Practical Malware Analysis Book Review

Thursday, May 3, 2012 Posted by Corey Harrell
There are times when I come across malware on systems. It happens when I’m helping someone with computer troubles to processing a DFIR case to providing assistance on a security incident. It seems as if malware is frequently lurking beneath the surface. Occasionally I thought it might be helpful to know not only what the malware on those systems was up to but also what the malware was incapable of doing. Practical Malware Analysis breaks down the art of analyzing malware so you can better understand how it works and what its capabilities are. PMA is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for the following reasons: understanding malware better, training, and extending test capabilities.

Understanding Malware Better

A very telling quote from the book’s opening is “when analyzing suspected malware, your goal will typically be to determine exactly what a particular suspect binary can do, how to detect it on your network, and how to measure and contain its damage”. Practical Malware Analysis outlines how to meet that goal by outlining a process to follow and the tools to use. Part 1 covers basic analysis demonstrating how to better understand a program’s functionality by using basic static and dynamic analysis. Part 2 builds on the basic analysis by diving deeper into static analysis by analyzing the malware’s assembly code. Part 3 continues by discussing an advanced dynamic analysis technique which was debugging. The book is written in a way where it is fairly easy to follow along and understand the content about the analysis techniques. The later sections in the book: Part 4 Malware Functionality, Part 5 Anti-Reverse-Engineering, and Part 6 Special Topics provided a wealth of information about malware and what someone may encounter during their analysis.

I don’t foresee myself becoming a malware reverse engineer. This wasn’t what I had in mind when I started reading PMA. My intentions were to learn the techniques in PMA so I could be better at my DFIR job. To quickly get intelligence when I’m examining an infected system to help explain what occurred. To be able to rule out malware located on systems from being accused of the reason why certain actions happened on a system. PMA went beyond my expectations and I can honestly say I’m better at my job because I read it.


Practical Malware Analysis follows the No Starch publishing practical approach which is to reinforce content by providing data the reader can analyze as they follow along. The book provides a wealth of information about analyzing malware then follows it up with about 57 labs. The authors indicated they wrote custom programs for the book and this means there are a lot of samples to practice the malware analysis techniques on. The labs are designed so the reader has to answer specific questions by analyzing a sample and afterwards the solutions can be referenced to see the answers. A cool thing about the solutions is that there are short and long versions. The short versions only provide the answers while the long version walks the reader through the analysis demonstrating how the answers were obtained. The combination of the content, labs, samples, and solutions makes PMA a great self training resource.

PMA contains so much information it’s one of those books where people can keep going back to review specific chapters. I can see myself going back over numerous chapters and redoing the labs as a way to train myself on malware analysis techniques. PMA is not only a great reference to have available when faced with malware but it’s even a greater training resource to have regular access to.

Extending Test Capabilities

The process and techniques described in PMA can be used for other analysis besides understanding malware. A friend of mine who was also reading the book (when I was working my way through it) had to take a look at a program someone in his organization was considering using. Part of his research into the program was to treat it like malware and he used out some of the techniques described in PMA. It was very enlighten the information he learned about the program by incorporating malware analysis techniques into his software testing process. I borrowed his idea and started using some PMA techniques as part of my process when evaluating software or software components. I already used it on one project and it helped us identify the networking information we were looking for. The process and tools discussed in the book helped my friend and myself extend our software testing capabilities so it stands to reason it could do the same for others.

Five Star Review

PMA is another book that should be within reaching distance in anyone’s DFIR shop. I went ahead and purchased PMA hoping the book would improve my knowledge and skills when faced with malware. What I ended up with was knowledge, a process and tools I can use to analyze any program I encounter. PMA gets a five star review (5 out of 5).

One area I thought could be improved with PMA was providing more real life examples. It would have been helpful if the authors shared more of their real life experiences about analyzing malware or how the information obtained from malware analysis helped when responding to an incident. I think sharing past experiences is a great way to provide more context since it lets people see how someone else approached something.

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