It may also be used to store data that does not fit cleanly into a tree (for example relationships between unrelated nodes).

  • bal.context.BALContextFactory As implied, it is responsible for creating a BALContext. The factory is a good place to load external configuration that will be passed to the context. In most settings, the factory would be created when the application starts and destroyed when it dies.

  • bal.context.BALManager The BAL manager offers a way to look up factories using a key. It is not strictly necessary, and should only be used in applications that need to dynamically retrieve multiple different context factories

The full documentation for the API is available on


All the code for this guide is contained in the ./example folder.

The first step is to declare a new DataModel class that defines the data structure for the root node and its children. For example, a Xilinx bitstream has 3 children: the header, a sync marker and the config packets. The format of the header is not known, the sync marker does not have a format and the packets are an array of unknown data.

class XilinxPacketsInterface(DataModel):
    An array of Xilinx register configuration packets.

class XilinxBitstreamHeaderInterface(DataModel):
    The Xilinx bitstream header contains unknown information.

class  XilinxBitstreamSyncMarkerInterface(DataModel):
    The Xilinx bitstream sync marker

class XilinxBitstream(ClassModel[DataObject]):
    The root model for a Xilinx bitstream. It contains data objects for a header, sync marker, and packets.

    def __init__(
        :param DataObject[XilinxBitstreamHeaderInterface] header:
        :param DataObject[XilinxBitstreamSyncMarker] sync_marker:
        :param DataObject[XilinxPackets] packets:
        super(XilinxBitstream, self).__init__((
            ("header", self.get_header),
            ("sync_marker", self.get_sync_marker),
            ("packets", self.get_packets),
        self.header = header
        self.sync_marker = sync_marker
        self.packets = packets

    def get_header(self):
        return self.header

    def get_sync_marker(self):
        return self.sync_marker

    def get_packets(self):
        return self.packets
It is important to notice that even though the structure of the children is unknown, an interface

is still created for them. As we will see later, it allows an external developer to later define their format as well as their converters.

Now that we have the models, we are ready to create the root converter:

class XilinxBitstreamConverter(AbstractConverter):
    Converter for a Xilinx FPGA bitstream

    :param BALContext context: The BAL context.

    def __init__(self, context):
        super(XilinxBitstreamConverter, self).__init__(context)
        self.context = context

    def unpack(self, data_bytes):
        sync_marker = self.context.format.sync_word
        sync_marker_index = data_bytes.find(sync_marker)
        assert sync_marker_index >= 0, \
            "The sync marker is not present in the provided bitstream data"

        assert sync_marker_index + len(sync_marker) < len(data_bytes) - 2, \
            "The configuration data is expected to contain at least one word size worth of data"

        return XilinxBitstream(
                data_bytes[sync_marker_index + len(sync_marker):],

    def pack(self, data_model):
        :param XilinxBitstream data_model:
        :rtype: bytes
        assert isinstance(data_model, XilinxBitstream)
        return b"".join([

This is already getting a bit more complicated. The converter takes a BALContext as an argument which implies that a converter instance must be dedicated to a specific bitstream. The unpack() method does not instantiate any of its children DataModel, it only creates a DataObject that wraps the packed data for that model. It provides the DataObject with the interface of the wrapped data model. The DataObject uses the interface to extract basic information about the packed data (i.e. type and description from the interface name and its docstring). It uses the interface when it is unpacked as well, looking up a converter implementation for that interface inside the BALContext (remember that it inherits from the BALIoCContext). This is an important property as it allows the tree to be “lazily” unpacked. The user controls exactly when a given child is unpacked (if it gets unpacked at all) which can lead to significantly better performances in many use cases.

Last but not least, we need a BALContext and BALFactoryContext implementation:

class XilinxContext(BALContext):
    :param Dict[Type[DataModel],Type[AbstractConverter]] converters_by_type:
    :param Dict[Type[AnalyzerInterface],Type[AbstractAnalyzer]] analyzers_by_type:
    :param Dict[Type[ModifierInterface],Type[AbstractModifier]] modifiers_by_type:
    :param bytes bytes: The bytes making up the bitstream.
    def __init__(
        super(XilinxContext, self).__init__(
        self._bitstream = DataObject.create_packed(self, bytes, XilinxBitstream)

    def get_data(self):
        :rtype: DataObject[XilinxBitstream]
        return self._bitstream

class XilinxContextFactory(BALContextFactory):
    def __init__(self):
        super(XilinxContextFactory, self).__init__()

    def create(self, data):
        :param bytes bytes: The bytes for the Xilinx FPGA bitstream
        :rtype: XilinxContext
        return XilinxContext(

Since our Xilinx implementation is pretty limited, both the context and its factory are trivial.

Let’s see our implementation in action:

import wget

context_factory = XilinxContextFactory()
# Register the XilinxBitsreamConverter
context_factory.register_converter(XilinxBitstream, XilinxBitstreamConverter)
lx9_bin ='')
with open(lx9_bin, "rb") as f:
    data =
context = context_factory.create(data)
bitstream_object = context.get_data()
print("Bitstream object: {}".format(bitstream_object))
print("Bitstream model type: {}".format(bitstream_object.get_model_type()))
print("Bitstream model description: {}".format(bitstream_object.get_model_description()))


print("Bitstream object: {}".format(bitstream_object))


header_object = bitstream_object.get_model().get_header()
print("Bitstream header object: {}".format(header_object))
print("Bitstream header model type: {}".format(header_object.get_model_type()))
print("Bitstream header model description: {}".format(header_object.get_model_description()))

This script should print:

Bitstream object: PackedXilinxBitstream(340604)
Bitstream model type: XilinxBitstream
Bitstream model description: The root model for a Xilinx bitstream. It contains a header and packets data objects.


Bitstream object: XilinxBitstream({
  header: PackedXilinxBitstreamHeaderInterface(16),
  sync_marker: PackedXilinxBitstreamSyncMarkerInterface(4),
  packets: PackedXilinxPacketsInterface(340584),


Bitstream header object: PackedXilinxBitstreamHeaderInterface(16)
Bitstream header model type: XilinxBitstreamHeaderInterface
Bitstream header model description: The Xilinx bitstream header contains unknown information.

As you can see from the output, the BAL framework already has a bunch of information about the structure of the bitstream. It uses the docstring defined on the interfaces to pull a description of the data models, even if they cannot be unpacked yet.

This is it for this guide. Your next steps might be to implement the XilinxPacketsInterface, XilinxBitstreamHeaderInterface, and XilinxBitstreamSyncMarkerInterface interfaces and implement their respective converters. If you want to learn more about writing a full chain of converters, analyzers and modifiers, head over to the bal-xilinx project.