Computer Laboratory

Technical reports

Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions: CHERI Instruction-Set Architecture (Version 6)

Robert N. M. Watson, Peter G. Neumann, Jonathan Woodruff, Michael Roe, Jonathan Anderson, John Baldwin, David Chisnall, Brooks Davis, Alexandre Joannou, Ben Laurie, Simon W. Moore, Steven J. Murdoch, Robert Norton, Stacey Son, Hongyan Xia

April 2017, 307 pages

Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited. Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), under contracts FA8750-10-C-0237 (“CTSRD”) and FA8750-11-C-0249 (“MRC2”) as part of the DARPA CRASH and DARPA MRC research programs. The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this report are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official views or policies, either expressed or implied, of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Additional support was received from St John’s College Cambridge, the Google SOAAP Focused Research Award, the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub Grant (EP/G065802/1), the EPSRC REMS Programme Grant (EP/K008528/1), the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (EP/K503757/1), the Isaac Newton Trust, the UK Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), Thales E-Security, ARM Ltd, and HP Enterprise.


This technical report describes CHERI ISAv6, the sixth version of the Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions (CHERI) Instruction-Set Architecture (ISA) being developed by SRI International and the University of Cambridge. This design captures seven years of research, development, experimentation, refinement, formal analysis, and validation through hardware and software implementation. CHERI ISAv6 is a substantial enhancement to prior ISA versions: it introduces support for kernel-mode compartmentalization, jump-based rather than exception-based domain transition, architecture-abstracted and efficient tag restoration, and more efficient generated code. A new chapter addresses potential applications of the CHERI model to the RISC-V and x86-64 ISAs, previously described relative only to the 64-bit MIPS ISA. CHERI ISAv6 better explains our design rationale and research methodology.

CHERI is a hybrid capability-system architecture that adds new capability-system primitives to a commodity 64-bit RISC ISA enabling software to efficiently implement fine-grained memory protection and scalable software compartmentalization. Design goals have included incremental adoptability within current ISAs and software stacks, low performance overhead for memory protection, significant performance improvements for software compartmentalization, formal grounding, and programmer-friendly underpinnings. Throughout, we have focused on providing strong and efficient architectural foundations for the principles of least privilege and intentional use in the execution of software at multiple levels of abstraction, preventing and mitigating vulnerabilities.

The CHERI system architecture purposefully addresses known performance and robustness gaps in commodity ISAs that hinder the adoption of more secure programming models centered around the principle of least privilege. To this end, CHERI blends traditional paged virtual memory with an in-address-space capability model that includes capability registers, capability instructions, and tagged memory. CHERI builds on C-language fat-pointer literature: its capabilities describe fine-grained regions of memory and can be substituted for data or code pointers in generated code, protecting data and also improving control-flow robustness. Strong capability integrity and monotonicity properties allow the CHERI model to express a variety of protection properties, from enforcing valid C-language pointer provenance and bounds checking to implementing the isolation and controlled communication structures required for software compartmentalization.

CHERI’s hybrid capability-system approach, inspired by the Capsicum security model, allows incremental adoption of capability-oriented design: software implementations that are more robust and resilient can be deployed where they are most needed, while leaving less critical software largely unmodified, but nevertheless suitably constrained to be incapable of having adverse effects. Potential deployment scenarios include low-level software Trusted Computing Bases (TCBs) such as separation kernels, hypervisors, and operating-system kernels, as well as userspace TCBs such as language runtimes and web browsers. Likewise, we see early-use scenarios (such as data compression, protocol parsing, and image processing) that relate to particularly high-risk software libraries, which are concentrations of both complex and historically vulnerability-prone code exposed to untrustworthy data sources, while leaving containing applications unchanged.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Watson, Robert N. M. and Neumann, Peter G. and Woodruff,
          	  Jonathan and Roe, Michael and Anderson, Jonathan and
          	  Baldwin, John and Chisnall, David and Davis, Brooks and
          	  Joannou, Alexandre and Laurie, Ben and Moore, Simon W. and
          	  Murdoch, Steven J. and Norton, Robert and Son, Stacey and
          	  Xia, Hongyan},
  title = 	 {{Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions: CHERI
         	   Instruction-Set Architecture (Version 6)}},
  year = 	 2017,
  month = 	 apr,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-907}