x86-TSO: A Rigorous and Usable Programmer's Model for x86 Multiprocessors. Peter Sewell, Susmit Sarkar, Scott Owens, Francesco Zappa Nardelli, and Magnus O. Myreen. Communications of the ACM, 53(7):89--97, July 2010. (Research Highlights). [ bib | doi | pdf | http ]
Exploiting the multiprocessors that have recently become ubiquitous requires high-performance and reliable concurrent systems code, for concurrent data structures, operating system kernels, synchronisation libraries, compilers, and so on. However, concurrent programming, which is always challenging, is made much more so by two problems. First, real multiprocessors typically do not provide the sequentially consistent memory that is assumed by most work on semantics and verification. Instead, they have relaxed memory models, varying in subtle ways between processor families, in which different hardware threads may have only loosely consistent views of a shared memory. Second, the public vendor architectures, supposedly specifying what programmers can rely on, are often in ambiguous informal prose (a particularly poor medium for loose specifications), leading to widespread confusion.

In this paper we focus on x86 processors. We review several recent Intel and AMD specifications, showing that all contain serious ambiguities, some are arguably too weak to program above, and some are simply unsound with respect to actual hardware. We present a new x86-TSO programmer's model that, to the best of our knowledge, suffers from none of these problems. It is mathematically precise (rigorously defined in HOL4) but can be presented as an intuitive abstract machine which should be widely accessible to working programmers. We illustrate how this can be used to reason about the correctness of a Linux spinlock implementation and describe a general theory of data-race-freedom for x86-TSO. This should put x86 multiprocessor system building on a more solid foundation; it should also provide a basis for future work on verification of such systems.

 
A better x86 memory model: x86-TSO (extended version). Scott Owens, Susmit Sarkar, and Peter Sewell. Technical Report UCAM-CL-TR-745, University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory, March 2009. 52pp. [ bib | pdf ]
Real multiprocessors do not provide the sequentially consistent memory that is assumed by most work on semantics and verification. Instead, they have relaxed memory models, typically described in ambiguous prose, which lead to widespread confusion. These are prime targets for mechanized formalization. In previous work we produced a rigorous x86-CC model, formalizing the Intel and AMD architecture specifications of the time, but those turned out to be unsound with respect to actual hardware, as well as arguably too weak to program above. We discuss these issues and present a new x86-TSO model that suffers from neither problem, formalized in HOL4. We believe it is sound with respect to real processors, reflects better the vendor's intentions, and is also better suited for programming. We give two equivalent definitions of x86-TSO: an intuitive operational model based on local write buffers, and an axiomatic total store ordering model, similar to that of the SPARCv8. Both are adapted to handle x86-specific features. We have implemented the axiomatic model in our memevents tool, which calculates the set of all valid executions of test programs, and, for greater confidence, verify the witnesses of such executions directly, with code extracted from a third, more algorithmic, equivalent version of the definition.

 
A better x86 memory model: x86-TSO. Scott Owens, Susmit Sarkar, and Peter Sewell. In TPHOLs 2009. [ bib | doi | pdf | http ]
Real multiprocessors do not provide the sequentially consistent memory that is assumed by most work on semantics and verification. Instead, they have relaxed memory models, typically described in ambiguous prose, which lead to widespread confusion. These are prime targets for mechanized formalization. In previous work we produced a rigorous x86-CC model, formalizing the Intel and AMD architecture specifications of the time, but those turned out to be unsound with respect to actual hardware, as well as arguably too weak to program above. We discuss these issues and present a new x86-TSO model that suffers from neither problem, formalized in HOL4. We believe it is sound with respect to real processors, reflects better the vendor’s intentions, and is also better suited for programming. We give two equivalent definitions of x86-TSO: an intuitive operational model based on local write buffers, and an axiomatic total store ordering model, similar to that of the SPARCv8. Both are adapted to handle x86-specific features. We have implemented the axiomatic model in our memevents tool, which calculates the set of all valid executions of test programs, and, for greater confidence, verify the witnesses of such executions directly, with code extracted from a third, more algorithmic, equivalent version of the definition.

 
The Semantics of x86-CC Multiprocessor Machine Code. Susmit Sarkar, Peter Sewell, Francesco Zappa Nardelli, Scott Owens, Tom Ridge, Thomas Braibant, Magnus Myreen, and Jade Alglave. In POPL 2009. [ bib | doi | pdf ]
Multiprocessors are now dominant, but real multiprocessors do not provide the sequentially consistent memory that is assumed by most work on semantics and verification. Instead, they have subtle relaxed (or weak) memory models, usually described only in ambiguous prose, leading to widespread confusion.

We develop a rigorous and accurate semantics for x86 multiprocessor programs, from instruction decoding to relaxed memory model, mechanised in HOL. We test the semantics against actual processors and the vendor litmus-test examples, and give an equivalent abstract-machine characterisation of our axiomatic memory model. For programs that are (in some precise sense) data-race free, we prove in HOL that their behaviour is sequentially consistent. We also contrast the x86 model with some aspects of Power and ARM behaviour.

This provides a solid intuition for low-level programming, and a sound foundation for future work on verification, static analysis, and compilation of low-level concurrent code.