Computer Laboratory

Technical reports

Dynamic binary analysis and instrumentation

Nicholas Nethercote

November 2004, 177 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted November 2004 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Trinity College.


Dynamic binary analysis (DBA) tools such as profilers and checkers help programmers create better software. Dynamic binary instrumentation (DBI) frameworks make it easy to build new DBA tools. This dissertation advances the theory and practice of dynamic binary analysis and instrumentation, with an emphasis on the importance of the use and support of metadata.

The dissertation has three main parts.

The first part describes a DBI framework called Valgrind which provides novel features to support heavyweight DBA tools that maintain rich metadata, especially location metadata—the shadowing of every register and memory location with a metavalue. Location metadata is used in shadow computation, a kind of DBA where every normal operation is shadowed by an abstract operation.

The second part describes three powerful DBA tools. The first tool performs detailed cache profiling. The second tool does an old kind of dynamic analysis—bounds-checking—in a new way. The third tool produces dynamic data flow graphs, a novel visualisation that cuts to the essence of a program’s execution. All three tools were built with Valgrind, and rely on Valgrind’s support for heavyweight DBA and rich metadata, and the latter two perform shadow computation.

The third part describes a novel system of semi-formal descriptions of DBA tools. It gives many example descriptions, and also considers in detail exactly what dynamic analysis is.

The dissertation makes six main contributions.

First, the descriptions show that metadata is the key component of dynamic analysis; in particular, whereas static analysis predicts approximations of a program’s future, dynamic analysis remembers approximations of a program’s past, and these approximations are exactly what metadata is.

Second, the example tools show that rich metadata and shadow computation make for powerful and novel DBA tools that do more than the traditional tracing and profiling.

Third, Valgrind and the example tools show that a DBI framework can make it easy to build heavyweight DBA tools, by providing good support for rich metadata and shadow computation.

Fourth, the descriptions are a precise and concise way of characterising tools, provide a directed way of thinking about tools that can lead to better implementations, and indicate the theoretical upper limit of the power of DBA tools in general.

Fifth, the three example tools are interesting in their own right, and the latter two are novel.

Finally, the entire dissertation provides many details, and represents a great deal of condensed experience, about implementing DBI frameworks and DBA tools.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Nethercote, Nicholas},
  title = 	 {{Dynamic binary analysis and instrumentation}},
  year = 	 2004,
  month = 	 nov,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-606}