Undefined Behavior in 2017

This post is jointly authored by Pascal Cuoq and John Regehr.

Recently we’ve heard a few people imply that problems stemming from undefined behaviors (UB) in C and C++ are largely solved due to ubiquitous availability of dynamic checking tools such as ASan, UBSan, MSan, and TSan. We are here to state the obvious — that, despite the many excellent advances in tooling over the last few years, UB-related problems are far from solved — and to look at the current situation in detail.

Valgrind and most of the sanitizers are intended for debugging: emitting friendly diagnostics regarding undefined behaviors that are executed during testing. Tools like this are exceptionally useful and they have helped us progress from a world where almost every nontrivial C and C++ program executed a continuous stream of UB to a world where quite a few important programs seem to be largely UB-free in their most common configurations and use cases.

The problem with dynamic debugging tools is that they don’t do anything to help us to cope with the worst UBs: the ones that we didn’t know how to trigger during testing, but that someone else has figured out how to trigger in deployed software — while exploiting it. The problem reduces to doing good testing, which is hard. Tools like afl-fuzz are great but they barely begin to scratch the surface of large programs that process highly structured inputs.

One way to sidestep problems in testing is to use static UB-detection tools. These are steadily improving, but sound and precise static analysis is not necessarily any easier than achieving good test coverage. Of course the two techniques are attacking the same problem — identifying feasible paths in software — from opposite sides. This problem has always been extremely hard and probably always will be. We’ve written a lot elsewhere about finding UBs via static analysis; in this piece our focus is on dynamic tools.

The other way to work around problems in testing is to use UB mitigation tools: these turn UB into defined behavior in production C and C++, effectively gaining some of the benefits of a safe programming language. The challenge is in engineering mitigation tools that:

  • don’t break our code in any corner cases,
  • have very low overhead,
  • don’t add effective attack surfaces, for example by requiring programs to be linked against a non-hardened runtime library,
  • raise the bar for determined attackers (in contrast, debugging tools can afford to use heuristics that aren’t resistant to adversaries),
  • compose with each other (in contrast, some debugging tools such as ASan and TSan are not compatible, necessitating two runs of the test suite for any project that wants to use both).

Before looking at some individual kinds of UB, let’s review the our goals here. These apply to every C and C++ compiler.

Goal 1: Every UB (yes, all ~200 of them, we’ll give the list towards the end of this post) must either be documented as having some defined behavior, be diagnosed with a fatal compiler error, or else — as a last resort — have a sanitizer that detects that UB at runtime. This should not be controversial, it’s sort of a minimal requirement for developing C and C++ in the modern world where network packets and compiler optimizations are effectively hostile.

Goal 2: Every UB must either be documented as having some defined behavior, be diagnosed with a fatal compiler error, or else have an optional mitigation mechanism that meets the requirements above. This is more difficult; it necessitates, for example, production-grade memory safety. We like to think that this can be achieved in many execution environments. OS kernels and other maximally performance-critical code will need to resort to more difficult technologies such as formal methods.

The rest of this piece will look at the current situation for various classes of undefined behaviors. We’ll start with the big ones.

Spatial Memory Safety Violations

Background: Accessing out-of-bounds storage and even creating pointers to that storage are UB in C and C++. The 1988 Morris Worm gave us an early hint of what the next N years would be like. So far we know that N >= 29, and probably N will end up being about 75.

Debugging: Valgrind and ASan are both excellent debugging tools. For many use cases ASan is the better choice because it has much less overhead. Both tools retain the representation of addresses as 32- or 64-bit values, and reserve forbidden red zones around valid blocks. This is a robust and compatible approach: it interoperates seamlessly with non-instrumented binary libraries and also supports existing code that relies on pointers being convertible to integers.

Valgrind, working from executable code, cannot insert red zones between stack variables because stack layout is implicitly hard-coded in the offsets of instructions that access the stack, and it would be an impossibly ambitious project to remap stack addresses on the fly. As a result, Valgrind has only limited support for detecting errors in manipulating storage on the stack. ASan works during compilation and inserts red zones around stack variables. Stack variables are small and numerous, so address space and locality considerations prevent the use of very large red zones. With default settings, the addresses of two adjacent local int variables x and y end up separated by 16 bytes. In other words, the verifications done by ASan and Valgrind are only for one memory layout, and the memory layout for which the verifications are done is different from the memory layout of the uninstrumented execution.

A minor weakness of ASan and Valgrind is that they can miss undefined behaviors that get optimized away before the instrumentation has a chance to run, as in this example.

Mitigation: We’ve long had partial mitigation mechanisms for memory unsafety, including ASLR, stack canaries, hardened allocators, and NX. More recently, production-grade CFI (control flow integrity) has become available. Another interesting recent development is pointer authentication in ARMv8.3. This paper has a good overview of memory safety mitigations.

A serious drawback of ASan as a mitigation tool is illustrated here:

$ cat asan-defeat.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>

char a[128];
char b[128];

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
  strcpy(a + atoi(argv[1]), "owned.");
  printf("%s\n", b);
  return 0;
$ clang-4.0 -O asan-defeat.c
$ ./a.out 128
$ clang-4.0 -O -fsanitize=address -fno-common asan-defeat.c
$ ./a.out 160

In other words, ASan simply forces an attacker to compute a different offset in order to corrupt a target memory region. (Thanks to Yury Gribov for pointing out that we should be using the -fno-common flag to ASan.)

To mitigate this kind of undefined behavior, real bounds checking must be performed, as opposed to only verifying that each memory access lands in some valid region. Memory safety is the gold standard here. Although there is much academic work on memory safety, some showing apparently reasonable overheads and good compatibility with existing software, it has not yet seen widespread adoption. Checked C is a very cool project to keep an eye on in this space.

Summary: Debugging tools for this class of error are very good. Good mitigations are available but this class of bug can only be reliably stopped by full memory/type safety.

Temporal Memory Safety Violations

Background: A “temporal memory safety violation” is any use of a memory location after its lifetime has ended. This includes addresses of automatic variables outliving these variables; use-after-free, where a dangling pointer is accessed for reading or writing; and, double free, which can be just as harmful in practice, since free() modifies metadata that is usually adjacent to the block being freed. If the block has already been freed, these writes can fall on memory used for any other purpose and, in principle, can have as much consequence as any other invalid write.

Debugging: ASan is designed to detect use-after-free bugs, which often lead to hard-to-reproduce, erratic behavior. It does so by placing freed memory blocks in a quarantine, preventing their immediate reuse. For some programs and inputs, this can increase memory consumption and decrease locality. The user can configure the size of the quarantine in order to trade false positives for resource usage.

ASan can also detect addresses of automatic variables surviving the scope of these variables. The idea is to turn automatic variables into heap-allocated blocks, that the compiler automatically allocates when execution enters the block, and frees (while retaining them in a quarantine) when execution leaves the block. This option is turned off by default, because it makes programs even more memory-hungry.

The temporal memory safety violation in the program below causes it to behave differently at the default optimization level and at -O2. ASan can detect a problem in the program below with no optimization, but only if the option detect_stack_use_after_return is set, and only if the program was not compiled with optimization.

$ cat temporal.c
#include <stdio.h>

int *G;

int f(void) {
  int l = 1;
  int res = *G;
  G = &l;
  return res;

int main(void) {
  int x = 2;
  G = &x;
  printf("%d\n", f());
$ clang -Wall -fsanitize=address temporal.c
$ ./a.out 
$ ASAN_OPTIONS=detect_stack_use_after_return=1 ./a.out 
==5425==ERROR: AddressSanitizer: stack-use-after-return ...
READ of size 4 at 0x0001035b6060 thread T0
$ clang -Wall -fsanitize=address -O2 temporal.c
$ ./a.out 
$ ASAN_OPTIONS=detect_stack_use_after_return=1 ./a.out 
$ clang -v
Apple LLVM version 8.0.0 (clang-800.0.42.1)

In some other examples, the sanitizer’s failure to detect UB that has been “optimized out” can be argued to be harmless, since the optimized-out UB has no consequence. This is not the case here! The program is meaningless in any case, but the unoptimized program behaves deterministically and works as if the variable x had been declared static, whereas the optimized program, in which ASan does not detect any foul play, does not behave deterministically and reveals an internal state that is not supposed to be seen:

$ clang -Wall -O2 temporal.c
$ ./a.out 
$ ./a.out 
$ ./a.out 

Mitigation: As discussed above, ASan is not intended for hardening, but various hardened allocators are available; they use the same quarantining strategy to render use-after-free bugs unexploitable.

Summary: Use ASan (together with “ASAN_OPTIONS=detect_stack_use_after_return=1” for the test cases that are small enough to allow it). Vary optimization levels in case some compilations catch errors that others don’t.

Integer Overflow

Background: Integers cannot underflow, but they can overflow in both directions. Signed integer overflow is UB; this includes INT_MIN / -1, INT_MIN % -1, negating INT_MIN, shift with negative exponent, left-shifting a one past the sign bit, and (sometimes) left-shifting a one into the sign bit. Division by zero and shift by >= bitwidth are UB in both the signed and unsigned flavors. Read more here.

Debugging: LLVM’s UBSan is very good for debugging integer-related undefined behaviors. Because UBSan works near the source level, it is highly reliable. There are some quirks relating to compile-time math; for example, this program traps as C++11 but not as C11; we believe this follows the standards but haven’t looked into it closely. GCC has its own version of UBSan but it isn’t 100% trustworthy; here it looks like constants are being folded before the instrumentation pass gets to run.

Mitigation: UBSan in trapping mode (on hitting UB, process aborts w/o printing a diagnostic) can be used for mitigation. It is usually reasonably efficient and it doesn’t add attack surface. Parts of Android use UBSan to mitigate integer overflows (including unsigned overflows, which of course are not undefined). Although integer overflows are generic logic errors, in C and C++ they are particularly harmful because they often lead to memory safety violations. In a memory-safe language they tend to do much less damage.

Summary: Integer undefined behaviors are not very difficult to catch; UBSan is the only debugging tool you’re likely to ever need. An issue with mitigating integer UBs is the overhead. For example, they cause SPEC CPU 2006 to run about 30% slower. There is plenty of room for improvement, both in eliminating overflow checks that cannot fire and in making the remaining checks less obstructive to the loop optimizers. Someone with resources should push on this.

Strict Aliasing Violations

Background: The “strict aliasing rules” in the C and C++ standards allow the compiler to assume that if two pointers refer to different types, they cannot point to the same storage. This enables nice optimizations but risks breaking programs that take a flexible view of types (roughly 100% of large C and C++ programs take a flexible view of types somewhere). For a thorough overview see Sections 1-3 of this paper.

Debugging: The state of the art in debugging tools for strict aliasing violations is weak. Compilers warn about some easy cases, but these warnings are extremely fragile. libcrunch warns that a pointer is being converted to a type “pointer to thing” when the pointed object is not, in fact, a “thing.” This allows polymorphism though void pointers, but catches misuses of pointer conversions that are also strict aliasing violations. With respect to the C standard and C compilers’ interpretation of what it allows them to optimize in their type-based alias analyses, however, libcrunch is neither sound (it does not detect some violations that happen during the instrumented execution) nor complete (it warns about pointer conversions that smell bad but do not violate the standard).

Mitigation: This is easy: pass the compiler a flag (-fno-strict-aliasing) that disables optimizations based on strict aliasing. The result is a C/C++ compiler that has an old-school memory model where more or less arbitrary casts between pointer types can be performed, with the resulting code behaving as expected. Of the big three compilers, it is only LLVM and GCC that are affected, MSVC doesn’t implement this class of optimization in the first place.

Summary: Correctness-sensitive code bases need significant auditing: it is always suspicious and dangerous to cast a pointer to any type other than a char *. Alternatively, just turn off strict-aliasing-based optimizations using a flag and make sure that nobody ever builds the code without using this flag.

Alignment Violations

Background: RISC-style processors have tended to disallow memory accesses where the address is not a multiple of the size of the object being accessed. On the other hand, C and C++ programs that use unaligned pointers are undefined regardless of the target architecture. Historically we have been complacent about this, first because x86/x64 support unaligned accesses and second because compilers have so far not done much to exploit this UB.

Even so, here is an excellent blog post explaining how the compiler can break code that does unaligned accesses when targeting x64. The code in the post violates strict aliasing in addition to violating the alignment rules, but the crash (we verified it under GCC 7.1.0 on OS X) occurs even when the -fno-strict-aliasing flag is passed to the compiler.

Debugging: UBSan can detect misaligned memory accesses.

Mitigation: None known.

Summary: Use UBSan.

Loops that Neither Perform I/O nor Terminate

Background: A loop in C or C++ code that neither performs I/O nor terminates is undefined and can be terminated arbitrarily by the compiler. See this post and this note.

Debugging: No tools exist.

Mitigation: None, besides avoiding heavily-optimizing compilers.

Summary: This UB is probably not a problem in practice (even if it is moderately displeasing to some of us).

Data Races

Background: A data race occurs when a piece of memory is accessed by more than one thread, at least one of the accesses is a store, and the accesses are not synchronized using a mechanism such as a lock. Data races are UB in modern flavors of C and C++ (they do not have a semantics in older versions since those standards do not address multithreaded code).

Debugging: TSan is an excellent dynamic data race detector. Other similar tools exist, such as the Helgrind plugin for Valgrind, but we have not used these lately. The use of dynamic race detectors is complicated by the fact that races can be very difficult to trigger, and worse this difficulty depends on variables such as the number of cores, the thread scheduling algorithm, whatever else is going on on the test machine, and on the moon’s phase.

Mitigation: Don’t create threads.

Summary: This particular UB is probably a good idea: it clearly communicates the idea that developers should not count on racy code doing anything in particular, but should rather use atomics (that cannot race by definition) if they don’t enjoy locking.

Unsequenced Modifications

Background: In C, “sequence points” constrain how early or late a side-effecting expression such as x++ can take effect. C++ has a different but more-or-less-equivalent formulation of these rules. In either language, unsequenced modifications of the same value, or an unsequenced modification and use of the same value, results in UB.

Debugging: Some compilers emit warnings for obvious violations of the sequencing rules:

$ cat unsequenced2.c
int a;

int foo(void) {
  return a++ - a++;
$ clang -c unsequenced2.c
unsequenced2.c:4:11: warning: multiple unsequenced modifications to 'a' [-Wunsequenced]
  return a++ - a++;
          ^     ~~
1 warning generated.
$ gcc-7 -c unsequenced2.c -Wall
unsequenced2.c: In function 'foo':
unsequenced2.c:4:11: warning: operation on 'a' may be undefined [-Wsequence-point]
   return a++ - a++;

However, a bit of indirection defeats these warnings:

$ cat unsequenced.c
#include <stdio.h>

int main(void) {
  int z = 0, *p = &z;
  *p += z++;
  printf("%d\n", z);
  return 0;
$ gcc-4.8 -Wall unsequenced.c ; ./a.out
$ gcc-7 -Wall unsequenced.c ; ./a.out
$ clang -Wall unsequenced.c ; ./a.out

Mitigation: None known, though it would be almost trivial to define the order in which side effects take place. The Java Language Definition provides an example of how to do this. We have a hard time believing that this kind of constraint would meaningfully handicap any modern optimizing compiler. If the standards committees can’t find it within their hearts to make this happen, the compiler implementors should do it anyway. Ideally, all major compilers would make the same choice.

Summary: With a bit of practice, it is not too difficult to spot the potential for unsequenced accesses during code reviews. We should be wary of any overly-complex expression that has many side effects. This leaves us without a good story for legacy code, but hey it has worked until now, so perhaps there’s no problem. But really, this should be fixed in the compilers.

A non-UB relative of unsequenced is “indeterminately sequenced” where operations may happen in an order chosen by the compiler. An example is the order of the first two function calls while evaluating f(a(), b()). This order should be specified too. Left-to-right would work. Again, there will be no performance loss in non-insane circumstances.

TIS Interpreter

We now change gears and take a look at the approach taken by TIS Interpreter, a debugging tool that looks for undefined behavior in C programs as it executes them line by line. TIS Interpreter runs programs much more slowly than the LLVM-based sanitizers, and even much more slowly than Valgrind. However, TIS Interpreter can usefully be compared to these sanitizers: it works from the source code, leaves the problem of coverage to test suites and fuzzing tools, and identifies problems along the execution paths that it has been provided inputs for.

A fundamental difference between TIS Interpreter and any single sanitizer is that TIS Interpreter’s goal is, along the execution paths it explores, to be exhaustive: to find all the problems that ASan, MSan, and UBSan are designed to find some of (give or take a couple of minor exceptions that we would be delighted to discuss at great length if provoked). For example, TIS Interpreter identifies unsequenced changes to overlapping memory zones within an expression, such as (*p)++ + (*q)++ when the pointers p and q alias. The problem of the unspecified order of function calls in a same expression, that TIS Interpreter orders without warning when a different order could produce a different result, is a known limitation that will eventually be fixed.

TIS Interpreter’s approach to detecting memory safety errors differs sharply from ASan’s and Valgrind’s in that it doesn’t find errors for a specific heap layout, but rather treats as an error any construct that could lead the execution to behave differently depending on memory layout choices. In other words, TIS Interpreter has a symbolic view of addresses, as opposed to the concrete view taken by Valgrind and ASan. This design choice eliminates the “only the instrumented version of the program is safe, and the instrumented version behaves differently from the deployed version” problem. The occasional C program is written to behave differently depending on the memory layout (for instance if addresses are fed to hash functions or used to provide a total ordering between allocated values). TIS Analyzer warns that these programs are doing this (which is always good to know); sometimes, tweaks make it possible to analyze them in TIS Interpreter anyway, but the resulting guarantees will be weaker.

It is sometimes useful, for debugging purposes, to see the first UB that occurs in an execution. Consider a loop in which MSan warns that uninitialized memory is being used, and in which ASan warns about an out-of-bounds read. Is the out-of-bounds read caused by the incorporation of uninitialized memory in the computation of the index, or is the use of uninitialized memory caused by the index being computed wrongly? One cannot use both ASan and MSan at the same time, so this is a mystery that developers need to solve for themselves. The value of looking for all undefined behaviors at the same time is in this case the confidence that the first undefined behavior seen is not a symptom of a previous undefined behavior. Another advantage is finding undefined behavior that one was not looking for.

Detection of strict aliasing violations in TIS Interpreter is being worked on, following as much as possible the C standard and the interpretation of C compiler designers (which can be observed in each compiler’s translation of well-chosen examples).

But What About the Rest of the Undefined Behaviors?

Let’s take a quick look at the contents of Appendix J.2: a non-normative, non-exhaustive list of undefined behaviors in C. Keep in mind that no equivalent list has ever been created for C++, as far as we know.

First, we’ll list the UBs that we’ve discussed explicitly in this post:

  • The execution of a program contains a data race (
  • An object is referred to outside of its lifetime (6.2.4).
  • The value of a pointer to an object whose lifetime has ended is used (6.2.4).
  • The value of an object with automatic storage duration is used while it is indeterminate (6.2.4, 6.7.9, 6.8).
  • Conversion to or from an integer type produces a value outside the range that can be represented (
  • An lvalue does not designate an object when evaluated (
  • Conversion between two pointer types produces a result that is incorrectly aligned (
  • A side effect on a scalar object is unsequenced relative to either a different side effect on the same scalar object or a value computation using the value of the same scalar object (6.5).
  • An exceptional condition occurs during the evaluation of an expression (6.5).
  • An object has its stored value accessed other than by an lvalue of an allowable type (6.5).
  • The operand of the unary * operator has an invalid value (
  • The value of the second operand of the / or % operator is zero (6.5.5).
  • Addition or subtraction of a pointer into, or just beyond, an array object and an integer type produces a result that does not point into, or just beyond, the same array object (6.5.6).
  • Addition or subtraction of a pointer into, or just beyond, an array object and an integer type produces a result that points just beyond the array object and is used as the operand of a unary * operator that is evaluated (6.5.6).
  • Pointers that do not point into, or just beyond, the same array object are subtracted (6.5.6).
  • An array subscript is out of range, even if an object is apparently accessible with the given subscript (as in the lvalue expression a[1][7] given the declaration int a[4][5]) (6.5.6).
  • The result of subtracting two pointers is not representable in an object of type ptrdiff_t (6.5.6).
  • An expression is shifted by a negative number or by an amount greater than or equal to the width of the promoted expression (6.5.7).
  • An expression having signed promoted type is left-shifted and either the value of the expression is negative or the result of shifting would be not be representable in the promoted type (6.5.7).
  • Pointers that do not point to the same aggregate or union (nor just beyond the same array object) are compared using relational operators (6.5.8).
  • An object is assigned to an inexactly overlapping object or to an exactly overlapping object with incompatible type (

And second, those that we have not addressed:

  • A “shall” or “shall not” requirement that appears outside of a constraint is violated (clause 4).
  • A nonempty source file does not end in a new-line character which is not immediately preceded by a backslash character or ends in a partial preprocessing token or comment (
  • Token concatenation produces a character sequence matching the syntax of a universal character name (
  • A program in a hosted environment does not define a function named main using one of the specified forms (
  • A character not in the basic source character set is encountered in a source file, except in an identifier, a character constant, a string literal, a header name, a comment, or a preprocessing token that is never converted to a token (5.2.1).
  • An identifier, comment, string literal, character constant, or header name contains an invalid multibyte character or does not begin and end in the initial shift state (
  • The same identifier has both internal and external linkage in the same translation unit (6.2.2).
  • A trap representation is read by an lvalue expression that does not have character type (
  • A trap representation is produced by a side effect that modifies any part of the object using an lvalue expression that does not have character type (
  • The operands to certain operators are such that they could produce a negative zero result, but the implementation does not support negative zeros (
  • Two declarations of the same object or function specify types that are not compatible (6.2.7).
  • A program requires the formation of a composite type from a variable length array type whose size is specified by an expression that is not evaluated (6.2.7).
  • Demotion of one real floating type to another produces a value outside the range that can be represented (
  • A non-array lvalue with an incomplete type is used in a context that requires the value of the designated object (
  • An lvalue designating an object of automatic storage duration that could have been declared with the register storage class is used in a context that requires the value of the designated object, but the object is uninitialized. (
  • An lvalue having array type is converted to a pointer to the initial element of the array, and the array object has register storage class (
  • An attempt is made to use the value of a void expression, or an implicit or explicit conversion (except to void) is applied to a void expression (
  • Conversion of a pointer to an integer type produces a value outside the range that can be represented (
  • A pointer is used to call a function whose type is not compatible with the referenced type (
  • An unmatched ‘ or ” character is encountered on a logical source line during tokenization (6.4).
  • A reserved keyword token is used in translation phase 7 or 8 for some purpose other than as a keyword (6.4.1).
  • A universal character name in an identifier does not designate a character whose encoding falls into one of the specified ranges (
  • The initial character of an identifier is a universal character name designating a digit (
  • Two identifiers differ only in nonsignificant characters (
  • The identifier __func__ is explicitly declared (
  • The program attempts to modify a string literal (6.4.5).
  • The characters ‘, \, “, //, or /* occur in the sequence between the < and > delimiters, or the characters ‘, \, //, or /* occur in the sequence between the ” delimiters, in a header name preprocessing token (6.4.7).
  • For a call to a function without a function prototype in scope, the number of ∗ arguments does not equal the number of parameters (
  • For call to a function without a function prototype in scope where the function is defined with a function prototype, either the prototype ends with an ellipsis or the types of the arguments after promotion are not compatible with the types of the parameters (
  • For a call to a function without a function prototype in scope where the function is not defined with a function prototype, the types of the arguments after promotion are not compatible with those of the parameters after promotion (with certain exceptions) (
  • A function is defined with a type that is not compatible with the type (of the expression) pointed to by the expression that denotes the called function (
  • A member of an atomic structure or union is accessed (
  • A pointer is converted to other than an integer or pointer type (6.5.4).
  • An expression that is required to be an integer constant expression does not have an integer type; has operands that are not integer constants, enumeration constants, character constants, sizeof expressions whose results are integer constants, or immediately-cast floating constants; or contains casts (outside operands to sizeof operators) other than conversions of arithmetic types to integer types (6.6).
  • A constant expression in an initializer is not, or does not evaluate to, one of the following: an arithmetic constant expression, a null pointer constant, an address constant, or an address constant for a complete object type plus or minus an integer constant expression (6.6).
  • An arithmetic constant expression does not have arithmetic type; has operands that are not integer constants, floating constants, enumeration constants, character constants, or sizeof expressions; or contains casts (outside operands to size operators) other than conversions of arithmetic types to arithmetic types (6.6).
  • The value of an object is accessed by an array-subscript [], member-access . or −>, address &, or indirection * operator or a pointer cast in creating an address constant (6.6).
  • An identifier for an object is declared with no linkage and the type of the object is incomplete after its declarator, or after its init-declarator if it has an initializer (6.7).
  • A function is declared at block scope with an explicit storage-class specifier other than extern (6.7.1).
  • A structure or union is defined as containing no named members, no anonymous structures, and no anonymous unions (
  • An attempt is made to access, or generate a pointer to just past, a flexible array member of a structure when the referenced object provides no elements for that array (
  • When the complete type is needed, an incomplete structure or union type is not completed in the same scope by another declaration of the tag that defines the content (
  • An attempt is made to modify an object defined with a const-qualified type through use of an lvalue with non-const-qualified type (6.7.3).
  • An attempt is made to refer to an object defined with a volatile-qualified type through use of an lvalue with non-volatile-qualified type (6.7.3).
  • The specification of a function type includes any type qualifiers (6.7.3).
  • Two qualified types that are required to be compatible do not have the identically qualified version of a compatible type (6.7.3).
  • An object which has been modified is accessed through a restrict-qualified pointer to a const-qualified type, or through a restrict-qualified pointer and another pointer that are not both based on the same object (
  • A restrict-qualified pointer is assigned a value based on another restricted pointer whose associated block neither began execution before the block associated with this pointer, nor ended before the assignment (
  • A function with external linkage is declared with an inline function specifier, but is not also defined in the same translation unit (6.7.4).
  • A function declared with a _Noreturn function specifier returns to its caller (6.7.4).
  • The definition of an object has an alignment specifier and another declaration of that object has a different alignment specifier (6.7.5).
  • Declarations of an object in different translation units have different alignment specifiers (6.7.5).
  • Two pointer types that are required to be compatible are not identically qualified, or are not pointers to compatible types (
  • The size expression in an array declaration is not a constant expression and evaluates at program execution time to a nonpositive value (
  • In a context requiring two array types to be compatible, they do not have compatible element types, or their size specifiers evaluate to unequal values (
  • A declaration of an array parameter includes the keyword static within the [ and ] and the corresponding argument does not provide access to the first element of an array with at least the specified number of elements (
  • A storage-class specifier or type qualifier modifies the keyword void as a function parameter type list (
  • In a context requiring two function types to be compatible, they do not have compatible return types, or their parameters disagree in use of the ellipsis terminator or the number and type of parameters (after default argument promotion, when there is no parameter type list or when one type is specified by a function definition with an identifier list) (
  • The value of an unnamed member of a structure or union is used (6.7.9).
  • The initializer for a scalar is neither a single expression nor a single expression enclosed in braces (6.7.9).
  • The initializer for a structure or union object that has automatic storage duration is neither an initializer list nor a single expression that has compatible structure or union type (6.7.9).
  • The initializer for an aggregate or union, other than an array initialized by a string literal, is not a brace-enclosed list of initializers for its elements or members (6.7.9).
  • An identifier with external linkage is used, but in the program there does not exist exactly one external definition for the identifier, or the identifier is not used and there exist multiple external definitions for the identifier (6.9).
  • A function definition includes an identifier list, but the types of the parameters are not declared in a following declaration list (6.9.1).
  • An adjusted parameter type in a function definition is not a complete object type (6.9.1).
  • A function that accepts a variable number of arguments is defined without a parameter type list that ends with the ellipsis notation (6.9.1).
  • The } that terminates a function is reached, and the value of the function call is used by the caller (6.9.1).
  • An identifier for an object with internal linkage and an incomplete type is declared with a tentative definition (6.9.2).
  • The token defined is generated during the expansion of a #if or #elif preprocessing directive, or the use of the defined unary operator does not match one of the two specified forms prior to macro replacement (6.10.1).
  • The #include preprocessing directive that results after expansion does not match one of the two header name forms (6.10.2).
  • The character sequence in an #include preprocessing directive does not start with a letter (6.10.2).
  • There are sequences of preprocessing tokens within the list of macro arguments that would otherwise act as preprocessing directives (6.10.3).
  • The result of the preprocessing operator # is not a valid character string literal (
  • The result of the preprocessing operator ## is not a valid preprocessing token (
  • The #line preprocessing directive that results after expansion does not match one of the two well-defined forms, or its digit sequence specifies zero or a number greater than 2147483647 (6.10.4).
  • A non-STDC #pragma preprocessing directive that is documented as causing translation failure or some other form of undefined behavior is encountered (6.10.6).
  • A #pragma STDC preprocessing directive does not match one of the well-defined forms (6.10.6).
  • The name of a predefined macro, or the identifier defined, is the subject of a #define or #undef preprocessing directive (6.10.8).
  • An attempt is made to copy an object to an overlapping object by use of a library function, other than as explicitly allowed (e.g., memmove) (clause 7).
  • A file with the same name as one of the standard headers, not provided as part of the implementation, is placed in any of the standard places that are searched for included source files (7.1.2).
  • A header is included within an external declaration or definition (7.1.2).
  • A function, object, type, or macro that is specified as being declared or defined by some standard header is used before any header that declares or defines it is included (7.1.2).
  • A standard header is included while a macro is defined with the same name as a keyword (7.1.2).
  • The program attempts to declare a library function itself, rather than via a standard header, but the declaration does not have external linkage (7.1.2).
  • The program declares or defines a reserved identifier, other than as allowed by 7.1.4 (7.1.3).
  • The program removes the definition of a macro whose name begins with an underscore and either an uppercase letter or another underscore (7.1.3).
  • An argument to a library function has an invalid value or a type not expected by a function with variable number of arguments (7.1.4).
  • The pointer passed to a library function array parameter does not have a value such that all address computations and object accesses are valid (7.1.4).
  • The macro definition of assert is suppressed in order to access an actual function (7.2).
  • The argument to the assert macro does not have a scalar type (7.2).
  • The CX_LIMITED_RANGE, FENV_ACCESS, or FP_CONTRACT pragma is used in any context other than outside all external declarations or preceding all explicit declarations and statements inside a compound statement (7.3.4, 7.6.1, 7.12.2).
  • The value of an argument to a character handling function is neither equal to the value of EOF nor representable as an unsigned char (7.4).
  • A macro definition of errno is suppressed in order to access an actual object, or the program defines an identifier with the name errno (7.5).
  • Part of the program tests floating-point status flags, sets floating-point control modes, or runs under non-default mode settings, but was translated with the state for the FENV_ACCESS pragma “off” (7.6.1).
  • The exception-mask argument for one of the functions that provide access to the floating-point status flags has a nonzero value not obtained by bitwise OR of the floating-point exception macros (7.6.2).
  • The fesetexceptflag function is used to set floating-point status flags that were not specified in the call to the fegetexceptflag function that provided the value of the corresponding fexcept_t object (
  • The argument to fesetenv or feupdateenv is neither an object set by a call to fegetenv or feholdexcept, nor is it an environment macro (,
  • The value of the result of an integer arithmetic or conversion function cannot be represented (,,,,,, 7.22.1).
  • The program modifies the string pointed to by the value returned by the setlocale function (
  • The program modifies the structure pointed to by the value returned by the localeconv function (
  • A macro definition of math_errhandling is suppressed or the program defines an identifier with the name math_errhandling (7.12).
  • An argument to a floating-point classification or comparison macro is not of real floating type (7.12.3, 7.12.14).
  • A macro definition of setjmp is suppressed in order to access an actual function, or the program defines an external identifier with the name setjmp (7.13).
  • An invocation of the setjmp macro occurs other than in an allowed context (
  • The longjmp function is invoked to restore a nonexistent environment (
  • After a longjmp, there is an attempt to access the value of an object of automatic storage duration that does not have volatile-qualified type, local to the function containing the invocation of the corresponding setjmp macro, that was changed between the setjmp invocation and longjmp call (
  • The program specifies an invalid pointer to a signal handler function (
  • A signal handler returns when the signal corresponded to a computational exception (
  • A signal occurs as the result of calling the abort or raise function, and the signal handler calls the raise function (
  • A signal occurs other than as the result of calling the abort or raise function, and the signal handler refers to an object with static or thread storage duration that is not a lock-free atomic object other than by assigning a value to an object declared as volatile sig_atomic_t, or calls any function in the standard library other than the abort function, the _Exit function, the quick_exit function, or the signal function (for the same signal number) (
  • The value of errno is referred to after a signal occurred other than as the result of calling the abort or raise function and the corresponding signal handler obtained a SIG_ERR return from a call to the signal function (
  • A signal is generated by an asynchronous signal handler (
  • A function with a variable number of arguments attempts to access its varying arguments other than through a properly declared and initialized va_list object, or before the va_start macro is invoked (7.16,,
  • The macro va_arg is invoked using the parameter ap that was passed to a function that invoked the macro va_arg with the same parameter (7.16).
  • A macro definition of va_start, va_arg, va_copy, or va_end is suppressed in order to access an actual function, or the program defines an external identifier with the name va_copy or va_end (7.16.1).
  • The va_start or va_copy macro is invoked without a corresponding invocation of the va_end macro in the same function, or vice versa (7.16.1,,,
  • The type parameter to the va_arg macro is not such that a pointer to an object of that type can be obtained simply by postfixing a * (
  • The va_arg macro is invoked when there is no actual next argument, or with a specified type that is not compatible with the promoted type of the actual next argument, with certain exceptions (
  • The va_copy or va_start macro is called to initialize a va_list that was previously initialized by either macro without an intervening invocation of the va_end macro for the same va_list (,
  • The parameter parmN of a va_start macro is declared with the register storage class, with a function or array type, or with a type that is not compatible with the type that results after application of the default argument promotions (
  • The member designator parameter of an offsetof macro is an invalid right operand of the . operator for the type parameter, or designates a bit-field (7.19).
  • The argument in an instance of one of the integer-constant macros is not a decimal, octal, or hexadecimal constant, or it has a value that exceeds the limits for the corresponding type (7.20.4).
  • A byte input/output function is applied to a wide-oriented stream, or a wide character input/output function is applied to a byte-oriented stream (7.21.2).
  • Use is made of any portion of a file beyond the most recent wide character written to a wide-oriented stream (7.21.2).
  • The value of a pointer to a FILE object is used after the associated file is closed (7.21.3).
  • The stream for the fflush function points to an input stream or to an update stream in which the most recent operation was input (
  • The string pointed to by the mode argument in a call to the fopen function does not exactly match one of the specified character sequences (
  • An output operation on an update stream is followed by an input operation without an intervening call to the fflush function or a file positioning function, or an input operation on an update stream is followed by an output operation with an intervening call to a file positioning function (
  • An attempt is made to use the contents of the array that was supplied in a call to the setvbuf function (
  • There are insufficient arguments for the format in a call to one of the formatted input/output functions, or an argument does not have an appropriate type (,,,
  • The format in a call to one of the formatted input/output functions or to the strftime or wcsftime function is not a valid multibyte character sequence that begins and ends in its initial shift state (,,,,,
  • In a call to one of the formatted output functions, a precision appears with a conversion specifier other than those described (,
  • A conversion specification for a formatted output function uses an asterisk to denote an argument-supplied field width or precision, but the corresponding argument is not provided (,
  • A conversion specification for a formatted output function uses a # or 0 flag with a conversion specifier other than those described (,
  • A conversion specification for one of the formatted input/output functions uses a length modifier with a conversion specifier other than those described (,,,
  • An s conversion specifier is encountered by one of the formatted output functions, and the argument is missing the null terminator (unless a precision is specified that does not require null termination) (,
  • An n conversion specification for one of the formatted input/output functions includes any flags, an assignment-suppressing character, a field width, or a precision (,,,
  • A % conversion specifier is encountered by one of the formatted input/output functions, but the complete conversion specification is not exactly %% (,,,
  • An inv alid conversion specification is found in the format for one of the formatted input/output functions, or the strftime or wcsftime function (,,,,,
  • The number of characters transmitted by a formatted output function is greater than INT_MAX (,,,
  • The result of a conversion by one of the formatted input functions cannot be represented in the corresponding object, or the receiving object does not have an appropriate type (,
  • A c, s, or [ conversion specifier is encountered by one of the formatted input functions, and the array pointed to by the corresponding argument is not large enough to accept the input sequence (and a null terminator if the conversion specifier is s or [) (,
  • A c, s, or [ conversion specifier with an l qualifier is encountered by one of the formatted input functions, but the input is not a valid multibyte character sequence that begins in the initial shift state (,
  • The input item for a %p conversion by one of the formatted input functions is not a value converted earlier during the same program execution (,
  • The vfprintf, vfscanf, vprintf, vscanf, vsnprintf, vsprintf, vsscanf, vfwprintf, vfwscanf, vswprintf, vswscanf, vwprintf, or vwscanf function is called with an improperly initialized va_list argument, or the argument is used (other than in an invocation of va_end) after the function returns (,,,,,,,,,,,,
  • The contents of the array supplied in a call to the fgets or fgetws function are used after a read error occurred (,
  • The file position indicator for a binary stream is used after a call to the ungetc function where its value was zero before the call (
  • The file position indicator for a stream is used after an error occurred during a call to the fread or fwrite function (,
  • A partial element read by a call to the fread function is used (
  • The fseek function is called for a text stream with a nonzero offset and either the offset was not returned by a previous successful call to the ftell function on a stream associated with the same file or whence is not SEEK_SET (
  • The fsetpos function is called to set a position that was not returned by a previous successful call to the fgetpos function on a stream associated with the same file (
  • A non-null pointer returned by a call to the calloc, malloc, or realloc function with a zero requested size is used to access an object (7.22.3).
  • The value of a pointer that refers to space deallocated by a call to the free or realloc function is used (7.22.3).
  • The alignment requested of the aligned_alloc function is not valid or not supported by the implementation, or the size requested is not an integral multiple of the alignment (
  • The pointer argument to the free or realloc function does not match a pointer earlier returned by a memory management function, or the space has been deallocated by a call to free or realloc (,
  • The value of the object allocated by the malloc function is used (
  • The value of any bytes in a new object allocated by the realloc function beyond the size of the old object are used (
  • The program calls the exit or quick_exit function more than once, or calls both functions (,
  • During the call to a function registered with the atexit or at_quick_exit function, a call is made to the longjmp function that would terminate the call to the registered function (,
  • The string set up by the getenv or strerror function is modified by the program (,
  • A command is executed through the system function in a way that is documented as causing termination or some other form of undefined behavior (
  • A searching or sorting utility function is called with an invalid pointer argument, even if the number of elements is zero (7.22.5).
  • The comparison function called by a searching or sorting utility function alters the contents of the array being searched or sorted, or returns ordering values inconsistently (7.22.5).
  • The array being searched by the bsearch function does not have its elements in proper order (
  • The current conversion state is used by a multibyte/wide character conversion function after changing the LC_CTYPE category (7.22.7).
  • A string or wide string utility function is instructed to access an array beyond the end of an object (7.23.1, 7.28.4).
  • A string or wide string utility function is called with an invalid pointer argument, even if the length is zero (7.23.1, 7.28.4).
  • The contents of the destination array are used after a call to the strxfrm, strftime, wcsxfrm, or wcsftime function in which the specified length was too small to hold the entire null-terminated result (,,,
  • The first argument in the very first call to the strtok or wcstok is a null pointer (,
  • The type of an argument to a type-generic macro is not compatible with the type of the corresponding parameter of the selected function (7.24).
  • A complex argument is supplied for a generic parameter of a type-generic macro that has no corresponding complex function (7.24).
  • At least one field of the broken-down time passed to asctime contains a value outside its normal range, or the calculated year exceeds four digits or is less than the year 1000 (
  • The argument corresponding to an s specifier without an l qualifier in a call to the fwprintf function does not point to a valid multibyte character sequence that begins in the initial shift state (
  • In a call to the wcstok function, the object pointed to by ptr does not have the value stored by the previous call for the same wide string (
  • An mbstate_t object is used inappropriately (7.28.6).
  • The value of an argument of type wint_t to a wide character classification or case mapping function is neither equal to the value of WEOF nor representable as a wchar_t (7.29.1).
  • The iswctype function is called using a different LC_CTYPE category from the one in effect for the call to the wctype function that returned the description (
  • The towctrans function is called using a different LC_CTYPE category from the one in effect for the call to the wctrans function that returned the description (

Most of these items are already detected, could be detected easily, or would be detected as a side effect of solving UBs that we discussed in detail. In other words, a few basic technologies, such as shadow memory and run-time type information, provide the infrastructure needed to detect a large fraction of the hard-to-detect UBs. Alas it is difficult to make shadow memory and run-time type information fast.


What is the modern C or C++ developer to do?

  • Be comfortable with the “easy” UB tools — the ones that can usually be enabled just by adjusting a makefile, such as compiler warnings and ASan and UBSan. Use these early and often, and (crucially) act upon their findings.
  • Be familiar with the “hard” UB tools — those such as TIS Interpreter that typically require more effort to run — and use them when appropriate.
  • Invest in broad-based testing (track code coverage, use fuzzers, etc.) in order to get maximum benefit out of dynamic UB detection tools.
  • Perform UB-aware code reviews: build a culture where we collectively diagnose potentially dangerous patches and get them fixed before they land.
  • Be knowledgeable about what’s actually in the C and C++ standards since these are what compiler writers are going by. Avoid repeating tired maxims like “C is a portable assembly language” and “trust the programmer.”

Unfortunately, C and C++ are mostly taught the old way, as if programming in them isn’t like walking in a minefield. Nor have the books about C and C++ caught up with the current reality. These things must change.

Good luck, everyone.

We’d like to thank various people, especially @CopperheadOS on Twitter, for discussing these issues with us.

40 responses to “Undefined Behavior in 2017”

  1. Since you talk about the sanitizers and tools like Checked-C, I’ll note there’s also SaferCPlusPlus[1], which is essentially a memory-safe (and data race safe) subset of C++. The idea is that there are a finite number of C++ elements that contribute to memory unsafety, and since the advent of C++11, it is now practical to simply avoid/prohibit those elements, and substitute them with fast, safe, compatible replacements.

    While valgrind, the sanitizers, and the various static analyzers can reduce the number of bugs dramatically, none of them fully solve the memory safety problem. You’re still playing whack-a-mole, albeit with bigger mallets.

    A more complete solution is to migrate to a memory safe language, and the memory safe language embedded within C++ itself is the one that’s easiest to migrate to. There’s even a tool[2] in early development (but already functional), to do much of the conversion (from C to SaferCPlusPlus), automatically.

    [1] https://github.com/duneroadrunner/SaferCPlusPlus#safercplusplus-versus-clangllvm-sanitizers
    [2] https://github.com/duneroadrunner/SaferCPlusPlus-AutoTranslation

  2. The rules for Unsequenced Modifications will change in C++17: http://wg21.link/p0145

    If I understand them correctly then e.g. foo(++i, ++i, ++i); is now well defined (indeterminately sequenced).

  3. Fantastic post. I’ll be putting it on the reading list for my software testing and security course.

    “The user can configure the size of the quarantine in order to trade false positives for resource usage.”

    False positives or negatives?

  4. You say that “C is a portable assembly language” is a tired maxim that should not be repeated, but provide no arguments for that position.

  5. I’m disappointed that you haven’t mentioned the Boost Safe Numerics Library. This library addresses all issues related to undefined behavior with regard to integers while imposing minimal runtime costs. Altering one’s application to use this library will entail minimal effort and guarantee that the application will never produce any arithmetically incorrect results. This library has been reviewed and accepted into the collection Boost Libraries and is currently being modified to address issues raised during the Boost review process. More information can be found a the Boost Library Incubator website http://www.blincubator.com.

  6. I appreciate the effort that you have been putting into how to handle UB.

    The hazards of the software industry are difficult to comprehend and communicate. Efforts to make the situation better are what we need more of.

  7. Noah, thanks for the SafeCPlusPlus links. I don’t know too much about it but in general I love this kind of approach.

    octoploid, this is great to hear! Changes like this do not need to be difficult ones and the standard is the right place to make them happen.

  8. jpfr, I haven’t used kcc at all recently, but the last time I used it, it was roughly comparable to TIS Interpreter.

    Toby, I think the right thing way to say it is: a free list quarantine can never cause false positives, and that the false negative rate approaches zero as the size of the quarantine approaches infinity.

    Hi Robert, in this article we’re mainly interested in solutions that apply to legacy code. I read your article in “Overload” and based on it, my understanding is that a fair amount of work will be required to port programs to use your library.

  9. John Doe: crank up the optimization on your favorite modern C compiler. Watch it eliminate a null check because an earlier read from the same pointer would have been undefined, therefor the compiler is free to assume it wasn’t null. Now ask yourself what assembler in the entire history of assemblers would behave that way.

  10. A few of these seem like things that *should* be amiable to stronger checks:

    – Does anyone have a checked-pointers implementation? (Have the compiler replace all pointers with a pointer/metadata-ID pair where the meta data has the span of addresses that can be assessed in a defined way and can be used to detect use-after-free/use-beyond-lifetime. It would be rater slow but it should be reasonably precise.)

    – Are there tools that can statically identify code that is *free* of unsequenced modifications? (Most unsequenced strings of operations have at most one modification so they can be trivially ignored, many of the rest will make modifications that are easy to prove are independent. A conservative checker could be rather valuable in a code review/audit.)

    – With the *san checks we do have, are there any tools (static, fuzzer, etc or some combination) that can identify code where the san-trap points are unreachable? (IIRC there has been some work on optimizing out *san checks on that sort of basis but, for reasons I’ve never understood, compilers seem to be allergic to adding a -Oi-dont-care-how-long-it-takes mode and don’t implement anything particularly computationally expensive, e.g. O(hours/TU), which the above would likely take.)

  11. James iry

    Usage of safe numbers legacy code, C code, etc will require almost no if any modification of that code. The only change required would be to substitute safe for int, safe for long etc. safe integer is a drop in replacement (almost) for built-in integers of all kinds.

    It does require a C++14 compiler. But legacy C code will also compile on this platform since C++ is backward compatible to C.

    In fact if you have a small microcontroller for which there is only a limited capability C compiler available. You can still benefit from it. You run your tests on your desktop with safe integer and the build for the target platform with whatever the target’s int is.

    This is the exact use case which led me to this. I needed to make very complex program work on a pic16 architecture. I had to make tests so I could debug on the desktop. In the course of this work – I made the first version of the safe integer library.

  12. With respect to UBSan and GCC folding integer arithmetic at compile, effectively bypassing UBSan: I don’t think it’s a significant problem since GCC can detect this statically instead. If you use the argumenhts:

    -Wall -Werror

    Then the program will fail to compile.

  13. Note that “Conversion to or from an integer type produces a value outside the range that can be represented (” is actually specifically about floating-point conversion to or from an integer type.
    Integer to integer conversions that produce a value outside the range that can be represented produce an implementation-defined result or result in an implementation-defined signal being raised.

  14. “Integer to integer conversions that produce a value outside the range that can be represented produce an implementation-defined result or result in an implementation-defined signal being raised”

    Hmmm – I’m not sure what you’re referring to here. In C/C++ assignment of a long to an int may produce a truncated value without any sort of exception or other error condition.

  15. Mr Ed, I understand your point, however:

    – every time I’ve tried to come up with a math overflow that isn’t caught by GCC at compile time or at runtime, I’ve been successful

    – if someone makes a tool for catching integer overflows, it should reliably catch integer overflows, this is just friendly tool design

  16. I have been quite impressed with the Swift language (memory safety, defined integer overflow) and wish more vendors would standardize it.

    But I have also wondered if c++11 provides enough support to emulate it, e.g. reference counted and snapshotted / copy on write (e.g. when iterating over it) data structures like vector that would be completely safe (but would require api changes and might not be a drop in for existing code). The saferc++ project looks promising but I’m not sure what “almost completely safe” means on their readme.

  17. Robert Ramey: Yes, that’s an example of “an implementation-defined result” (presuming your implementation actually does define that to be the result). Other implementations are allowed to say that the assignment of an out-of-range long value to an int causes a signal to be raised.

    It’s not UB, though.

  18. In my experience I also have 100s of higher level interfaces in the program that have some forms of undefined behavior by forbidding some inputs. Defining only the ones on the language level away will not help too much I fear.

  19. Spud: Regarding SaferCPlusPlus, “almost completely safe” essentially means memory-safe when used with other memory-safe elements of C/C++. Unlike other languages, SaferCPlusPlus has the dual roles of (ultimately) being a memory-safe dialect/subset of C++, but also as a library that can mix and interact with unsafe C++ elements to allow for incremental transition of existing legacy code.

    So for example, the SaferCPlusPlus element mse::mstd::vector is meant to be a drop-in replacement for std::vector. But that means that, like std::vector, mse::mstd::vector supports construction from a range specified by a start pointer and an end pointer. Because we’re talking about C++, those pointers could potentially point to anywhere in memory, including invalid memory. So using (unsafe native) pointers, it is possible to perform an unsafe construction of mse::mstd::vector.

    But if you stick to the memory-safe subset of C++, which excludes native pointers, then you don’t have that problem.

    You ask if C++11 is powerful enough to emulate Swift. I’m sure it is (give or take some syntax). But it is also powerful enough to “emulate” C++11 itself (mostly), but in a memory-safe way. SaferCPlusPlus is essentially that emulation. And not only does it have better performance[1] than an emulation of Swift would have, it has better performance than Swift itself. As far as I know, only Rust has comparable performance among memory-safe languages.

    [1] https://github.com/duneroadrunner/SaferCPlusPlus-BenchmarksGame

  20. About unaligned access, you write “Historically we have been complacent about this”. I don’t think that is true. On the PDP-11 where C started, unaligned accesses trap. So it does on the 680×0 and SPARC cpus, both used among others in Sun workstations, which made Unix popular because they were relatively cheap. Only since crappy pc hardware came in vogue, instead of real computers, this problem really exists on a large scale.

  21. How about working from the bottom-up? Given an executable binary B and source code C, can we prove that B lacks UndefinedBehavior while also proving B equals C, thus exonerating C transitively? (KLThompson pretty much asks this question inside 1984 “Reflections on Trusting Trust”.)

  22. Yes, no arguing on this one – overflows which jump over redzones will not be detected. I was just surprised by “ASan did not add any padding between a and b” claim.

  23. Many issues with UB could be resolved by having the Standard examine and answer the following for each of them:

    1. Should a piece of code have a recognized meaning for all platforms that support it?

    2. Should all platforms be required to honor such a meaning?

    3. Should platforms that cannot (or are not configured to) recognize and honor such a meaning be required to indicate that in some defined fashion?

    Presently, the Standard classifies as “UB” just about all constructs for which platforms are not required to specify a meaning, but for which some platforms might. Consequently, almost all programs which need any features that aren’t universally supported must go outside the jurisdiction of the Standard.

    If the Standard were to evaluate the above questions separately in cases involving UB, it could very practically expand the semantics available to programmers targeting common platforms and fields without imposing a significant burden on implementations targeting obscure ones. Further, while it would be difficult to define a set of programs that all conforming implementations would be required to process, it should be possible to define a set of programs (which I’d call “Selectively Conforming”) which all conforming implementations would be required to treat in defined fashion, even if such treatment could simply be to say “I can’t run this”.

    A major advantage of taking such an approach is that it would eliminate UB as a “quality of implementation” issue. At present, if a program nests function calls five billion deep, the Standard intentionally allows anything to happen. The Standard also allows anything to happen, however, if function calls are nested two deep. Quality implementations should of course support deeper nesting, but the Standard regards such matters purely as a QoI issue. If a program includes directives that demand solid behavioral guarantees, implementations that reliably trap stack overflow could accept such programs (if that would meet the program’s stated demands). Further, if the program includes directives sufficient to statically-validate stack usage, it could be accepted by implementations that can verify it and rejected by those that can’t. A low-quality-but-conforming implementation might reject all programs other than its One Program, but could never jump the rails when given any Selectively Conforming program.

  24. John, yes, it would be nice if WG14 would do this sort of thing, but I fear it would require a bigger cultural change than we’re likely to see.

  25. The C89 Standard appears to have been written with the presumption that if some implementations defined a behavior for an action and some didn’t, having the action invoke Undefined Behavior would preserve the status quo. The rationale for promoting small unsigned types to “int”, for example, observed that modern systems handled code like “uint1 = usmall1*usmall2;” in arithmetically-correct fashion even for results in the range INT_MAX+1u to UINT_MAX. I see no plausible reason they would have written down such an observation if they didn’t expect modern implementations to keep working that way.

    Some of the changes from C89 to C99 appear to have been driven by a similar presumptions. C89, for example, mandated that two’s-complement machines make -1 << 1 evaluate to -2 (which was good, since that's the only sensible answer) but mandated less sensible behaviors for ones'-complement and sign-magnitude machines. C99 reclassified such expressions as invoking UB, without (so far as I can tell) offering any justification. Allowing platforms where the existing behaviors were useless to do something better (e.g. treating signed left-shift as multiplication by 2**n) would seem a non-controversial improvement needing no justification. Inviting compilers to behave in wacky fashion, however, would seem another matter.

    If the WG14 is unwilling to recognize that most quality general-purpose implementations should define behaviors even in cases that might pose difficulty when targeting obscure targets or fields, then everyone else should recognize that the WG is desribing a specialized language which is not suitable for most of the purposes served by older dialects of C, and perhaps form a different body to standardize a language suitable for those other purposes.

  26. John, I agree with your position, and I suspect something like what you describe is what it would take. This is one path forward for C. The other path, which I think is more likely, is that we muddle forward without a substantially changed standard and make do with sanitizers to catch undefined behaviors. This second option is sort of fine for C code that is under active development or maintenance but it leaves us without a good story for legacy C that we’d like to keep running but don’t really want to touch. This code keeps getting broken when we upgrade the compiler.

  27. There is no reason that programmers in 2017 should be limited by the constraints of weird architectures to a greater extent than programmers in 1990. The Standard makes no effort to mandate that all implementations be suitable for all purposes, and programmers should not be expected to write code that will run on unsuitable implementations. That fact that some compiler writers assume “clever” and “stupid” are antonyms, and seem to take pride in writing implementations whose “clever”/stupid default modes are unsuitable for most purposes does not change that. Rather than bending over backward to accommodate unsuitable implementations, programmers should simply state their requirements and require that users employ a suitable compiler/mode.

    If a programmer needs a function which will compute (x*y)<z in cases where the multiply does not overflow, and in case of overflow will either yield 0 or 1 in arbitrary fashion with no side effect (except possibly setting an implementation-defined error flag, if one exists), or else raise a signal or terminate the program in implementation-defined fashion (if an implementation defines such actions), I would suggest that the most natural way of accomplishing that would be "(x*y)<z". Any decent implementation for a two's-complement silent-wraparound hardware should be able to honor such a guarantee without difficulty. and a really good one could safely perform optimizations on that code that wouldn't be possible if it were rewritten as (int)((unsigned)x*y)<z. The way to improve efficiency is not to have programmers bend over backward to accommodate "clever" (stupid) compilers, but instead have them target good ones.

    I think Annex-L "Analyzability" was on the right track, except that it is so vague about what can and cannot happen as to be almost useless, and spends a lot of verbiage suggesting an impractical signalling mechanism. An error flag with loose semantics, and separate ways of testing whether it has definitely been set, or definitely has not been set, would be far more practical. Such a flag could often offer much better efficiency than anything that could be done in user code (among other things, an overflow flag could be defined such it did not have to report overflows that would not affect program output, thus allowing a compiler on a 64-bit CPU with 32-bit "int" to compute a=b+c+d+e; by performing a 64-bit addition and checking at the end whether the result was in range, rather than having to check for overflow at each step).

    Incidentally, except when using -fno-strict-aliasing, gcc interprets the "common initial sequence" rule in a fashion contrary to the Standard, and has some aliasing bugs which are clearly not justifiable under any reading of the Standard. For example, given "long *p,*q; long long *r; … if (*p) { *r = 1; *q =* (long long*)q;} return *p;" behavior should be defined if p, q, and r identify the same storage and its effective type is initially "long". The storage will never be read with anything that doesn't match its Effective Type, but gcc will assume the assignment to *q won't do anything, and that *p cannot change between the first and second reads.

  28. On AMD64 and (since the 486) IA-32 you can turn on alignment checking by setting the AC flag. The only problem is to get the compilers and libraries to not generate unaligned accesses when the source code contains none (I tried, twice, and gave up both times).

    Undefining endless loops without I/O is interesting, because terminating programs are not strictly conforming C programs; this means that a large part of the remaining programs are not strictly conforming, either; in particular, it does not help to have an endless loop after performing the actual task to completion.

    Seeing the insanities that compiler maintainers justify with undefined behaviour, I cannot agree that undefining data races is a good idea. Admittedly, this is an area where this kind of insane thinking is also rampant among hardware engineers, but still, the effect of a data race is limited even on the most perverse hardware, and specifying these limits is a much better idea than undefining it. In a world where compiler writers are benign about undefined behaviour, we could be lax by not defining non-portable things, but we no longer live in such a world.

    Concerning what C or C++ developers should do: If you want to stick with these languages in the face of adverserial compilers, my recommendation is to use flags that define the behaviour, i.e., -fwrap -fno-strict-aliasing etc. And stick with your current, proven compiler version (where you know these flags) rather than downgrading to newer, worse versions of this compiler.

    Concerning the “C is a portable assembly language”, the rationale of the C standard says that the committee did not want “to preclude the use of C as a ‘high-level assembler’”. And it says:

    “Some of the facets of the spirit of C can be summarized in phrases like:

    * Trust the programmer.”

    So you denounce the spirit of C (as described by the C standard committee) as “tired maxims”. Hmm.

  29. I’m starting to think that standard should have some directions (more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules) on what UB practically will do (or more practically, what it will *not* do):

    – Code that would be “side effect free” other than the resulting value should remain so, preferably with the same constraints on the resulting value as a moved-from value.
    – Invocation of UB in code with side effect should not result in “new” side effect.
    – Data races should not result in side effect to locations other than those involved in the data race.
    – The compiler *is* free to assume potential UB are unreachable and exploit the assumed precondition.

  30. One problem with data races is that the Standard does not recognize any concept of “wobbly” values. Given something like: “p=q; … x=p; … y=p;”, there is no defined way in which x and y could receive different values if nothing changes “p” after the initial assignment. On the other hand, if a compiler can’t see any reason why “p” or “q” could change, it could reasonably optimize the code as “… x=q; … y=q;”, eliminating variable “p” altogether.

    It is much easier to say that unexpected changes to “q” will cause UB, than to specify the range of consequences that may occur. On the other hand, if code would work equally well with any combination of old and new values being stored into x and y, such an optimization might be useful *even q might change unexpectedly*; adding synchronization barriers would make the code less efficient than it could otherwise be.

    A helpful approach would be to add a directive which, given an lvalue that might hold any of several possible values, would force the implementation to behave as though it held one of them, chosen arbitrarily. Such a directive would allow programmers to keep programs “on the rails” while still allowing implementations far more freedom than if programmers had to avoid UB and couldn’t use such directives.

  31. My thoughts re: data races is that a program should act as-if it was executed and each data access returned some (un-restricted, possibly inconsistent) value. It shouldn’t end up doing something totally unrelated. (That is other than strangeness allowed by the “UB -> assumed-can’t-happen” rule.)

    Note that I still view any program with UB as a program with a bug that must be fixed. It is never acceptable for user code to depend on UB. My concern is that bugs are inevitable and the tool chains should strive to make debugging tractable and to limit issues (e.g. security exploits) in the face of bugs.

  32. Great post! Thanks, John and Pascal. Such articles should be written more often. Above, jpfr asked about kcc and John answered that tis and kcc are comparable. They indeed used to be comparable, when kcc was an academic project. In the meanwhile kcc became part of the commercial tool RV-Match (https://runtimeverification.com/match/), and a lot of effort has been put into its model to faithfully capture the ISO C11 standard.

    We have recently compared tis and kcc, and in terms of detecting undefined behavior, kcc appears to detect significantly more than tis. See https://runtimeverification.com/blog/?p=307 for details, or contact us at RV.