Department of Computer Science and Technology

Technical reports

Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions: CHERI Instruction-set architecture

Robert N.M. Watson, Peter G. Neumann, Jonathan Woodruff, Jonathan Anderson, David Chisnall, Brooks Davis, Ben Laurie, Simon W. Moore, Steven J. Murdoch, Michael Roe

April 2014, 131 pages

Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), under contract FA8750-10-C-0237 (“CTSRD”) as part of the DARPA CRASH research program. 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 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or the Department of Defense. Portions of this work were sponsored by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub grant, EP/G065802/1. Portions of this work were sponsored by Google, Inc.

DOI: 10.48456/tr-850


This document describes the rapidly maturing design for the Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions (CHERI) Instruction-Set Architecture (ISA), which is being developed by SRI International and the University of Cambridge. The document is intended to capture our evolving architecture, as it is being refined, tested, and formally analyzed. We have now reached 70% of the time for our research and development cycle.

CHERI is a hybrid capability-system architecture that combines new processor primitives with the commodity 64-bit RISC ISA enabling software to efficiently implement fine-grained memory protection and a hardware-software object-capability security model. These extensions support incrementally adoptable, high-performance, formally based, programmer-friendly underpinnings for fine-grained software decomposition and compartmentalization, motivated by and capable of enforcing the principle of least privilege. 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 a per-address-space capability model that includes capability registers, capability instructions, and tagged memory that have been added to the 64-bit MIPS ISA via a new capability coprocessor.

CHERI’s hybrid approach, inspired by the Capsicum security model, allows incremental adoption of capability-oriented software 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. For example, we are focusing conversion efforts on low-level TCB components of the system: separation kernels, hypervisors, operating system kernels, language runtimes, and userspace TCBs such as web browsers. Likewise, we see early-use scenarios (such as data compression, image processing, and video processing) that relate to particularly high-risk software libraries, which are concentrations of both complex and historically vulnerability-prone code combined with untrustworthy data sources, while leaving containing applications unchanged.

This report describes the CHERI architecture and design, and provides reference documentation for the CHERI instruction-set architecture (ISA) and potential memory models, along with their requirements. It also documents our current thinking on integration of programming languages and operating systems. Our ongoing research includes two prototype processors employing the CHERI ISA, each implemented as an FPGA soft core specified in the Bluespec hardware description language (HDL), for which we have integrated the application of formal methods to the Bluespec specifications and the hardware-software implementation.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Watson, Robert N.M. and Neumann, Peter G. and Woodruff,
          	  Jonathan and Anderson, Jonathan and Chisnall, David and
          	  Davis, Brooks and Laurie, Ben and Moore, Simon W. and
          	  Murdoch, Steven J. and Roe, Michael},
  title = 	 {{Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions: CHERI
         	   Instruction-set architecture}},
  year = 	 2014,
  month = 	 apr,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  doi = 	 {10.48456/tr-850},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-850}