Undefined Behavior: Not Just for Programming Languages

This is an oldie but goodie. Start with this premise:
a = b
Multiply both sides by a:
a2 = ab
Subtract b2 from both sides:
a2 – b2 = ab – b2
Factor the left side:
(a + b)(a – b) = ab – b2
Factor the right side:
(a + b)(a – b) = b(a – b)
Divide both sides by (a – b) and cancel:
a + b = b
Substitute b for a:
b + b = b
Finally, let b = 1 and simplify:
2 = 1

I ran into this derivation when I was nine or ten years old and it made me deeply uneasy. The explanation, that you’re not allowed to divide by (a – b) because this term is equal to zero, seemed to raise more questions than it answered. How are we supposed to keep track of which terms are equal to zero? What if something is equal to zero but we don’t know it yet? What other little traps are lying out there, waiting to invalidate a derivation? This was one of many times where I noticed that in school they seemed willing to teach the easy version, and that the real world was never so nice, even in a subject like math where — you would think — everything is clean and precise.

Anyway, the point is that undefined behavior has been confusing people for well over a thousand years — we shouldn’t feel too bad that we haven’t gotten it right in programming languages yet.

Principles for Undefined Behavior in Programming Language Design

I’ve had a post with this title on the back burner for years but I was never quite convinced that it would say anything I haven’t said before. Last night I watched Chandler Carruth’s talk about undefined behavior at CppCon 2016 and it is good material and he says it better than I think I would have, and I wanted to chat about it a bit.

First off, this is a compiler implementor’s point of view. Other smart people, such as Dan Bernstein, have a very different point of view (but also keep in mind that Dan doesn’t believe compiler optimization is useful).

Chandler is not a fan of the term nasal demons, which he says is misleadingly hyperbolic, since the compiler isn’t going to maliciously turn undefined behavior (UB) into code for erasing your files or whatever. This is true, but Chandler leaves out the fact that our 28-year-long computer security train wreck (the Morris Worm seems like as good a starting point as any) has been fueled to a large extent by undefined behavior in C and (later) C++ code. In other words, while the compiler won’t emit system calls for erasing your files, a memory-related UB in your program will permit a random person on the Internet to insert instructions into your process that issue system calls doing precisely that. From this slightly broader point of view, nasal demons are less of a caricature.

The first main idea in Chandler’s talk is that we should view UB at the PL level as being analogous to narrow contracts on APIs. Let’s look at this in more detail. An API with a wide contract is one where you can issue calls in any order, and you can pass any arguments to API calls, and expect predictable behavior. One simple way that an API can have a wider contract is by quietly initializing library state upon the first call into the library, as opposed to requiring an explicit call to an init() function. Some libraries do this, but many libraries don’t. For example, an OpenSSL man page says “SSL_library_init() must be called before any other action takes place.” This kind of wording indicates that a severe obligation is being placed on users of the OpenSSL API, and failing to respect it would generally be expected to result in unpredictable behavior. Chandler’s goal in this first part of the talk is to establish the analogy between UB and narrow API contracts and convince us that not all APIs want to be maximally wide. In other words, narrow APIs may be acceptable when their risks are offset by, for example, performance advantages.

Coming back to programming languages (PL), we can look at something like the signed left shift operator as exposing an API. The signed left shift API in C and C++ is particularly narrow and while many people have by now internalized that it can trigger UB based on the shift exponent (e.g., 1 << -1 is undefined), fewer developers have come to terms with restrictions on the left hand argument (e.g., 0 << 31 is defined but 1 << 31 is not). Can we design a wide API for signed left shift? Of course! We might specify, for example, that the result is zero when the shift exponent is too large or is negative, and that otherwise the result is the same as if the signed left-hand argument was interpreted as unsigned, shifted in the obvious way, and then reinterpreted as signed.

At this point in the talk, we should understand that “UB is bad” is an oversimplification, that there is a large design space relating to narrow vs. wide APIs for libraries and programming language features, and that finding the best point in this design space is not straightforward since it depends on performance requirements, on the target platform, on developers’ expectations, and more. C and C++, as low-level, performance-oriented languages, are famously narrow in their choice of contracts for core language features such as pointer and integer operations. The particular choices made by these languages have caused enormous problems and reevaluation is necessary and ongoing. The next part of Chandler’s talk provides a framework for deciding whether a particular narrow contract is a good idea or not.

Chandler provides these four principles for narrow language contracts:

  1. Checkable (probabilistically) at runtime
  2. Provide significant value: bug finding, simplification, and/or optimization
  3. Easily explained and taught to programmers
  4. Not widely violated by existing code that works correctly and as intended

The first criterion, runtime checkability, is crucial and unarguable: without it, we get latent errors of the kind that continue to contribute to insecurity and that have been subject to creeping exploitation by compiler optimizations. Checking tools such as ASan, UBSan, and tis-interpreter reduce the problem of finding these errors to the problem of software testing, which is very difficult, but which we need to deal with anyhow since there’s more to programming than eliminating undefined behaviors. Of course, any property that can be checked at runtime can also be checked without running the code. Sound static analysis avoids the need for test inputs but is otherwise much more difficult to usefully implement than runtime checking.

Principle 2 tends to cause energetic discussions, with (typically) compiler developers strongly arguing that UB is crucial for high-quality code generation and compiler users equally strongly arguing for defined semantics. I find the bug-finding arguments to be the most interesting ones: do we prefer Java-style two’s complement integers or would we rather retain maximum performance as in C and C++ or mandatory traps as in Swift or a hybrid model as in Rust? Discussions of this principle tend to center around examples, which is mostly good, but is bad in that any particular example excludes a lot of other use cases and other compilers and other targets that are also important.

Principle 3 is an important one that tends to get neglected in discussions of UB. The intersection of HCI and PL is not incredibly crowded with results, as far as I know, though many of us have some informal experience with this topic because we teach people to program. Chandler’s talk contains a section on explaining signed left shift that’s quite nice.

Finally, Principle 4 seems pretty obvious.

One small problem you might have noticed is that there are undefined behaviors that fail one or more of Chandler’s criteria, that many C and C++ compiler developers will defend to their dying breath. I’m talking about things like strict aliasing and termination of infinite loops that violate (at least) principles 1 and 3.

In summary, the list of principles proposed by Chandler is excellent and, looking forward, it would be great to use it as a standard set of questions to ask about any narrow contract, preferably before deploying it. Even if we disagree about the details, framing the discussion is super helpful.

Solutions to Integer Overflow

Humans are typically not very good at reasoning about integers with limited range, whereas computers fundamentally work with limited-range numbers. This impedance mismatch has been the source of a lot of bugs over the last 50 years. The solution comes in multiple parts.

In most programming languages, the default integer type should be a bignum: an arbitrary-precision integer that allocates more space when needed. Efficient bignum libraries exist and most integers never end up needing more than one machine word anyway, except in domains like crypto. As far as I’m concerned, for ~95% of programming tasks integer overflow is a solved problem: it should never happen. The solution isn’t yet implemented widely enough, but happily there are plenty of languages such as Python that give bignums by default.

When performance and/or predictability is a major consideration, bignums won’t work and we’re stuck with fixed-width integers that wrap, trap, saturate, or trigger undefined behavior upon overflow. Saturation is a niche solution that we won’t discuss further. Undefined behavior is bad but at least it enables a few loop optimizations and also permits trapping implementations. Although wrapping is an extremely poor default, there are a few good things to say about it: wrapping is efficient, people have come to expect it, and it is a good match for a handful of application domains.

Swift is a modern programming language that traps instead of providing bignums, this is also a generally sensible behavior. Why not bignums? The About Swift web page says that Swift gives “the developer the control needed in a true systems programming language,” so perhaps the designers were worried about unpredictable allocations. I’d love to see a study of the performance of best-of-breed trapping and bignum implementations on important modern applications.

The Rust developers have adopted a hybrid solution where integer overflows trap in debug builds and wrap in optimized builds. This is pragmatic, especially since integer overflows do not compromise Rust’s memory safety guarantees. On the other hand, perhaps as MIR matures, Rust will gravitate towards checking in optimized builds.

For safety-critical programs, the solution to integer overflow is to prove that it cannot happen using some combination of manual reasoning, testing, and formal verification. SPARK Ada and the TrustInSoft analyzer are suitable for proving that integer overflows won’t occur. More work is needed to make this sort of verification scalable and less expert-intensive.

Systems programming tasks, such as building operating systems, language runtimes, and web browsers, are caught in the middle. Wrapping sucks, bignums and trapping are slow or at least perceived as slow (and you do not want to trap or allocate while handling a hardware interrupt anyway), and the codes are too large for formal verification and thorough testing. One answer is to work hard on making trapping fast. For example, Swift has a high-level optimization pass specifically for removing integer overflow checks, and then the LLVM optimization passes do more of this, and then the LLVM backends can lower checked math operations to efficient condition code checks, and then modern Intel processors fuse the resulting branch-on-overflow instructions away.

In summary, bignums should be the default whenever this is feasible, and trapping on overflow should be the backup default behavior. Continued work on the compilers and processors will ensure that the overhead of trapping overflow checks is down in the noise. Java-style wrapping integers should never be the default, this is arguably even worse than C and C++’s UB-on-overflow which at least permits an implementation to trap. In domains where wrapping, trapping, and allocation are all unacceptable, we need to be able to prove that overflow does not occur.

I’ll end up with a few random observations:

  • Dan Luu wrote a piece on the overhead of overflow checking.
  • Arbitrary (fixed) width bitvectors are a handy datatype and I wish more languages supported them. These can overflow but it’s not as big of a deal since we choose the number of bits.
  • Explicitly ranged integers as seen in Ada are also very nice, there’s no reason that traps should only occur at the 32-bit or 64-bit boundaries.
  • The formal verification community ignored integer overflow for far too long, there’s a long history of assuming that program integers behave like mathematical integers. Things are finally better though.

UPDATE: I didn’t want this piece to be about C and C++ but I should have clarified that it is only signed overflow in these languages that is undefined behavior; unsigned overflow is defined to be two’s complement wraparound. While it is possible to trap on unsigned overflow — UBSan has a flag that turns on these traps — this behavior does not conform to the standards. Even so, trapping unsigned wraparounds can — in some circumstances — be useful for finding software defects. The question is whether the wraparound was intentional or not.

Isolating a Free-Range Miscompilation

If we say that a compiler is buggy, we need to be able to back up that claim with reproducible, compelling, and understandable evidence. Usually, this evidence centers on a test case that triggers the buggy behavior; we’ll say something like “given this test case, compiler A produces an executable that prints 0 whereas compiler B produces an executable that prints 1, therefore there’s a bug.” (In practice compilers A and B are usually different versions or different optimization levels of the same compiler — this doesn’t matter.)

The problem is that when compilers A and B emit code that behaves differently, the divergence can happen for reasons other than compiler bugs:

  • the program might rely on undefined behavior (UB) or unspecified behavior,
  • the program might read non-constant data from its environment, for example by looking at the clock or at its process id,
  • the program might be concurrent and its output influenced by scheduling decisions.

A big part of convincing someone that the compiler is buggy is convincing them that the test program is free of problems such as these. Since concurrency and interactions with the environment are easy to spot, the problem is often undefined behavior. You can find a few examples in my previous post about invalid GCC bug reports.

This post is about partially automating the process of coming up with a small test case for a miscompilation bug. The bug that we’ll be studying shows up when you compile the latest version of GMP, 6.1.1, using Clang+LLVM revision 135022, from about five years ago. The bug itself is irrelevant and long fixed, I’m just using it to illustrate the process.

As a slight digression, I’ll add that out of the 90 versions of LLVM, spanning revisions 90,000-250,000, that I used to compile GMP (in its C-only mode, disabling use of assembly), only those in the 135,000-139,000 range miscompiled GMP 6.1.1, according to its test suite. The GMP web page says:

Most problems with GMP these days are due to problems not in GMP, but with the compiler used for compiling the GMP sources. This is a major concern to the GMP project, since an incorrect computation is an incorrect computation, whether caused by a GMP bug or a compiler bug. We fight this by making the GMP testsuite have great coverage, so that it should catch every possible miscompilation.

This is all well and good but GMP used to contain some integer undefined behaviors and my guess is that some of the apparent miscompilations were actually due to compiler exploitation of these UBs. Finding some evidence one way or the other about this might be a fun project for a student.

Anyway, back to our compiler bug. The process for isolating a test case is:

  1. Grab a failing unit test.
  2. Use tis-interpreter to verify that it is free of undefined behavior and anything else that might trigger non-deterministic execution.
  3. Use C-Reduce to create a minimal program triggering the bug.

This sounds really easy — and it would be if we were working with a tidy little test case generated by Csmith — but real software is messy and there are plenty of complications. Let’s get started. The unit test we’re using is called mpz_lucnum_ui. Here are the 128 C files that are required to run it.

A First Try

We have to choose what exactly to reduce. Usually we want to reduce preprocessed code, but given the painfully slow interestingness test that we have here (almost 40 seconds, argh) this is going to make very slow progress since C-Reduce would need to eliminate a lot of redundant included junk from each of the 128 files. So let’s rather reduce the files without preprocessing and see what happens.

I had to make a few easy changes to get the GMP files to go through tis-interpreter. In an ideal future, the GMP project (and everyone else) will ensure that their unit tests are clean with respect to tis-interpreter.

Finally we’re ready to run the reduction:

$ creduce ./test1.sh *.c

After a few days the reduction finishes, see the results here. 119 of the 128 C files have become empty and the remaining 9 files contain a total of about 5 KB of code. A bit more than 99% of the code has been eliminated. Perhaps surprisingly, C-Reduce has managed to eliminate all conditional compilation directives, but some #defines remain as do a few #includes.

We’ve succeeded in creating a modestly small test case, but it isn’t yet standalone (due to the includes) and really we would like everything to live in a single file. We can kill two birds with one stone by using CIL or Frama-C to merge the C files into a single compilation unit.

$ frama-c -print *.c > merged.c

The merged file isn’t quite buildable — there’s some junk at the top and there’s a minor problem handling a builtin — but this is easy to fix. You can find the result here. Unfortunately, the merged file doesn’t trigger the bug any longer. Either the testcase relied on separate compilation or else Frama-C’s rewriting of the source code perturbed things badly. That’s sort of a bummer. I could easily have omitted this part of the post, but I wanted to show the whole process here, including missteps.

A Second Try

This time we’ll preprocess and merge the 128 files first, and reduce second. Again, some manual patching was necessary since the merger doesn’t quite work. The result is an 800 KB compilation unit.

Again, the reduction goes slowly:

The final result is a bit less than 4 KB. It’s still too big to be easily understood. Since we’ve run up against the limits of our tooling, further reduction will have to be by hand. Since I’m not actually going to report this long-ago-fixed bug, I didn’t bother with this step. (Back before C-Reduce existed I did a lot of manual testcase reduction and while it was a somewhat satisfying and mindless activity, I ran out of patience for it.) But in any case, 4 KB of self-contained C code is quite manageable.

Is Undefined Behavior Checking Necessary?

Is it really necessary to worry about undefined behavior? In my experience, reducing a miscompilation while disregarding UB is roughly 100% likely to result in a testcase that misbehaves due to UB instead of triggering a compiler bug. Here you can see our interestingness test w/o the UB checking. If we run a reduction using it, the resulting 1 KB testcase (hacked a bit by hand so that we can use tis-interpreter to discover its fatal flaw) misbehaves via an out-of-bounds store:

$ tis-interpreter.sh merged.c
merged.c:53:[kernel] warning: Calling undeclared function cu. Old style K&R code?
[value] Analyzing a complete application starting at main
[value] Computing initial state
merged.c:11:[value] warning: during initialization of variable 'cm', size of type 'struct a []' cannot be
                 computed (Size of array without number of elements.)
merged.c:11:[kernel] imprecise size for variable cm
[value] Initial state computed
merged.c:51:[kernel] warning: out of bounds write. assert \valid(&cp->b);
                  stack: main
[value] Stopping at nth alarm
[value] user error: Degeneration occurred:
                    results are not correct for lines of code that can be reached from the degeneration point.

So we definitely need some sort of UB detection. But do we need something as heavyweight as tis-interpreter? I ran a few reductions using UBSan + ASan (see one of them here) and didn’t have good luck in getting a defined final testcase. The reduction kept introducing issues such as uninitialized storage and function declarators with empty parentheses and incompatible uses of function pointers, all of which can lead to real trouble. Most likely there is a combination of compilers and flags that would have let me run this reduction successfully but I ran out of energy to find it. UBSan and ASan and MSan are excellent but fundamentally they do not add up to a completely reliable UB detector.


More developers should:

  • Make sure unit tests go through tis-interpreter. Though not always practical (tis-interpreter doesn’t understand assembly or C++) this has many benefits since tis-interpreter implements very thorough checking. Also, when a change in compiler or compiler options breaks a test case that is clean with respect to tis-interpreter, the compiler can be blamed with high reliability.
  • Instead of working around compiler bugs, reduce and report them. This can be a lot of work but tools like tis-interpreter and C-Reduce make it easier and when these bugs get fixed life is better for everyone.

A Month of Invalid GCC Bug Reports, and How to Eliminate Some of Them

During July 2016 the GCC developers marked 38 bug reports as INVALID. Here’s the full list. They fall into these (subjective) categories:

  • 8 bug reports stemmed from undefined behavior in the test case (71753, 71780, 71803, 71813, 71885, 71955, 71957, 71746)
  • 1 bug report was complaining about UB exploitation in general (71892)
  • 15 bug reports came from a misunderstanding (or disagreement) about the non-UB semantics of a programming language, usually C++ but also C and Fortran (71786, 71788, 71794, 71804, 71809, 71890, 71914, 71939, 71963, 71967, 72580, 72750, 72761, 71844, 71772)
  • 4 bug reports stemmed from a misunderstanding of something besides the language semantics, such as command line flags (72736, 71729, 71995, 71777)
  • 5 bug reports were caused by an unrelated problem on the reporter’s system such as an out-of-memory error, a borked Cygwin installation, out-of-date files in a build tree, etc (71735, 71770, 71903, 71918, 71978)
  • 1 bug report was about a bug that the devs didn’t want to fix since it was in an inactive branch and had been fixed in all active branches (72051)
    4 bug reports didn’t end up demonstrating any reproducible problem (71940, 71944, 71986, 72076)

I’ve often thought that it would be nice for a compiler bug reporting system to be active instead of passively serving up files and discussions. An active bug reporting system would be able to run:

  • a wide variety of compiler versions,
  • the compiler’s output, and
  • tools for finding undefined behaviors.

Of course not all bug reports would be able to make use of these features. However, one can imagine that there is a significant subset of compiler bug reports where the reporter, cooperating with the system, would be able to conclusively demonstrate that the compiler crashes or generates wrong code. In cases where this cannot be demonstrated, the process of interacting with an active bug reporting system will help the reporter understand what the actual issue is without wasting a compiler developer’s time.

An active bug reporting system can run lots of experiments to determine how many compiler versions, how many target platforms, and how many optimization levels are affected by the bug. It can also determine which revision introduced the problem and who committed the breaking change — suggesting an initial owner for the bug. It can run a testcase reducer to make the program triggering the bug smaller. All of these things will help compiler developers prioritize among reported bugs. The system should also be able to automatically flag duplicate bug reports. When a bug stops reproducing, the bug reporting system will notice this and flag the PR as being ready to close, and could also help out by packaging up an addition to the regression test suite.


A few additional details. During July a total of 328 bugs were reported, ignoring those marked as spam. 143 of these were resolved: 22 as duplicates, 81 as fixed, 38 as invalid, 1 as wontfix, and 1 as worksforme. Out of the remaining 185 unresolved bugs, 15 are assigned, 86 are new, 1 is reopened, 74 are unconfirmed, and 9 are waiting.

I believe that an active bug reporting system will make many of these 290 non-invalid bug reports easier to deal with, as opposed to only helping with the invalid ones!

Note: In the initial version of this post I mentioned 36 invalid bugs, not 38, because I was only searching for bugs that were marked as resolved. Also searching for closed bugs brings the total to 38.

C-Reduce 2.5

In May we released C-Reduce 2.5 which builds against LLVM/Clang 3.8. New in this release:

  • Improved reduction of non-preprocessed C/C++ code. C-Reduce now includes #included files that are below a certain size and also uses unifdef to remove #ifdef/#endif pairs. Specialization of #define directives is not implemented yet.
  • Support for reducing multiple files at once. This is useful for reducing inputs that trigger LTO bugs or that are not preprocessed.
  • Support for reducing OpenCL files, contributed by the authors of this paper.
  • Improved output for creduce --help.
  • Lots of cleanups and bug fixes including a rewrite of the pass that removes groups of lines from a file.

Many thanks to those who contributed to this release!

Pointer Overflow Checking

Most programming languages have a lot of restrictions on the kinds of pointers that programs can create. C and C++ are unusually permissive in this respect: pointers to arbitrary objects and subobjects, usually all the way down to bytes, can be constructed. Consequently, most address computations can be expressed either in terms of integer arithmetic or pointer arithmetic. For example, a function based on array lookup:

void *memcpy(void *dst, const void *src, size_t n) {
  const char *s = src;
  char *d = dst;
  for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i)
    d[i] = s[i];
  return dst;

can just as easily be expressed in terms of pointers:

void *memcpy(void *dst, const void *src, size_t n) {
  const char *s = src;
  char *d = dst;
  while (n--)
    *d++ = *s++;
  return dst;

Idiomatic C tends to favor pointer-based code. For one thing, pointers are more expressive: a pointer can name any memory location while an integer index only makes sense when combined with a base address. Also, developers have a sense that the lower-level code will execute faster since it is closer to how the machine thinks. This may or may not be true: the tradeoffs are complex due to details of the semantics of pointers and integers, and also because different compiler optimizations will tend to fire for pointer code and integer code. Modern compilers can be pretty bright, at least for very simple codes: the version of GCC that I happen to be using for testing (GCC 5.3.0 at -O2) turns both functions above into exactly the same object code.

It is undefined behavior to perform pointer arithmetic where the result is outside of an object, with the exception that it is permissible to point one element past the end of an array:

int a[10];
int *p1 = a - 1; // UB
int *p2 = a; // ok
int *p3 = a + 9; // ok
int *p4 = a + 10; // ok, but can't be dereferenced
int *p5 = a + 11; // UB

Valgrind and ASan are intended to catch dereferences of invalid pointers, but not their creation or use in comparisons. UBSan catches the creation of invalid pointers in simple cases where bounds information is available, but not in the general case. tis-interpreter can reliably detect creation of invalid pointers.

A lot of C programs (I think it’s safe to say almost all non-trivial ones) create and use invalid pointers, and often they get away with it in the sense that C compilers usually give sensible results when illegal pointers are compared (but not, of course, dereferenced). On the other hand, when pointer arithmetic overflows, the resulting pointers can break assumptions being made in the code.

For the next part of this piece I’ll borrow some examples from a LWN article from 2008. We’ll start with a buffer length check implemented like this:

void awesome_length_check(unsigned len) {
  char *buffer_end = buffer + BUFLEN;
  if (buffer + len >= buffer_end)

Here the arithmetic for computing buffer_end is totally fine (assuming the buffer actually contains BUFLEN elements) but the subsequent buffer + len risks UB. Let’s look at the generated code for a 32-bit platform:

        cmpl    $100, 4(%esp)
        jl      .LBB0_1
        jmp     die_a_gory_death

In general, pointer arithmetic risks overflowing when either the base address lies near the end of the address space or when the offset is really big. Here the compiler has factored the pointer out of the computation, making overflow more difficult, but let’s assume that the offset is controlled by an attacker. We’ll need a bit of a driver to see what happens:

#include <limits.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

#define BUFLEN 100
char buffer[BUFLEN];

void die_a_gory_death(void) { abort(); }

void awesome_length_check(unsigned len) {
  char *buffer_end = buffer + BUFLEN;
  if (buffer + len >= buffer_end)

int main(void) {
  // volatile to suppress constant propagation
  volatile unsigned len = UINT_MAX;
  printf("length check went well\n");
  return 0;

And then:

$ clang -O -m32 -Wall ptr-overflow5.c
$ ./a.out 
length check went well
$ gcc-5 -O -m32 -Wall ptr-overflow5.c
$ ./a.out 
length check went well

The problem is that once the length check succeeds, subsequent code is going to feel free to process up to UINT_MAX bytes of untrusted input data, potentially causing massive buffer overruns.

One thing we can do is explicitly check for a wrapped pointer:

void awesome_length_check(unsigned len) {
  char *buffer_end = buffer + BUFLEN;
  if (buffer + len >= buffer_end ||
      buffer + len < buffer)

But this is just adding further reliance on undefined behavior and the LWN article mentions that compilers have been observed to eliminate the second part of the check. As the article points out, a better answer is to just avoid pointer arithmetic and do the length check on unsigned integers:

void awesome_length_check(unsigned len) {
  if (len >= BUFLEN)

The problem is that we can’t very well go and retrofit all the C code to use integer checks instead of pointer checks. We can, on the other hand, use compiler support to catch pointer overflows as they happen: they are always UB and never a good idea.

Will Dietz, one of my collaborators on the integer overflow checking work we did a few years ago, extended UBSan to catch pointer overflows and wrote a great blog post showing some bugs that it caught. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, these patches didn’t make it into Clang. The other day Will reminded me that they exist; I dusted them off and submitted them for review — hopefully they will get in this time around.

Recently I’ve been thinking about using UBSan for hardening instead of just bug finding. Android is doing this, for example. Should we use pointer overflow checking in production? I believe that after the checker has been thoroughly tested, this makes sense. Consider the trapping mode of this sanitizer:

clang -O3 -fsanitize=pointer-overflow -fsanitize-trap=pointer-overflow

The runtime overhead on SPEC CINT 2006 is about 5%, so probably acceptable for code that is security-critical but not performance-critical. I’m sure we can reduce this overhead with some tuning of the optimizers. The 400.perlbench component of SPEC 2006 contained two pointer overflows that I had to fix.

Pointer overflow isn’t one of the UBs that we can finesse away by adjusting the standard: it’s a real machine-level phenomenon that is hard to prevent without runtime checks.

There’s plenty more work we could do in this sanitizer, such as catching arithmetic involving null pointers.

Update: I built the latest releases of PHP and FFmpeg using the pointer overflow sanitizer and both of them execute pointer overflows while running their own test suites.