Team, Visitors, External Collaborators
Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
Highlights of the Year
New Software and Platforms
New Results
Bilateral Contracts and Grants with Industry
Partnerships and Cooperations
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Section: Research Program

Scientific Foundations

Program analysis

A fundamental goal of the research in the Whisper team is to elicit and exploit the knowledge found in existing code. To do this in a way that scales to a large code base, systematic methods are needed to infer code properties. We may build on either static [36], [38], [40] or dynamic analysis [58], [60], [65]. Static analysis consists of approximating the behavior of the source code from the source code alone, while dynamic analysis draws conclusions from observations of sample executions, typically of test cases. While dynamic analysis can be more accurate, because it has access to information about actual program behavior, obtaining adequate test cases is difficult. This difficulty is compounded for infrastructure software, where many, often obscure, cases must be handled, and external effects such as timing can have a significant impact. Thus, we expect to primarily use static analyses. Static analyses come in a range of flavors, varying in the extent to which the analysis is sound, i.e., the extent to which the results are guaranteed to reflect possible run-time behaviors.

One form of sound static analysis is abstract interpretation [38]. In abstract interpretation, atomic terms are interpreted as sound abstractions of their values, and operators are interpreted as functions that soundly manipulate these abstract values. The analysis is then performed by interpreting the program in a compositional manner using these abstracted values and operators. Alternatively, dataflow analysis [49] iteratively infers connections between variable definitions and uses, in terms of local transition rules that describe how various kinds of program constructs may impact variable values. Schmidt has explored the relationship between abstract interpretation and dataflow analysis [73]. More recently, more general forms of symbolic execution [36] have emerged as a means of understanding complex code. In symbolic execution, concrete values are used when available, and these are complemented by constraints that are inferred from terms for which only partial information is available. Reasoning about these constraints is then used to prune infeasible paths, and obtain more precise results. A number of works apply symbolic execution to operating systems code [33], [34].

While sound approaches are guaranteed to give correct results, they typically do not scale to the very diverse code bases that are prevalent in infrastructure software. An important insight of Engler et al. [42] was that valuable information could be obtained even when sacrificing soundness, and that sacrificing soundness could make it possible to treat software at the scales of the kernels of the Linux or BSD operating systems. Indeed, for certain types of problems, on certain code bases, that may mostly follow certain coding conventions, it may mostly be safe to e.g., ignore the effects of aliases, assume that variable values are unchanged by calls to unanalyzed functions, etc. Real code has to be understood by developers and thus cannot be too complicated, so such simplifying assumptions are likely to hold in practice. Nevertheless, approaches that sacrifice soundness also require the user to manually validate the results. Still, it is likely to be much more efficient for the user to perform a potentially complex manual analysis in a specific case, rather than to implement all possible required analyses and apply them everywhere in the code base. A refinement of unsound analysis is the CEGAR approach [37], in which a highly approximate analysis is complemented by a sound analysis that checks the individual reports of the approximate analysis, and then any errors in reasoning detected by the sound analysis are used to refine the approximate analysis. The CEGAR approach has been applied effectively on device driver code in tools developed at Microsoft  [25]. The environment in which the driver executes, however, is still represented by possibly unsound approximations.

Going further in the direction of sacrificing soundness for scalability, the software engineering community has recently explored a number of approaches to code understanding based on techniques developed in the areas of natural language understanding, data mining, and information retrieval. These approaches view code, as well as other software-reated artifacts, such as documentation and postings on mailing lists, as bags of words structured in various ways. Statistical methods are then used to collect words or phrases that seem to be highly correlated, independently of the semantics of the program constructs that connect them. The obliviousness to program semantics can lead to many false positives (invalid conclusions) [55], but can also highlight trends that are not apparent at the low level of individual program statements. We have previously explored combining such statistical methods with more traditional static analysis in identifying faults in the usage of constants in Linux kernel code [53].

Domain Specific Languages

Writing low-level infrastructure code is tedious and difficult, and verifying it is even more so. To produce non-trivial programs, we could benefit from moving up the abstraction stack to enable both programming and proving as quickly as possible. Domain-specific languages (DSLs), also known as little languages, are a means to that end [6] [61].

Traditional approach.

Using little languages to aid in software development is a tried-and-trusted technique [75] by which programmers can express high-level ideas about the system at hand and avoid writing large quantities of formulaic C boilerplate.

This approach is typified by the Devil language for hardware access [8]. An OS programmer describes the register set of a hardware device in the high-level Devil language, which is then compiled into a library providing C functions to read and write values from the device registers. In doing so, Devil frees the programmer from having to write extensive bit-manipulation macros or inline functions to map between the values the OS code deals with, and the bit-representation used by the hardware: Devil generates code to do this automatically.

However, DSLs are not restricted to being “stub” compilers from declarative specifications. The Bossa language [7] is a prime example of a DSL involving imperative code (syntactically close to C) while offering a high-level of abstraction. This design of Bossa enables the developer to implement new process scheduling policies at a level of abstraction tailored to the application domain.

Conceptually, a DSL both abstracts away low-level details and justifies the abstraction by its semantics. In principle, it reduces development time by allowing the programmer to focus on high-level abstractions. The programmer needs to write less code, in a language with syntax and type checks adapted to the problem at hand, thus reducing the likelihood of errors.

Embedding DSLs.

The idea of a DSL has yet to realize its full potential in the OS community. Indeed, with the notable exception of interface definition languages for remote procedure call (RPC) stubs, most OS code is still written in a low-level language, such as C. Where DSL code generators are used in an OS, they tend to be extremely simple in both syntax and semantics. We conjecture that the effort to implement a given DSL usually outweighs its benefit. We identify several serious obstacles to using DSLs to build a modern OS: specifying what the generated code will look like, evolving the DSL over time, debugging generated code, implementing a bug-free code generator, and testing the DSL compiler.

Filet-o-Fish (FoF) [39] addresses these issues by providing a framework in which to build correct code generators from semantic specifications. This framework is presented as a Haskell library, enabling DSL writers to embed their languages within Haskell. DSL compilers built using FoF are quick to write, simple, and compact, but encode rigorous semantics for the generated code. They allow formal proofs of the run-time behavior of generated code, and automated testing of the code generator based on randomized inputs, providing greater test coverage than is usually feasible in a DSL. The use of FoF results in DSL compilers that OS developers can quickly implement and evolve, and that generate provably correct code. FoF has been used to build a number of domain-specific languages used in Barrelfish, [26] an OS for heterogeneous multicore systems developed at ETH Zurich.

The development of an embedded DSL requires a few supporting abstractions in the host programming language. FoF was developed in the purely functional language Haskell, thus benefiting from the type class mechanism for overloading, a flexible parser offering convenient syntactic sugar, and purity enabling a more algebraic approach based on small, composable combinators. Object-oriented languages – such as Smalltalk [43] and its descendant Pharo [30] – or multi-paradigm languages – such as the Scala programming language [63] – also offer a wide range of mechanisms enabling the development of embedded DSLs. Perhaps suprisingly, a low-level imperative language – such as C – can also be extended so as to enable the development of embedded compilers [27].

Certifying DSLs.

Whilst automated and interactive software verification tools are progressively being applied to larger and larger programs, we have not yet reached the point where large-scale, legacy software – such as the Linux kernel – could formally be proved “correct”. DSLs enable a pragmatic approach, by which one could realistically strengthen a large legacy software by first narrowing down its critical component(s) and then focus our verification efforts onto these components.

Dependently-typed languages, such as Coq or Idris, offer an ideal environment for embedding DSLs [35], [31] in a unified framework enabling verification. Dependent types support the type-safe embedding of object languages and Coq's mixfix notation system enables reasonably idiomatic domain-specific concrete syntax. Coq's powerful abstraction facilities provide a flexible framework in which to not only implement and verify a range of domain-specific compilers [39], but also to combine them, and reason about their combination.

Working with many DSLs optimizes the “horizontal” compositionality of systems, and favors reuse of building blocks, by contrast with the “vertical” composition of the traditional compiler pipeline, involving a stack of comparatively large intermediate languages that are harder to reuse the higher one goes. The idea of building compilers from reusable building blocks is a common one, of course. But the interface contracts of such blocks tend to be complex, so combinations are hard to get right. We believe that being able to write and verify formal specifications for the pieces will make it possible to know when components can be combined, and should help in designing good interfaces.

Furthermore, the fact that Coq is also a system for formalizing mathematics enables one to establish a close, formal connection between embedded DSLs and non-trivial domain-specific models. The possibility of developing software in a truly “model-driven” way is an exciting one. Following this methodology, we have implemented a certified compiler from regular expressions to x86 machine code [48]. Interestingly, our development crucially relied on an existing Coq formalization, due to Braibant and Pous, [32] of the theory of Kleene algebras.

While these individual experiments seem to converge toward embedding domain-specific languages in rich type theories, further experimental validation is required. Indeed, Barrelfish is an extremely small software compared to the Linux kernel. The challenge lies in scaling this methodology up to large software systems. Doing so calls for a unified platform enabling the development of a myriad of DSLs, supporting code reuse across DSLs as well as providing support for mechanically-verified proofs.