Quality RTOS & Embedded Software

Ensuring the Memory Safety of FreeRTOS Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed how FreeRTOS is addressing an important source of security issues — buffer overflows — by ensuring the memory safety of the TCP/IP, ARP, DHCP, DNS, and HTTPS header parsing in the FreeRTOS+TCP TCP/IP stack. We described how we’re using an automated reasoning technique, software model checking, and how the level of assurance that we obtain from the technique is different from what we could obtain through bug-finding tools.

In this follow-up, we’ll look at software model checking in more detail: giving you some intuition for the problem it solves and how software model checking tools tackle this problem in practice. Similar to other automated reasoning techniques, the goal of software model checking is to give a guarantee that a program is correct with respect to a specification. A specification is a property that the program must always adhere to (no matter what) such as never dereferencing a NULL pointer or writing-past the end of a buffer. In order to give this level of assurance, we need a way to effectively reason about every execution path through a program on every input, searching for executions that violate the specification.

Let’s start by characterizing the problem. The following diagram (reproduced from John Regehr’s talk “SQLite with a fine toothed comb” which we highly recommend), shows the state space of a program. A state is an assignment of the program’s variables to values. Think of a state as a snapshot of the program’s variables that you could examine if you stepped-through the program in a debugger. For example, in a program with two integer variables x and y and a pointer p, one possible state is (x=1, y=2, p=NULL). The state space is the space of possible states that the program might take. So in the diagram, the state space is any point within the box.

Continuing this analogy, an execution of the program is a path through the state space. In the diagram, one possible execution is shown as a series of white arrows with the particular states reached by the execution as white dots. This execution could, for example, be the result of running a unit test that starts with the state (x=0, y=0, p=NULL) and increments x four times to end with the state (x=4, y=0, p=NULL).

As programmers, we know that some states are desirable and some are not. Let’s make this more precise. First, the blue shape represents the feasible states of the program: ones that the program can reach by some execution. For example, imagine that the program saturates the values of x and y at 1024. In this case (x=1024, y=1024, p=NULL) is a feasible state (i.e., inside the blue shape) and (x=1024, y=1025, p=NULL) is an infeasible state (i.e., outside of the blue shape).

Secondly, let’s say an error state is any state that violates the specification, such as memory safety, that we are trying to prove. For example, the program might dereference p whenever some, perhaps complicated, condition over x and y holds. If p is also NULL then the state is an error state. In the second diagram, below, error states are represented by the collection of red shapes. Note that the existence of such erroneous states is not a problem. The key question is whether they are feasible as well.

With this setup, we can characterize a bug as an undesirable state that is both erroneous (red) and feasible (blue). The problem of finding all bugs can be seen as finding all states in the intersection of the red and blue shapes, such as in the bottom left corner. Put another way, the problem of proving the absence of a whole class of bugs is to show that no such states exist: that the red and blue shapes never intersect.

This sounds straightforward except (1) it is difficult to determine whether any arbitrary state is feasible or not, and (2) the number of states, even for modest programs, can be astronomical. For example, the simple program we’ve been considering throughout this post has only three variables but 2^32 * 2^32 * 2^32 different states (if each integer and the pointer are 32-bits). Thinking about all of the possible corner-cases of a program can be difficult even for expert programmers. Additionally, the program only gives us the reachable states implicitly. Hence, it is the job of an automated verification technique to reason about the state space efficiently.

How do software model checkers tackle this problem? The key idea is to translate the program into a logical formula that describes the set of feasible program states and specification. A logical formula is an expression that uses Boolean variables and other connectives, such as logical-and, logical-or and negation, and can be evaluated to true or false by giving each variable an assignment (of true or false). The translation is carefully constructed to ensure there is a correspondence between the formula and the feasible program states. In particular, if there is a solution, an assignment of the variables so that the formula evaluates to true, then this corresponds to a feasible program state that violates the specification. Conversely, if there are no solutions then this certifies that it is impossible for the program to reach an error state. The translation reduces the problem of finding bugs to solving a formula.

This problem of solving a Boolean formula is known as SAT. In principle, this is a famously intractable problem: the number of assignments grows exponentially, doubling with each variable in the formula. However, the automated reasoning community has built constraint solvers that are remarkably effective on the formulas encountered in practice. These SAT solvers (and SMT solvers, which allow for richer expressions involving features such as integers, arrays and strings) are the foundation of many automated reasoning tools, including software model checkers.

Thank you for joining me on this short tour under the hood of software model checking. We hope this article has given you more context about our proofs of memory safety in FreeRTOS. As we wrote in the first part, we are excited about pushing automated reasoning techniques even further to provide even stronger assurances to our customers and supporting a community of developers interested in adopting these techniques to develop high-quality code themselves.

About the author

Nathan Chong is a Principal Engineer with the Automated Reasoning Group at Amazon Web Services. His work focuses on the correctness of concurrent systems code, particularly at the hardware-software boundary.
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