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Ada updated to support undefined behavior

April 1st, 2016 No comments

The Ada language has now almost completely disappeared from developer consciousness and the Ada Standards’ committee has decided this desperate situation calls for desperate actions.

Undefined behavior in programming languages has been getting a lot of publicity over the last few years. It might not be good publicity, but the Ada committee has taken to heart the old adage ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’

While the Ada standard does not use the phrase undefined behavior, it does contain a very close equivalent. The Ada community has bitten the bullet and decreed that constructs previously denoted by the term bounded error shall henceforth be referred to as undefined behavior. Technically, constructs generating a bounded error have effectively always been undefined behavior, but the original positioning of Ada as a sophisticated language suitable for critical applications required something less in-your-face unsafe sounding.

Will this minor change of wording (ISO rules are very strict on what changes can be made to published standards without going through long winded voting procedures) make any difference? I guess it will enable Ada users to jump on the ‘undefined behavior’ bandwagon (their claims that Ada was better because it did not contain undefined behavior always has the effect of annoying people, rather than generating any interest in changing languages).

I think there is a bigger public perception problem than the terminology used to denote undefined behavior. Ada Lovelace was born 200 years ago and gets lots of publicity as the first programmer; somehow this association with Lovelace has transferred to the language named after her, generating a perception of an old, fuddy-duddy language (being strongly typed has not helped, but this feature does appear to be coming back into fashion).

The following are some numbers from a while ago (both standards have been revised since these measurements were made).

In the Ada 2005 Standard there are:

36 occurrences of bounded error.
53 occurrences of the subsection header Erroneous execution and 116 occurrences of erroneous.
343 occurrences of implementation-defined.
373 occurrences of may, some of which describe optional behavior.
22 occurrences of must some of which that read as-if shall was intended.
38 occurrences of optional.
zero occurrences of processor dependent and processor-dependent.
1,018 occurrences of shall of which 131 have the form shall not.
452 occurrences of should.
8 occurrences of undefined, one referencing to an undefined range, three having the form undefined
range and the rest occurring in annexes (also see bounded error).
• 89 occurrences of unspecified.

In the C99 Standard there are:

zero occurrences of bounded error.
3 occurrences of erroneous.
163 occurrences of implementation-defined.
862 occurrences of may.
1 occurrence of must.
34 occurrences of optional.
zero occurrences of processor dependent and processor-dependent.
596 occurrences of shall of which 71 have the form shall not.
63 occurrences of should.
183 occurrences of undefined.
98 occurrences of unspecified.

In the C++ 2003 Standard (which now contains many more pages) there are:

zero occurrences of bounded error.
5 occurrences of erroneous.
236 occurrences of implementation-defined.
371 occurrences of may.
111 occurrences of must.
30 occurrences of optional.
zero occurrences of processor dependent and processor-dependent.
779 occurrences of shall of which 211 have the form shall not.
38 occurrences of should.
195 occurrences of undefined.
113 occurrences of unspecified.

undefined behavior: pay up or shut up

August 31st, 2014 2 comments

Academia recently discovered undefined behavior in C, twenty five years after industry tool vendors first started trying to help developers catch the problems it causes. Some of the tools that are now being written are doing stuff that we could only dream about back in the day.

The forces that morph occurrences of undefined behavior in source code to unwanted behavior during program execution have changed over the years.

  • When developers paid for their compilers there was an incentive for compiler writers to try to be nice to developers by doing the right thing for undefined behaviors. Twenty five years ago there were lots of commercial compilers all having slightly different views about what the right thing might be; a lot of code was regularly ported to different compilers and got to encounter different compiler writer’s views.
  • These days there is widespread use of open source compilers, which developers don’t pay for, removing the incentive for compilers writers to be nice to developers. Paying customers want support for new processors, enhancements to existing generated code quality and the sexy topic for PhDs is code optimization; what better climate for treating source containing undefined behavior as road kill. Now developers only need to upgrade to a later release of the compiler they are using to encounter an unexpected handling of undefined behavior.

A recent blog post, authored by some of the academics alluded to above, proposes adding a new option to gcc: -std=friendly-c. If developers feel that this kind of option needs to be supported then they should contribute to a crowdfunding campaign (none exists at the time of writing) to raise, say, $500,000 towards supporting the creation and ongoing support for the functionality behind this option. Of course one developer’s friendly is another developer’s unfriendly, so we could end up with multiple funds each promoting an option that supports a view of the world that is specific to one target environment.

At the moment, in response to user complaints, Open source compiler vendors lamely point out that the C standard permits them to handle source containing undefined behaviors the way they do; they stop short of telling people to quit complaining and that they are getting the compiler for free.

If this undefined behavior issue starts to gain substantial publicity, but insufficient funding, open source compiler vendors will need to start putting a positive spin on the decisions they make. Not being in marketing I might have a problem keeping a straight face when giving the following positive messages:

  • We are helping to save the world: optimized programs use less power (ok, every now and again they can use more). Do you really want to stop us adding more optimizations just because you cannot find the time to fix a mistake in your code?
  • We are helping your application gain market share. Applications that are not actively maintained are less and less likely to continue to work with every release of the compiler.

Only compiler vendor customers, not its users, count

January 23rd, 2013 3 comments

The hardest thing about working on compilers is getting somebody to pay you to do it (its a close run race against having the cpu instructions chop and change under you during initial development, but that’s another story). The major shift of compiler vendor business model from proprietary to open source has significant implications for users of compilers. Note I said user not customer, only one of them pays money. Under the commercial model there was usually a very direct connection between compiler user and customer (even in large organizations users rather than the manager who makes the purchase decision are often regarded by vendors as the customer), while under the Open source model most users are not customers (paying money for a distribution does not make you a customer of the people maintaining the compiler who probably don’t receive any of the money you spent).

Like all good businesses compiler vendors don’t want to make their customers unhappy. There is one way guaranteed to make all customers so unhappy that they will remember the experience for years; ship a new compiler release that breaks their existing code (this usually happens because their is a previously undetected bug in the code or because use is being made of an implemented defined/undefined part of the language {the compiler gets to decide what to do when it encounters such code}). Not breaking existing customer code is priority ONE in any commercial compiler development group.

Proprietary vendors have so many customers its almost impossible for them to know in advance what changes will break existing code and the only option is to be ultra conservative about adding new code optimizations (new optimizations can so easily change how source containing undefined behavior is processed). Ultra conservative is the polite term, management paranoia would be more accurate. There is another advantage to vendors for not breaking their customers’ code, they are protected against competition by new market entrants; a new vendor with a shiny go faster compiler doing all the optimizations the existing vendor was not willing to do in case it broke existing code will quickly find out that the performance improvements they offer are rarely big enough to tempt potential customers to switch compilers. Really, the only time companies switch compiler is when they have to port to a new platform to make a sale or their existing vendor goes bust.

Open source vendors (e.g., those commercially involved in support/maintenance of gcc or llvm) have relatively few customers (e.g., big companies paying them lots of money for specific reasons) and as always these customers want existing code to continue to work. If the customer is paying for a code generator for a previously unsupported processor then there probably isn’t any existing code for that processor; it is a fact of life that porting source to a new processor always involves work. Some Linux distributors (e.g., Suse and Redhat) are customers in the sense that they pay the salary of developers who spend a lot of their time in compiler maintenance/upgrades and presumably work to try and ensure that the code in their respective Linux distributions does not get broken.

Compiler users who are not customers don’t count on the code breakage front (well, count for very very little, if an update broke lots of different developers’ code and enough fuss was made there might well be an update than unbroke the previous one).

What can a user do if code that used to work ok is broken when compiled with a later version of the compiler? The obvious answer is to continue using the older version that produces the desired behavior, fixing the code causing the problem is a better answer (but might involve a lot of work). There is no point in flaming the compiler developers, you are not contributing towards their upkeep; Open source does not give users the consideration that a customer enjoys.

Undefined behavior can travel back in time

July 12th, 2012 4 comments

The committee that produced the C Standard tried to keep things simple and sometimes made very short general statements that relied on compiler writers interpreting them in a ‘reasonable’ way. One example of this reliance on ‘reasonable’ behavior is the definition of undefined behavior; “… erroneous program construct or of erroneous data, for which this International Standard imposes no requirements”. The wording in the Standard permits a compiler to process the following program:

int main(int argc, char **argv)
{
// lots of code that prints out useful information
 
1 / 0;  // divide by zero, undefined behavior
}

to produce an executable that prints out “yah boo sucks”. Such behavior would probably be surprising to the developer who expected the code printing the useful information to be executed before the divide by zero was encountered. The phrase quality of implementation is heard a lot in committee discussions of this kind of topic, but this phrase does not appear in any official document.

A modern compiler is essentially a sophisticated domain specific data miner that happens to produce machine code as output and compiler writers are constantly looking for ways to use the information extracted to minimise the code they generate (minimal number of instructions or minimal amount of runtime). The following code is from the Linux kernel and its authors were surprised to find that the “division by zero” messages did not appear when arg2 was 0, in fact the entire if-statement did not appear in the generated code; based on my earlier example you can probably guess what the compiler has done:

if (arg2 == 0)
   ereport(ERROR, (errcode(ERRCODE_DIVISION_BY_ZERO),
                                             errmsg("division by zero")));
/* No overflow is possible */
PG_RETURN_INT32((int32)arg1 / arg2);

Yes, it figured out that when arg2 == 0 the divide in the call to PG_RETURN_INT32 results in undefined behavior and took the decision that the actual undefined behavior in this instance would not include making the call to ereport which in turn made the if-statement redundant (smaller+faster code, way to go!)

There is/was a bug in Linux because of this compiler behavior. The finger of blame could be pointed at:

  • the developers for not specifying that the function ereport does not return (this would enable the compiler to deduce that there is no undefined behavior because the divide is never execute when arg2 == 0),
  • the C Standard committee for not specifying a timeline for undefined behavior, e.g., program behavior does not become undefined until the statement containing the offending construct is encountered during program execution,
  • the compiler writers for not being ‘reasonable’.

In the coming years more and more developers are likely to encounter this kind of unexpected behavior in their programs as compilers do more and more data mining and are pushed to improve performance. Other examples of this kind of behavior are given in the paper Undefined Behavior: Who Moved My Code?

What might be done to reduce the economic cost of the fallout from this developer ignorance/standard wording/compiler behavior interaction? Possibilities include:

  • developer education: few developers are aware that a statement containing undefined behavior can have an impact on the execution of code that occurs before that statement is executed,
  • change the wording in the Standard: for many cases there is no reason why the undefined behavior be allowed to reach back in time to before when the statement executing it is executed; this does not mean that any program output is guaranteed to occur, e.g., the host OS might delete any pending output when a divide by zero exception occurs.
  • paying gcc/llvm developers to do front end stuff: nearly all gcc funding is to do code generation work (I don’t know anything about llvm funding) and if the US Department of Homeland security are interested in software security they should fund related front end work in gcc and llvm (e.g., providing developers with information about suspicious usage in the code being compiled; the existing -Wall is a start).

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).

Build an ISO Standard and the world will beat a path to your door

December 16th, 2010 No comments

An email I received today, announcing the release of version 1.0 of the GNU Modula-2 compiler, reminded me of some plans I had to write something about a proposal to add some new definitions to the next version of the ISO C Standard.

In the 80s I was heavily involved in the Pascal community and some of the leading members of this community thought that the successor language designed by Niklaus Wirth, Modula-2, ought to be the next big language. Unfortunately for them this view was not widely shared and after much soul searching it was decided that the lack of an ISO standard for the language was responsible for holding back widespread adoption. A Modula-2 ISO Standard was produced and, as they say, the rest is history.

The C proposal involves dividing the existing definition undefined behavior into two subcategories; bounded undefined behavior and critical undefined behavior. The intent is to provide guidance to people involved with software assurance. My long standing involvement with C means that I find the technical discussions interesting; I have to snap myself out of getting too involved in them with the observation that should the proposals be included in the revised C Standard they will probably have the same impact as the publication of the ISO Standard had on Modula-2 usage.

The only way for changes to an existing language standard to have any impact on developer usage is for them to require changes to existing compiler behavior or to specify additional runtime library functionality (e.g., Extensions to the C Library Part I: Bounds-checking interfaces).