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Inward vs. Outward Facing Research

One of the things I like to think about while watching research talks is whether the work faces inward or outward. Inward facing research is mostly concerned with itself. A paper that uses most of its length to prove a theorem would be an example, as would a paper about a new operating system that is mainly about the optimizations that permit the system to perform well. Outward facing research is less self-aware, it is more about how the piece of work fits into the world. For example, our mathematical paper could be made to face outwards by putting the proof into an appendix and instead discussing uses of the new result, or how it relates to previous work. The OS paper could demonstrate how users and applications will benefit from the new abstractions. Computer science tends to produce a mix of outward and inward facing research.

Next let’s turn to the question of whether a given paper or presentation should be inward or outward facing. This is subjective and contextual so we’ll do it using examples. First, the mathematical paper. If the proof is the central result and it gives us new insights into the problem, then of course all is as it should be. Similarly, if the operating system’s use case is obvious but the optimizations are not, and if performance is the critical concern, then again no problem. On the other hand, researchers have a tendency to face inward even when this is not justified. This is natural: we know more about our research’s internal workings than anyone else, we find it fascinating (or else we wouldn’t be doing it), we invent some new terminology and notation that we like and want to show off, etc. — in short, we get caught up in the internal issues that we spend most of our time thinking about. It becomes easy to lose track of which of these issues other people need to know about and which ones should have stayed in our research notebooks. Let’s say that we’re working on a new kind of higher-order term conflict analysis (just making this up, no offense to that community if it exists). One way to structure a paper about it would be to discuss the twists and turns we took while doing the work, to perform a detailed comparison of the five variants of the conflict analysis algorithm that we created, and to provide a proof that the analysis is sound. Alternatively, if the running time of the analysis isn’t actually that important, we could instead use some space demonstrating that a first-order analysis is wholly unsuitable for solving modern problems stemming from the big data revolution. Or, it might so happen that the analysis’s soundness is not the main concern, in which case we can use that space a better way.

I hope it is becoming clear that while some work is naturally inward facing and some outward facing, as researchers we can make choices about which direction our work faces. The point of this piece is that we should always at least consider making our work more outward facing. The cost would be that some of our inner research monologue never sees the light of day. The benefit is that perhaps we learn more about the world outside of our own work, helping others to understand its importance and helping ourselves choose more interesting and important problems to work on.

Fall in City Creek Canyon

I’ve lived in Utah for a while now, in three different houses, but always a short walk from City Creek Canyon. This drainage starts right at the edge of downtown SLC and goes 14 miles up into the Wasatch Range. A service road provides easy walking access all year, although the upper parts are not plowed in winter. In summer, bikes are permitted on odd days; on even days there is light car traffic. Bikes are allowed and cars forbidden every day in fall, winter, and spring (though sometimes there are vehicles going to and from the water treatment plant a few miles up the canyon). The lower part of the canyon is heavily walked on nice days, for example by worker bees from downtown on their lunch break. The upper canyon receives light usage and there are many miles of trails and off-trail routes in upper City Creek where you are much more likely to see an elk or a moose than a person. Several of my favorite local mountains, Dude Peak, Burro Peak, Grandview Peak, and Little Black Mountain all overlook the upper canyon. Here are a few pictures from a bike ride the other morning.

Fun with Shellshock

[I don’t seem to be getting blog entries written lately. The semester has turned out to be surprisingly busy and, also, I’m working on a few longer pieces that have ended up being harder to write than I’d hoped. Anyhow, the piece below isn’t the sort of thing I usually post, you can think of it as sort of a guest post. The context is the recent Bash bug which — unlike Heartbleed — completely failed to stir up a pile of “here’s how to find it using static analysis” posts, for reasons that Pascal explains very nicely.]

A3 Mitigation of Shellshock Vulnerability
Aaron Paulos, Brett Benyo, Partha Pal, Shane Clark, Rick Schantz (Raytheon BBN Technologies)
Eric Eide, Mike Hibler, David Johnson, John Regehr (University of Utah)

[Distribution Statement “A” (Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited)]


The shellshock/Bash bug has been in the news a lot recently and it seemed like a great opportunity for us to test our A3 fully automated repair technology against a real zero-day attack. We found that the mandatory mediation policy enforced by A3 blocked the effect of the injected command attack. The policy violation triggered A3 to automatically explore and repair the underlying security hole. A3 took around 2 minutes to automatically find a repair using virtual machine introspection to insert a system call block, preventing a sys_clone call made by Bash, and an additional 1.5 minutes to find a source code repair in the Bash code. The A3 shellshock experiment is an example that illustrates the recent progress made by the survivability and resiliency research community to automate post-incident response management and to reduce the time to patch.


We have been developing the A3 (Advanced Adaptive Applications) Environment for the past four years as part of the DARPA Clean-slate design of Resilient, Adaptive, Secure Hosts (CRASH) program. A3 aims to make network facing services and applications resilient against zero-day attacks through the use of containerization, mandatory I/O mediation, execution introspection, and defensive adaptation. Recently, our focus has been on automatically reasoning about attack manifestations and dynamically producing new network filters, system call policies, and even source patches to mitigate the underlying vulnerability. A3’s adaptive experimentation utilizes record and replay, machine learning algorithms, and execution tracing across the OS and application boundaries.

For the shellshock experiment, we applied A3 to a simple app store web application built on a standard LAMP stack with a vulnerable Bash version. It took us a few hours to get the source, build environment, and regression tests for Bash 4.2 into the “laboratory” area of the A3 environment (i.e., a set up for in-situ and online testing of new security adaptations of the protected application). This was only necessary to generate a source code level repair; generating the system call block repair did not require any code, build environment, or regression tests.

Constructing an attack to exploit the vulnerability was trivial. We simply inserted an exploit that attempted to cat a “passwd” file into a GET request:

GET /appstore/index.php HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: () { :;}; /bin/cat /home/mitll/passwd > /tmp/hello.txt
Accept: */* 

This style of attack was chosen because it mimicked what hackers attempted during a capture the flag experiment. We launched the attack, and watched A3 work.

First, A3’s mandatory mediation blocked the attack because the attack was trying to access a directory that is not allowed by the mediation policy of the protected application. It is not guaranteed that all attacks will be stopped there, of course — mediation policies are not guaranteed to be perfect, and the attack may involve operations that are permitted but cause an undesired effect at a later stage. However, the unauthorized access attempt triggered A3’s automated repair process, much like a later-stage undesired condition would. A3 took ~2 minutes to find a repair using virtual machine introspection to block a sys_clone call made by Bash. This was accomplished by replaying the attack within A3 (i.e., in the “laboratory” area), running a full system call analysis, and testing system call block policies for any unique calls or call parameters found. A3 took an additional ~1.5 minutes to find a source code repair in the Bash code by analyzing the call stack when the sys_clone call was attempted. Below are the call stack and a slightly more readable figure for our particular attack payload:

#0  0x00007f17a8f5f936 in __libc_fork () at ../nptl/sysdeps/unix/sysv/linux/x86_64/../fork.c:131
#1  0x0000000000448ebe in make_child (command=0xc7eb08 "/bin/cat /home/mitll/passwd > /tmp/hello.txt", async_p=0) at jobs
#2  0x000000000043a271 in execute_disk_command (words=0xc7a688, redirects=0xc7e688, command_line=0xc7ea48 "/bin/cat /home
/mitll/passwd > /tmp/hello.txt", pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, async=0, fds_to_close=0xc7a4c8, cmdflags=0) at execute_cmd.c:46
#3  0x0000000000438fd0 in execute_simple_command (simple_command=0xc7e648, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, async=0, fds_to_close
=0xc7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:3977
#4  0x0000000000433179 in execute_command_internal (command=0xc7e608, asynchronous=0, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, fds_to_clo
se=0xc7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:735
#5  0x0000000000435d26 in execute_connection (command=0xc7e708, asynchronous=0, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, fds_to_close=0xc
7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:2319
#6  0x00000000004334d4 in execute_command_internal (command=0xc7e708, asynchronous=0, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, fds_to_clo
se=0xc7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:891
#7  0x0000000000487ee3 in parse_and_execute (string=0xc7dc08 "HTTP_USER_AGENT () { :;}; /bin/cat /home/mitll/passwd > /tm
p/hello.txt", from_file=0x7fff289f6c4e "HTTP_USER_AGENT", flags=5) at evalstring.c:319
#8  0x000000000043af8c in initialize_shell_variables (env=0x7fff289f50e0, privmode=0) at variables.c:350
#9  0x000000000041de8f in shell_initialize () at shell.c:1709

Looking for a place to stop the manifestation, A3 developed the following patch at line 3979 in execute_cmd.c, which just unconditionally skips the function call leading directly to our observed attack. This repair does not fix the Bash parser, but instead disables functionality that is unnecessary for processing legitimate requests by the protected application (app store running on the LAMP stack).

if (0) {  
	result = execute_disk_command ( words, simple_command->redirects, 
					  command_line, pipe_in, pipe_out, 
					  async, fds_to_close,

For this experiment we started with a single malicious request sent to the application and A3 used benign traffic and a subset of the tests shipped with Bash to reason about and develop its patch. We are not claiming that the A3-derived code repair is the right fix (although it is fairly close to the location of the proposed fix). With a little more time and tweaking (e.g., additional attack attempts trying to cause different manifestations, regression tests), we can refine it further.

What we are claiming is that A3 was able to automatically localize and find a patch that makes the protected application (our LAMP exemplar) resilient in seconds. If the adversary tries another exploit and causes an undesired condition in the protected application, A3 will find a refinement. A3’s explanation also provides a wealth of localization and causal relation information along with the patch by outputting the malicious message and the full call stack. This can be extremely helpful for a human developer trying to address the problem.

Vulnerabilities and attacks relying on arcane parsing bugs or obscure protocol features seem to get all the attention these days. However, progress is being made in faster, more efficient and more effective ways to deal with these thorny issues as well. The ability to block attack manifestations, and deliver useful debugging/forensic information along with repair candidates in the form of code patches has great potential to mitigate some of the major issues faced with network-facing software today, including the large average lifespan of zero-day vulnerabilities, difficulty in pinpointing vulnerable code, patch validation, and time and level of expertise needed to keep ubiquitous services and infrastructure like OpenSSL and Bash safe.

Further Information:

If you are interested in learning more about the A3 project, we have a list of published papers available at the project page. For more details on the repair technology, we are working on a paper that includes more technical details and experiments run with other bugs. For information about the CRASH program, contact the DARPA Public Affairs office at

Proposal for a Friendly Dialect of C

[This post is jointly authored by Pascal Cuoq, Matthew Flatt, and John Regehr.]

In this post, we will assume that you are comfortable with the material in all three parts of John’s undefined behavior writeup and also with all three parts of Chris Lattner’s writeup about undefined behavior. Additionally, this paper is excellent background reading.

C compilers generate faster and smaller code by assuming that the compiled program will never execute an undefined behavior (UB). Each time a compiler exploits a new kind of UB or increases the optimizer’s reach in other ways, some code that previously worked will break. Thus, compiler upgrades cause consistent low-grade headaches for developers and maintainers of large bodies of C code. It’s not hard to find reasonable objections to this kind of thing as well as irate bug reports. The code that gets broken by the UB-aware compiler is incorrect according to the standard, but following all of the rules in the C standard in a large code base is brutally difficult and, practically speaking, few programmers are capable of it. For example, a sufficiently advanced compiler can break six of the nine well-worn C programs in SPEC CINT 2006 by only exploiting integer undefined behaviors. The problem is that the ostensible user base for C — people implementing low-level systems code — is not necessarily well served by creeping undefined-behavior exploitation. In short, modern C is not a friendly programming language.

When developers are not 100% certain that their code is free of undefined behaviors, one thing they do is add compiler-specific flags that disable certain UB-based optimizations. For example, PostgreSQL uses the -fwrapv option, which tells GCC to implement two’s complement wrapping behavior for signed integer overflows. For analogous reasons, the Linux kernel uses -fno-strict-aliasing and -fno-delete-null-pointer-checks. The problem with these sorts of flags is that they are compiler-specific, the flags don’t necessarily mean the same thing across compiler versions, the flags individually don’t provide much protection against UB exploitation, and developers must watch out for new kinds of breakage and new flags to add to configuration scripts.

As Chris Lattner says at the end of his third post on this topic, using various -f flags amounts to selecting a different dialect of C. Instead of having programmers learn, mix, match, and track various -f flags, we propose defining a friendly dialect of C that trades some optimization capability for ease of reasoning. This friendly dialect might be supported through a -std=friendly-c flag (if you’ll indulge the idea that the friendly dialect could be a standard) that merely implies a group of -f flags for a given version of GCC or LLVM. The flag would be otherwise orthogonal to code generation options, such as -O2. Our goal is to combine

  • minimal additional effort for compiler developers by — as much as possible — simply requiring that they provide behaviors that are already present or are at least easily available; with

  • minimal slowdown when compared to maximum UB-aware compiler optimizations by (1) not requiring any UBSan-like dynamic checks to be added and (2) disabling only optimizations that provide a bad value proposition in terms of performance vs. friendliness.

As a starting point, we imagine that friendly C is like the current C standard, but replacing many occurrences of “X has undefined behavior” with “X results in an unspecified value”. That adjustment alone can produce a much friendlier language. In other cases, we may be forced to refer to machine-specific details that are not features of the C abstract machine, and we are OK with that.

Here are some features we propose for friendly C:

  1. The value of a pointer to an object whose lifetime has ended remains the same as it was when the object was alive.
  2. Signed integer overflow results in two’s complement wrapping behavior at the bitwidth of the promoted type.
  3. Shift by negative or shift-past-bitwidth produces an unspecified result.
  4. Reading from an invalid pointer either traps or produces an unspecified value. In particular, all but the most arcane hardware platforms can produce a trap when dereferencing a null pointer, and the compiler should preserve this behavior.
  5. Division-related overflows either produce an unspecified result or else a machine-specific trap occurs.
  6. If possible, we want math- and memory-related traps to be treated as externally visible side-effects that must not be reordered with respect to other externally visible side-effects (much less be assumed to be impossible), but we recognize this may result in significant runtime overhead in some cases.
  7. The result of any signed left-shift is the same as if the left-hand shift argument was cast to unsigned, the shift performed, and the result cast back to the signed type.
  8. A read from uninitialized storage returns an unspecified value.
  9. It is permissible to compute out-of-bounds pointer values including performing pointer arithmetic on the null pointer. This works as if the pointers had been cast to uintptr_t. However, the translation from pointer math to integer math is not completely straightforward since incrementing a pointer by one is equivalent to incrementing the integer-typed variable by the size of the pointed-to type.
  10. The strict aliasing rules simply do not exist: the representations of integers, floating-point values and pointers can be accessed with different types.
  11. A data race results in unspecified behavior. Informally, we expect that the result of a data race is the same as in C99: threads are compiled independently and then data races have a result that is dictated by the details of the underlying scheduler and memory system. Sequentially consistent behavior may not be assumed when data races occur.
  12. memcpy() is implemented by memmove(). Additionally, both functions are no-ops when asked to copy zero bytes, regardless of the validity of their pointer arguments.
  13. The compiler is granted no additional optimization power when it is able to infer that a pointer is invalid. In other words, the compiler is obligated to assume that any pointer might be valid at any time, and to generate code accordingly. The compiler retains the ability to optimize away pointer dereferences that it can prove are redundant or otherwise useless.
  14. When a non-void function returns without returning a value, an unspecified result is returned to the caller.

In the interest of creating a readable blog post, we have kept this discussion informal and have not made any attempt to be comprehensive. If this proposal gains traction, we will work towards an implementable specification that addresses all 203 items listed in Annex J of the C11 standard. A friendly C++ could also be defined but that is a bigger job.

We are not trying to fix the deficiencies of the C language nor making an argument for or against C. Rather, we are trying rescue the predictable little language that we all know is hiding within the C standard. This language generates tight code and doesn’t make you feel like the compiler is your enemy. We want to decrease the rate of bit rot in existing C code and also to reduce the auditing overhead for safety-critical and security-critical C code. The intended audience for -std=friendly-c is people writing low-level systems such as operating systems, embedded systems, and programming language runtimes. These people typically have a good guess about what instructions the compiler will emit for each line of C code they write, and they simply do not want the compiler silently throwing out code. If they need code to be faster, they’ll change how it is written.

Related reading:

We appreciate feedback.

Atomic Accidents

Although I was six years old when the Three Mile Island accident happened, I clearly remember grownups talking about it and being worried: the house my family lived in was only about 60 miles away from the meltdown. In those days there was also plenty of free-floating nuclear angst due to the cold war; this would occasionally condense into something like The Day After or Edge of Darkness. The latter remains one of the best things ever to be shown on television, I re-watch it every couple of years (the 1985 one, not the 2010 one).

James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents covers not only Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, but also pretty much everything else that has gone wrong when humans tried to exploit nuclear fission or fusion. It’s a fascinating book as well as being — perhaps oddly — quite funny, and I had trouble putting it down.

I was surprised to learn how many nuclear reactors have been destroyed on purpose, and I was also surprised to learn how many nuclear weapons were temporarily lost by the US military: something like 60 in total. That’s really scary. But perhaps the most chilling image painted in Atomic Accidents is the criticality accident where a small nuclear reactor is accidentally created, usually by someone working in a fuel processing facility. Imagine doing something innocuous like turning on a stirrer or pouring a liquid into a different container, seeing a bright blue flash, and realizing that you’re dead on your feet. This fascinating report contains a lot of details.

The accidents in large reactor facilities have some depressing common elements. First, the situation is inherently dangerous due to this large system that, under certain conditions, will get into a runaway positive feedback loop. Second, the thing can’t just be shut down to zero power: residual radioactive decay generates heat that has to be gotten rid of, necessitating extraordinarily complex cooling systems and backup power systems behind those. Third, visibility into the operating reactor is often poor: in one early accident, a reactor core had been on fire for several days before this was realized. Finally, humans, caught in between all of these factors, don’t seem to reliably do the right thing at the right instant.

A lot of pop science is written by people whose understanding of the issues seems to be shallow, but that is not the case here: Mahaffey is clearly a real expert on the subject matter. On the other hand, he is not unbiased. For example, on page XIX:

To keep the industry alive, thriving, and growing, it is imperative that the general population not feel threatened by it.

On page XXI:

The purpose of this book is not to convince you that nuclear power is unsafe beyond reason, or that it will lead to the destruction of civilization. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate that nuclear power is even safer than transportation by steam and may be one of the key things that will allow life on Earth to keep progressing…

The best we can say is that it’s nice that he is up-front about this. Mahaffey’s slanted point of view caused me real stomach trouble only once: by page 33 he has twice asked the question: “Could we eventually evolve into a race that can withstand high levels of radiation?” What? For the human race to evolve in such a fashion, those who cannot withstand high levels of radiation must die — or be sterilized — before they can reproduce, repeatedly, over a period of hundreds or thousands of years. This is what might happen if the entire surface of the earth became dangerously radioactive. What was going on in Mahaffey’s mind that made this disturbing idea seem so appealing that he had to mention it more than once before the end of the first chapter?

Non-Transparent Memory Safety

[This paper contains more detail about the work described in this post.]

Instrumenting C/C++ programs to trap memory safety bugs is a popular and important research topic. In general, a memory safety solution has three goals:

  • efficiency,
  • transparency, and
  • compatibility.

Efficiency is obvious. Transparency means that we can turn on memory safety with a switch, we don’t have to do anything at the program level. Compatibility means that safe and unsafe code can freely interact, especially when linking against libraries. Compatibility is tricky because it severely limits the ways in which we can change the layout of memory objects, as we might hope to do in order to store the length of an array along with its data.

One of my favorite memory safety solutions for C — the Deputy project from Berkeley — is distinct from most other work on this space because it does not have transparency as a goal. While this initially seems like a bad idea, and it will obviously limit the amount of legacy code that we can run under Deputy, I eventually came to realize that non-transparency can be a good thing. The goal of this piece is to explain why.

When you write a C or C++ program, you usually intend it to be memory safe. And in fact, a large proportion of C/C++ code in the wild is memory safe, meaning that for all valid inputs it fails to access out-of-bounds or unallocated storage (or it might mean something else, but let’s not worry about that). The problem, of course, is that a small fraction of C/C++ code is not memory safe and some of these errors have serious consequences.

For sake of argument, let’s say that you have written a piece of C code that is memory safe. With some effort you can do this for a small and perhaps for a medium-sized program. Now we might ask: Why is the program memory safe? Where does the memory safety live? Well, the memory safety resides in the logic of the program and perhaps also in the input domain. Unless we’ve used some sort of formal methods tool, the reasoning behind memory safety isn’t written down anywhere, so it’s impossible to verify.

Let’s take your memory safe C program and run it under a transparent memory safety solution like perhaps SoftBound + CETS. What we have now are two totally separate implementations of memory safety: one of them implicit and hard to get right, the other explicitly enforced by the compiler and runtime system.

Deputy is based on the premise that we don’t need two separate implementations of memory safety. Rather, Deputy is designed in such a way that the C programmer can tell the system just enough about her memory safety implementation that it can be checked. Let’s look at an example:

int lookup (int *array, int index) {
  return array[index];

If we don’t trust the developer to get memory safety right, we need to change the code to something like this:

int lookup (int *array, int index) {
  assert (index >= 0 && index < array.length);
  return array[index];

In the C programmer’s implementation of memory safety, the assertion is guaranteed not to fire by the surrounding program logic and by restrictions on the input domain. In a compatible memory safe C, the assertion must be statically or dynamically checked, meaning that we need to know how many int-typed variables are stored in the memory region starting at array. This is not so easy because C has no runtime representation for array lengths. The typical solution is to maintain some sort of fast lookup structure that maps pointers to lengths. A significant complication is that array might point into the middle of some other array. The code that actually executes would look something like this:

int lookup (int *array, int index) {
  check_read_ok (array + index, sizeof (int));
  return array[index];

Getting back to Deputy, the question is: How can the programmer communicate her memory safety argument to the system? It is done like this:

int lookup (int *COUNT(array.length) array, int index) {
  return array[index];

COUNT() is an annotation that tells Deputy what it needs to know in order to do a fast bounds check — no global lookup structure is necessary.

When I first saw the example above, I was not very impressed: it looks like Deputy is just being lazy and punting the problem back to me. But after using Deputy for a while, its genius became apparent. First, whenever I needed to tell Deputy something, the information was always available either in my head or in a convenient program variable. This is not a coincidence: if the information that Deputy requires is not available, then the code is probably not memory safe. Second, the annotations become incredibly useful documentation: they take memory safety information that is normally implicit and put it out in the open in a nice readable format. In contrast, a transparent memory safety solution is highly valuable at runtime but does not contribute to the understandability and maintainability of our code.

There are a number of other Deputy annotations, most notably NTS which is used to tell the system about a null-terminated string and NONNULL which of course indicates a non-null pointer. The Deputy Quick Reference shows the complete set of annotations and the Deputy Manual explains everything in more detail and has code examples. The Deputy paper focuses on more academic concerns and unfortunately contains only a single short example of Deputized C code.

Although the preceding example didn’t make this clear, applying Deputy to C code is pretty easy because the Deputy compiler uses type inference to figure out annotations within each function. Thus, many simple functions can be annotated at the prototype and the compiler takes care of the rest. In more involved situations, annotations are also necessary inside functions. The process for applying Deputy to legacy C code is to compile the code at which point Deputy says where annotations are missing. So you add them and repeat. It’s a nice process where you end up learning a lot about the code that you are annotating. In general, an incorrect annotation cannot lead to memory-unsafe behavior, but it can cause a memory safety violation to be incorrectly reported. (You can write truly unsafe code in Deputy using its UNSAFE annotation, but at least the unsafe code is obvious, as it is in Rust.) My guess is that people who enjoy using assertions would also enjoy Deputy; people who hate assertions may well have a different opinion.

Is Deputy perfect? Certainly not. Most seriously, it is only a partial memory safety solution and does not address use-after-free errors. Its memory safety guarantee does not hold if there are data races. One time I ran into a case where Deputy wouldn’t let me tell it the information that it needed to know, I believe it was when the size of an array was in a struct field. Finally, since it is based on CIL, Deputy supports C but not C++.

My group used Deputy as the basis for our Safe TinyOS project. TinyOS was a nice match for Deputy: the extremely lightweight runtime was suitable for embedded chips with 4 KB of RAM and the lack of use-after-free checking wasn’t a problem since TinyOS doesn’t have malloc/free. We found that in many cases it was sufficient to annotate the TinyOS interface files — which serve much the same role as C header files — and then Deputy didn’t need additional annotations. Here’s an example of an annotated interface:

   * @param  'message_t* ONE msg'        the received packet
   * @param  'void* COUNT(len) payload'  a pointer to the packet's payload
   * @param  len                         the length of the data region pointed to by payload
   * @return 'message_t* ONE'            a packet buffer for the stack to use for the next
   *                                     received packet.
  event message_t* receive(message_t* msg, void* payload, uint8_t len);

There are minor differences from standard Deputy, such as ONE pointers (they “point to one object”) instead of SAFE NONNULL, and we put the annotations into the comments, so they automatically get added to the interface documentation, instead of putting them directly into the function prototypes. There were also some changes under the hood. We found that Deputy was generally a pleasure to use and it caught some nasty bugs in various TinyOS programs.

The current status is that Deputy has not been supported for some time, so it would not be a good choice for a new project. The Deputy ESOP paper has been well cited (114 times according to Google Scholar) but the basic idea of memory safe C/C++ via annotations and type inference has not caught on, which is kind of a shame since I thought it was a nice design point. On the other hand, even if an updated implementation was available, in 2014 I would perhaps not use Deputy for a new safe low-level project, but would give Rust a try instead, since it has a good story not only for out-of-bounds pointers but also use-after-free errors.

Reviewing Research Papers Efficiently

The conference system that we use in computer science guarantees that several times a year, each of us will need to review a lot of papers, sometimes more than 20, in a fairly short amount of time. In order to focus reviewing energy where it matters most, it helps to review efficiently. Here are some ideas on how to do that.

Significant efficiency can come from recognizing papers that are not deserving of a full review. A paper might fall into this category if it is:

  • way too long
  • obviously outside the scope of the conference
  • significantly incomplete, such as an experimental paper that lacks results
  • a duplicate of a paper submitted or published by the same or different authors
  • an aged resubmission of a many-times-rejected paper that, for example, has not been updated to reference any work done in the last 15 years

These papers can be marked as “reject” and the review then contains a brief, friendly explanation of the problem. If there is controversy about the paper it will be discussed, but the most common outcome is for each reviewer to independently reach the same conclusion, causing the paper to be dropped from consideration early. Certain program committee members actively bid on these papers in order to minimize their amount of reviewing work.

Every paper that passes the quick smoke test has to be read in its entirety. Or perhaps not… I usually skip the abstract of a paper while reviewing it (you would read the abstract when deciding whether or not to read the paper — but here that decision has already been made). Rather, I start out by reading the conclusion. This is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, the conclusion generally lacks the motivational part of the paper which can be superfluous when one is closely familiar with the research area. Second — and there’s no nice way to say this — I’ve found that authors are more truthful when writing conclusions than they are when writing introductions. Perhaps the problem is that the introduction is often written early on, in the hopeful phase of a research project. The conclusion, on the other hand, is generally written during the grim final days — or hours — of paper preparation when the machines have wound down to an idle and the graphs are all plotted. Also, I appreciate the tone of a conclusion, which usually includes some text like: “it has been shown that 41% of hoovulators can be subsumed by frambulators.” This gives us something specific to look for while reading the rest of the paper: evidence supporting that claim. In contrast, the introduction probably spends about a page waxing eloquent on the number of lives that are put at risk every day by the ad hoc and perhaps unsound nature of the hoovulator.

Alas, other than the abstract trick, there aren’t really any good shortcuts during the “reading the paper” phase of reviewing a paper. The next place to save time is on writing the review. The first way to do this is to keep good notes while reading, either in ink on the paper or in a text file. Generally, each such comment will turn into a sentence or two in the final review. Therefore, once you finish reading the paper, your main jobs are (1) to make up your mind about the recommendation and (2) to massage the notes into a legible and useful form. The second way to save time is to decide what kind of review you are writing. If the paper is strong then your review is a persuasive essay with the goal of getting the rest of the committee to accept it. In this case it is also useful to give detailed comments on the presentation: which graphs need to be tweaked, which sentences are awkward, etc. If the paper needs to be rejected, then the purpose of the review is to convince the committee of this and also to help the authors understand where they took a wrong turn. In this case, detailed feedback about the presentation is probably not that useful. Alternatively, many papers at top conferences seem to be a bit borderline, and in this case the job of the reviewer is to provide as much actionable advice as possible to the authors about how to improve the work — this will be useful regardless of whether the paper is accepted or rejected.

I hope it is clear that I am not trying to help reviewers spend less total time reviewing. Rather, by adopting efficient reviewing practices, we can spend our time where it matters most. My observation is that the amount of time that computer scientists spend writing paper reviews varies tremendously. Some people spend almost no time at all whereas others produce reviews that resemble novellas. The amazing people who produce these reviews should embarrass all of us into doing a better job.

Update: Also see Shriram’s excellent notes about reviewing papers.

ALIVe: Automatic LLVM InstCombine Verifier

[This post was jointly written by Nuno Lopes, David Menendez, Santosh Nagarakatte, and John Regehr.]

A modern compiler is a big, complex machine that contains a lot of moving parts, including many different kinds of optimizations. One important class of optimization is peephole optimizations, each of which translates a short sequence of instructions into a more desirable sequence of instructions. For example, consider this LLVM code that first shifts an unsigned 32-bit value 29 bits to the left, then 29 bits to the right:

%1 = shl i32 %x, 29 
%2 = lshr i32 %1, 29

As long as %1 is not used anywhere else, this computation would be better written as:

%2 = and i32 %x, 7

Unsurprisingly, LLVM already knows how to perform this peephole optimization; the code implementing it can be found here.

Although most peephole transformations are pretty straightforward, the problem is that there are a lot of them, creating a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. Many of LLVM’s peephole optimizations can be found in its instruction combiner. According to Csmith, the instruction combiner was the single buggiest file in LLVM (it used to all be a single file) with 21 bugs found using random testing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of embedding peephole optimizations inside C++ code, they could be specified in a clearer fashion, and if bugs in them could be found automatically? These are some of the goals of a new project that we have been working on. So far, we have produced an early prototype of a tool called ALIVe that reads in the specification for one or more optimizations and then, for each one, either proves that it is correct or else provides a counterexample illustrating why it is wrong. For example, the optimization above can be written in ALIVe like this:

%1 = shl i32 %x, 29
%2 = lshr i32 %1, 29 
%2 = and i32 %x, 7

Each optimization that is fed to ALIVe has an input or left-hand side (LHS), before the =>, that specifies a pattern to look for in LLVM code. Each optimization also has an output or right-hand side (RHS) after the => that specifies some new LLVM code that has to refine the original code. Refinement happens when the new code produces the same effect as the old code for all inputs that do not trigger undefined behavior.

Here is what happens when the code above is provided to ALIVe:

$ < example1.opt  
Optimization: 1  
Precondition: true  
%1 = shl i32 %x, 29  
%2 = lshr i32 %1, 29 
%2 = and i32 %x, 7

Done: 1 
Optimization is correct!

(All of the example ALIVe files from this post can be found here.)

The proof is accomplished by encoding the meaning of the LHS and RHS in an SMT query and then asking a solver whether the resulting formula is satisfiable. The “Done: 1″ in the output means that ALIVe’s case splitter, which deals with instantiations of type variables, only had one case to deal with.

Of course, the optimization that we just specified is not a very good one: it handles only a single register width (32 bits) and a single shift amount (29 bits). The general form is a bit more interesting since the optimized code contains a constant not found on the LHS:

%1 = shl %x, C 
%2 = lshr %1, C 
%2 = and %x, (1<<(width(C)-C))-1

This also verifies as correct. To finish specifying this optimization, we also would want to support the case where the right shift comes before the left shift. At present, to do this in ALIVe you need to specify a second optimization rule, but in the future we will support transformations that are parameterized by lists of instructions.

Undefined Behavior

Undefined behavior makes optimizations much harder to think about. For example, let's look at PR20186, an LLVM wrong-code bug that we found while translating optimizations from the instruction combiner into ALIVe, where the optimization looks like this:

%a = sdiv %X, C 
%r = sub 0, %a 
%r = sdiv %X, -C

In other words, dividing an integer by a constant, and then negating the result, can be optimized into dividing the integer by the negated constant. The optimization is attractive since it reduces the number of instructions. It also looks reasonable at first glance since we all learned in school that -(X/C) is equal to X/(-C).

However, ALIVe is not happy with this optimization:

$ < example2.opt  
Optimization: 1  
Precondition: true  
%a = sdiv %X, C  
%r = sub 0, %a  
%r = sdiv %X, -C

Done: 1 
ERROR: Domain of definedness of Target is smaller than Source's for i2 %r

%X i2 = 2 (0x2) 
C i2 = 1 (0x1) 
%a i2 = 2 (0x2) 
Source value: 2 (0x2) 
Target value: undef

What's the problem? If C=1, then -C=-1. When %X=-2, %X/(-C) overflows, since 2 is not representable in a 2-bit signed representation (ALIVe gives counterexamples at the smallest bitwidth that is required to trigger an optimization bug). LLVM's language reference states that overflow in sdiv leads to undefined behavior. In summary, in the original code there was no undefined behavior when C=1, but the optimized version may be undefined in that case.

ALIVe is able to prove that a fixed version of this optimization is correct (but note that we've restricted the bitwidth since division is difficult for SMT solvers):

Optimization: 1
Precondition: ((C != 1) && !isSignBit(C))
%a = sdiv i16 %X, C
%r = sub 0, %a
%r = sdiv %X, -C

Done: 1
Optimization is correct!

And, in fact, the fix that was committed to LLVM's instruction combiner is equivalent to the one we've shown here.

A precondition specifies additional conditions beyond the occurrence of a pattern of instructions that must hold before the optimization is allowed to fire. The isSignBit() predicate is an LLVM function that tests whether a value is INT_MIN, where INT_MIN is the minimum integer value for a given bit-width. In general, it is not possible to call arbitrary LLVM code from ALIVe code, but we have reimplemented some commonly used functions, and will continue to add more of these as needed.

Another kind of undefined behavior bug that ALIVe can help find is incorrect propagation of the nsw/nuw flags which inform LLVM that an arithmetic operation is guaranteed to not overflow (nsw stands for "no signed wrap" and nuw is "no unsigned wrap"). For example, while translating instruction combiner patterns into ALIVe, we ran across PR20189 (which was independently discovered and then reported by another developer). This transformation wanted to convert x -nsw (-C) into x +nsw C, which is invalid; the optimization should only fire when both subtractions on the LHS are nsw.

So far, we have translated some of LLVM's instruction combiner (88 transformations, in total) into ALIVe; you can look at the results of that effort here. Each file in this directory corresponds to a file in LLVM's instruction combiner.

Design Goals

Tools based on formal methods are not always easy to use. One of our major design goals is that regular LLVM developers, and other interested people, can use ALIVe to explore new transformations and to evaluate the correctness of existing transformations. To meet this goal, we have designed ALIVe to look and act like the textual representation of LLVM IR. The major departure from LLVM is support for abstraction. As we saw above, optimizations must contain elements of abstraction in order to be effective in as wide a range of situations as possible. Syntactically, ALIVe supports abstraction via omission and via variables. For example, if you fail to specify the bit-width of a register, then ALIVe will assume that the optimization is intended to apply to all bit-widths. If an optimizations doesn't care about bitwidth but requires that two registers have the same width, then they can be given symbolic widths. Another aspect of usability is that ALIVe should clearly explain its reasoning not only in the case where something is wrong with an optimization, but also when an optimization is correct. We are still working out the details of this, but probably ALIVe will need to share some details about the results of its type inference. The reason that ALIVe must explain itself in the "correct optimization" case is to help avoid vacuously correct specifications, which are undesirable although not nearly as harmful as incorrect specifications.

The second major goal of ALIVe is to automate as many hard and tedious tasks as possible. Obviously, reasoning about the correctness of optimizations is one of these tasks. Another is inferring the placement of LLVM's undefined behavior qualifiers: nsw, nuw, and exact. Above, we saw an example where LLVM was erroneously optimistic about where such a flag needed to be placed. We believe that the instruction combiner contains many instances of the opposite error: undefined behavior flags are left out in cases where they could have been added. ALIVe will help find these, leading to more effective optimizations. Going forward, we also want to compile ALIVe specifications into efficient C++ code that could be included in LLVM. This has multiple benefits for LLVM developers: eliminating bugs in the instruction combiner and reducing the time to develop new instruction combiner patterns. Code review can then focus on whether the pattern is profitable, rather than worrying that it may be wrong.

Our third goal is to separate correctness from profitability. These are orthogonal concerns and neither is easy to deal with. Currently, this separation is accomplished by not reasoning about profitability at all. In some cases, the profitability of peephole optimizations is straightforward: if instructions can be removed, they should be. But in many other cases, transformations are desirable for a more subtle reason: they create conditions that are conducive to further optimization. Some of this is captured by canonicalization rules.

The Language

ALIVe abstracts away types. For example, the icmp instruction can either take a pair of integers of arbitrary bit-width or a pair of pointers. If you write an optimization that matches an icmp instruction, then ALIVe will try to prove the optimization correct for all possible integer bit-widths and pointer types, since an optimization may be correct for, say, i1 but not i8. Currently, however, ALIVe limits its proofs to bit-widths from 1 to 64 bits, and pointer sizes of 32 and 64 bits. Types may be named to express the constraint that a type is the same in different parts of an optimization.

ALIVe supports the specification of optimizations over several instruction types. Generally, anything that is left unspecified means that the optimization is intended to apply to all possible instantiations. For example, the following optimization encodes all possible choices of icmp comparisons and zero extensions:

%1 = icmp %n, %a 
%2 = zext %1 
%3 = icmp %n, %b 
%4 = zext %3 
%5 = or %2, %4 
%6 = icmp eq %5, 0 
%1 = icmp %n, %a 
%3 = icmp %n, %b 
%. = or %1, %3 
%6 = icmp eq %., 0

ALIVe assumes that identifiers matching the regex 'C\d*' are constants. This is not important for correctness, but it will be important once we start generating C++ code from the specifications.

Like LLVM, identifiers starting with % are unaliased temporaries that are likely to be mapped to registers by a backend. They hold arbitrary values (subject to preconditions) on the input side. If a temporary appears on both the RHS and the LHS, then the RHS must end up with the same value for the temporary as the LHS, for all valid inputs. A valid input is one that does not trigger undefined behavior in any instruction on the LHS. If a register appears only on the LHS or only on the RHS and it is not an input, then it is an intermediate value that imposes no correctness requirement. In practice, that value will be removed from the output if the number of users reaches zero.

What Next?

There's much left to do! We are still working on improving and extending the ALIVe language, as well as improving the performance of the tool and the quality of the diagnostics.

We welcome users and contributions from the LLVM community. We are looking for feedback regarding the specification language, the tool itself, how to best integrate ALIVe within the LLVM development process, and so on.

If you find a bug in ALIVe or find an LLVM bug using ALIVe or if you manage to verify an awesome optimization, please get in touch.


Although ALIVe is open source (Apache 2 license), it relies on the Z3 SMT solver. Z3 is licensed under the Microsoft Research License Agreement (MSR-LA), which forbids commercial usage. However -- after discussions with people at Microsoft -- it is our and Microsoft's understanding that using Z3 with ALIVe for the development of LLVM does not constitute commercial usage for the following reasons:

  1. LLVM is not a commercial product of any particular company.
  2. ALIVe is free.

Questions regarding Z3's license should be directed to Behrooz Chitsaz (, the Director of IP at Microsoft Research, who kindly offered to answer any question regarding the usage of Z3 within ALIVe. This statement does not constitute legal advice and it is not legally binding. Interested parties should seek professional consultation with an attorney.

Broads Fork

After moving to Utah I decided that regularly spending time in the mountains was one of the best ways to stay sane and healthy. Since I usually can’t make time for an all-day hike, I developed a habit getting up around 5, hiking hard for a couple of hours, and then getting into the office by 8:30 or 9. This was nice while it lasted but had to stop once I had kids. However, now that they’re a bit older, I hope to start doing early hikes again, at least occasionally.

One of my favorite trails for a quick hike is Broads Fork, which gains about 2000 feet over 2 miles, ending up at a pretty meadow with a small beaver pond. There never seem to be too many people here; the nearby Lake Blanche trail gets most of the traffic. The Broads Fork trailhead is about a 20 minute drive from the University of Utah or about 25 minutes from downtown SLC.

Finding Compiler Bugs by Removing Dead Code

I was pretty bummed to miss PLDI this year, it has been my favorite conference recently. One of the talks I was most interested in seeing was Compiler Validation via Equivalence Modulo Inputs by some folks at UC Davis. Although I had been aware of this paper (which I’ll call “the EMI paper” from now on) for a while, I was hesitant to write this post — the work is so close to my work that I can’t avoid having a biased view. So anyway, keep that in mind.

One of the things that makes testing hard is the necessity of oracles. An oracle tells us if a run of the software being tested was buggy or not. A cute idea that no doubt has been around for a long time, but which has more recently been called metamorphic testing, is to work around the oracle problem by taking an existing test case and changing it into a new test case whose output can be predicted. For example, if I have a test case (and expected answer) for a program that classifies a triangle as isosceles/scalene/right/etc., I can scale, translate, and rotate the triangle in my test case in order to create many new test cases that all have the same answer as the original one.

So how should one apply metamorphic testing to compilers? It’s not very hard to come up with bad ideas such as adding layers of parens, rewriting (x+y) to be (y+x), rewriting x to be (x+0), etc. The reason that these are bad ideas is that the changes will be trivially undone by the optimizer, resulting in poor testing of the optimizer logic. Some better ideas can be found in this paper on metamorphic compiler testing (IEEE paywall, sorry) which found a few GCC bugs.

The EMI paper is based on a particularly clever application of metamorphic testing where the program transformation is removal of dead code. Of course compilers know how to remove dead code, so how is this transformation any better than the bad ones I already mentioned? The idea is to remove dynamically dead code: code that is dead in some particular run. This kind of code is easy to detect using a code coverage tool. Of course this code may not be dead in other executions of the program, but this is fine: we’ll just need to be careful not to test the compiled program on anything other than the input that was originally used to do dead code discovery. So basically EMI works like this:

  1. Run a C program on whatever input we have sitting around, using compiler instrumentation to check which lines are executed.
  2. Create a new C program lacking randomly chosen pieces of code that did not execute in Step 1.
  3. Run the new program on the same input. Report a compiler bug if its output has changed.

Notice that the original C program had better not execute undefined behavior or rely on unspecified behavior or else we’ll get false positives.

The cleverness of EMI is not abstract or conceptual. Rather, EMI is clever because it works: at the time the paper was finalized the authors had reported 147 compiler bugs that were confirmed by developers, 110 of which have been fixed. This last number — fixed bugs — is the impressive one, since finding bugs that people care about enough to fix is generally a lot harder than just finding bugs.

The great thing about EMI is that it is a simple and extensible process. For example, it would not be hard to adapt the idea to C++. In contrast, random generation of a meaningful subset of C++11 is a project that we have been reluctant to start because we don’t yet know how to build this generator at an acceptable level of effort. Another easy extension to EMI would be adding or modifying dead code rather than simply deleting it. More generally, metamorphic compiler testing is probably an underused idea.

I was interested to read that the vast majority (all but four, it looks like) of the bugs discovered by EMI were triggered by mutated versions of Csmith programs. One reason that this is interesting is that since Csmith programs are “closed” — they take no inputs — the statically and dynamically dead code in such a program is precisely the same code. Therefore, an apparent advantage of using dynamic information — that it can remove code that is not dead in all executions — turns out to be a bit of a red herring. EMI works in this situation because the dead code elimination passes in compilers are not very precise.

An interesting question is: Why is Csmith+EMI so effective? One reason is that Csmith programs tend to contain a large amount of dead code, giving EMI a lot of room to play. It is just hard to generate expressive random code (containing lots of conditionals, etc.) that isn’t mostly dead, as far as we can tell. We’ve known this for a while and basically we don’t care — but we never guessed that it would turn out to be a hidden advantage.

Another problem with using EMI to mutate non-Csmith programs is that many real C programs execute undefined behaviors and even when they do not, it is generally difficult to verify that fact. Csmith, in contrast, has been somewhat co-designed with Frama-C such that the two tools work together with no additional effort. Automated undefined behavior detection is a crucial part of doing automated test-case reduction using C-Reduce.

One might ask: How useful is EMI when applied to C++ given that there is no C++smith? I look forward to learning the answer. The lack of a robust undefined behavior checker for C++ is another problem, although projects like LLVM’s UBsan are slowly chipping away at this.

The EMI authors say “… the majority of [Csmith’s] reported bugs were compiler crashes as it is difficult to steer its random program generation to specifically exercise a compiler’s most critical components—its optimization phases.” This doesn’t follow. The actual situation is subtle, but keep in mind that the entire purpose of Csmith is to exercise the compiler’s optimization phases. We spent years working on making Csmith good at this exact thing. We did in fact report more crash bugs than wrong code bugs but the real reasons are (1) we aggressively avoided duplicate bug reports by reporting only one wrong code bug at a time, and (2) wrong code bugs tend to be fixed much more slowly than crash bugs. In essence, the reasons that we reported fewer wrong code bugs than crash bugs are complex ones having more to do with social factors (and perhaps our own laziness) than to do with weaknesses of Csmith. Of course it might still be the case that EMI is better than Csmith at discovering middle-end optimizer bugs, but the EMI authors have not yet shown any evidence backing up that sort of claim. Finally, it is not necessarily useful to think of compiler crash bugs and wrong code bugs as being different things. The underlying bugs look much the same, the difference is often that in one case someone put the right assertion into the compiler (causing the inconsistency to be detected, leading to crash via assertion violation) and in the other case the inconsistency was undetected.

On a closely related note, after finishing this paper I was left asking: Given a limited testing budget, would it be better to run Csmith or to run Csmith+EMI? In other words, which method discovers either more bugs or higher-quality bugs? This would be a fun experiment to run, although there are some subtleties such as the fact that GCC and LLVM have (effectively) evolved to be somewhat resistant to Csmith, giving any new testing method an implicit advantage.

One thing about the EMI work that makes me selfishly happy is that over the last couple of years I’ve slacked off on reporting compiler bugs. This makes me feel guilty since Csmith continues to be capable of finding bugs in any given version of GCC or LLVM. Anyway, I feel like I’ve done my time here, so have fun with the bug reporting, guys!

In summary, EMI is very cool and anyone interested in compiler correctness should read the paper. It’s also worth thinking about how to apply its ideas (and metamorphic testing in general) to other application domains.