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Archive for May, 2012

Would you buy second hand software from a formal methods researcher?

May 23rd, 2012 No comments

I have been reading a paper on formally proving software correct (Bridging the Gap: Automatic Verified Abstraction of C by Greenaway, Andronick and Klein) and as often the case with papers on this topic the authors have failed to reach the level of honest presentation required by manufacturers of soap power in their adverts.

The Greenaway et al paper describes a process that uses a series of translation steps to convert a C program into what is claimed to be a high level specification in Isabelle/HOL (a language+support tool for doing formal proofs).

The paper was published by an Australian research group; I could not find an Australian advertising standards code dealing with soap power but did find one covering food and beverages. Here is what the Australian Association of National Advertisers has to say in their Food & Beverages Advertising & Marketing Communications Code:

“2.1 Advertising or Marketing Communications for Food or Beverage Products shall be truthful and honest, shall not be or be designed to be misleading or deceptive or otherwise contravene Prevailing Community Standards, and shall be communicated in a manner appropriate to the level of understanding of the target audience of the Advertising or Marketing Communication with an accurate presentation of all information…”

So what claims and statements do Greenaway et al make?

2.1 “Before code can be reasoned about, it must first be translated into the theorem prover.” A succinct introduction to one of the two main tasks, the other being to prove the correctness of these translations.

“In this work, we consider programs in C99 translated into Isabelle/HOL using Norrish’s C parser … As the parser must be trusted, it attempts to be simple, giving the most literal translation of C wherever possible.”

“As the parser must be trusted”? Why must it be trusted? Oh, because there is no proof that it is correct, in fact there is not a lot of supporting evidence that the language handled by Norrish’s translator is an faithful subset of C (ok, for his PhD Norrish wrote a formal semantics of a subset of C; but this is really just a compiler written in mathematics and there are umpteen PhDs who have written compilers for a subset of C; doing it using a mathematical notation does not make it any more fault free).

The rest of the paper describes how the output of Norrish’s translator is generally massaged to make it easier for people to read (e.g., remove redundant statements and rename variables).

Then we get to the conclusion which starts by claiming: “We have presented a tool that automatically abstracts low-level C semantics into higher-level specifications with automatic proofs of correctness for each of the transformation steps.”

Oh no you didn’t. There is no proof for the main transformation step of C to Isabelle/HOL. The only proofs described in the paper are for the post processing fiddling about that was done after the only major transformation step.

And what exactly is this “high-level specification”? The output of the Norrish translator was postprocessed to remove the clutter that invariably gets generated in any high-level language to high-level language translator. Is the result of this postprocessing a specification? Surely it is just a less cluttered representation of the original C?

Actually this paper does contain a major advance in formally proving software correct, tucked away at the start it says “As the parser must be trusted…”. There it is in black and white, if you have some software that must be trusted don’t bother with formal proofs just simply follow the advice given here.

But wait a minute you say, I am ignoring the get out of jail wording “… shall be communicated in a manner appropriate to the level of understanding of the target audience …”. What is the appropriate level of understanding of the target audience, in fact who is the target audience? Is the target audience other formal methods researchers who are familiar with the level of intellectual honesty within their field and take claims made by professional colleagues with a pinch of salt? Are non-formal methods researchers not the target audience and so have no redress to being misled by the any claims made by papers in this field?

Undefined behavior is a design decision

May 14th, 2012 No comments

Every few years or so some group of people in the C/C++ community start writing about the constructs specified as having undefined behavior in those languages. A topic that always seems to be skipped is why a language committee would choose to specify that the behavior in a particular case was undefined.

A quick refresher for readers on the definition of Undefined behavior, from the C Standard: “behavior, upon use of a nonportable or erroneous program construct or of erroneous data, for which this International Standard imposes no requirements”. The two key features are that the behavior applies when an error has occurred and any behavior whatsoever is permitted after one of these errors occurs. Examples of constructs that have undefined behavior are divide by zero, the result of an arithmetic operation on a signed value not being representable in its type (i.e., overflowing) and indexing an array outside of its defined bounds.

The point to note about all undefined behaviors is that the C/C++ language committee could have chosen to specify the behavior that a conforming implementation is required to support. Some language specifications do attempt to explicitly define the behavior for all constructs, e.g., Java, while other languages have a smaller set of undefined behaviors (e.g., Ada, which uses the term Bounded error instead of undefined behavior; there are 35 of them in Ada 2005). To understand why languages take these different approaches we need to look at the language design aims.

The design aims of C included it being implementable for any processor and for the generated code to be efficient (I’m not sure to what extent these might still be major design aims for C++). Computing systems come in all shapes and sizes, some with hundreds of bytes of memory and others with gigabytes, some raise exceptions when certain operations occur while others set processor status flags and others don’t do anything special.

A willingness to accept whatever behavior happens to occur, in an error situation, is the price that has to be paid for efficient execution on a wide range of disparate processors. The C/C++ designers were willing to pay this price while while the Java designers were not, with the Ada designers willing to tolerate less variability than C/C++.

Undefined behavior need not be nasty behavior, an implementation could chose to generate a helpful message or try to recover from it.

There are C tools and compilers (when certain options are specified) that check, at runtime, for various kinds of undefined behavior. I am in the minority in having Boundschecker installed as my default C compiler (as the name suggests it checks that array and pointer accesses to an object are within the defined bounds); for reasons I don’t understand few C/C++ developers are willing to use tools like this. For production code I use a non-boundschecking compiler; I don’t know whether Ada programs are tested with the mandated bounds checking switched on and then have it switched off for the production version (this is what Pascal developers do, in my experience). Of course Java developers have no choice but to permanently live with checking turned on.

The number of companies that make a living selling runtime checking tools is a small percentage of the number of companies based on selling static analysis tools. There continues to be a steady stream of runtime checking tools appearing and quickly disappearing, but until a developers start being sent to jail for faults in their code I don’t foresee the market growing.

Optimizations to figure out when code need not be generated to perform a bounds check because the access is known to be within bounds is an active research area. These days the performance penalty is not so much executing the checking instructions but the disruption to the instruction pipeline caused by the branches that might be taken (if the bounds check fails).

The cost of all the checking required by Java is that the minimal permitted configuration requires at least 256K of memory (Oracle’s K virtual machine, used by the Java Micro Edition which is intended for embedded systems, also makes floating-point optional and allows implementations some freedom in how some constructs are handled). So the Java motto really out to be “Write once, run anywhere with at least 256K and don’t depend on floating-point”.

I have heard stories of Ada code being liberally scattered with various forms of unchecked (how the developer tells the compiler not to do any runtime checking) but have not seen any empirical analysis (a study of goto usage in Ada did not have any trouble finding plenty of uses to analyze).

EU rules that computer languages cannot be copyrighted

May 2nd, 2012 7 comments

The European Court of Justice has published its decision in SAS v WPL; the title of the press release says it all “The functionality of a computer program and the programming language cannot be protected by copyright”. To summarise the background, World Programming Ltd developed a system that was capable of emulating the input/output behavior of programs written in what the SAS Institute Inc were claiming to be their copyrighted scripting language, along with various file formats.

According to the Court of Justice, “the Court holds that neither the functionality of a computer program nor the programming language and the format of data files used in a computer program in order to exploit certain of its functions constitute a form of expression. Accordingly, they do not enjoy copyright protection.”

This EU ruling is not quiet what it seems. The SAS v WPL case is before the High Court in London and the EU Court of Justice has been asked for advice based on European Law. So the UK dispute has not yet been decided, but given that the UK is signed up to adhere by EU laws people who know about the legal stuff seem to think the High Court in London will follow the EU ruling. Assuming this, then…

This ruling is not just bad news for SAS, it is also bad news for their competitors. Competition is likely to lead to better/cheaper products for users of the SAS language, resulting in less incentive for them to move to an alternative (the R language included; incidentally what exactly are The R Foundation for Statistical Computing claiming copyright over in that notice that pops up when R is started?)

The Oracle vs. Google Java API lawsuit involves similar territory. There are plenty of details over at Groklaw and I’m not going to go there.

This ruling makes it much more likely that behave-alike implementations of more ‘corporate languages’ will be created, at least in Europe. Previously the threat of a lawsuit would have been enough to deter most people, irrespective of whether what they wanted to do was legal or not.

What languages might we see implemented any time soon? The one that immediately springs to mind for me is Mathematica, which is the leader in its field and a fork of Maxima that supported the Mathematica language would move it out of the ghetto. Octave and Matlab are already very close, so no change there.

I imagine there are corporate languages scattered over every conceivable application domain. A lot of these domains will be sufficiently specialized that there is a very low probability of somebody creating an open source implementation; if it looks like there is money to be made it has become more likely that an alternative commercial implementation will be created.

It looks like being a compiler writer is back as flavor of the month again :-)