Department of Computer Science and Technology

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Rigorous engineering for hardware security: formal modelling and proof in the CHERI design and implementation process

Kyndylan Nienhuis, Alexandre Joannou, Anthony Fox, Michael Roe, Thomas Bauereiss, Brian Campbell, Matthew Naylor, Robert M. Norton, Simon W. Moore, Peter G. Neumann, Ian Stark, Robert N. M. Watson, Peter Sewell

September 2019, 38 pages

This work was supported by EPSRC programme grant EP/K008528/1 (REMS: Rigorous Engineering for Mainstream Systems). This work was supported by a Gates studentship (Nienhuis). This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement 789108). This work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), under contracts FA8750-10-C-0237 (CTSRD), HR0011-18-C-0016 (ECATS), and FA8650-18-C-7809 (CIFV). The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this paper 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. Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.

DOI: 10.48456/tr-940


The root causes of many security vulnerabilities include a pernicious combination of two problems, often regarded as inescapable aspects of computing. First, the protection mechanisms provided by the mainstream processor architecture and C/C++ language abstractions, dating back to the 1970s and before, provide only coarse-grain virtual-memory-based protection. Second, mainstream system engineering relies almost exclusively on test-and-debug methods, with (at best) prose specifications. These methods have historically sufficed commercially for much of the computer industry, but they fail to prevent large numbers of exploitable bugs, and the security problems that this causes are becoming ever more acute.

In this paper we show how more rigorous engineering methods can be applied to the development of a new security-enhanced processor architecture, with its accompanying hardware implementation and software stack. We use formal models of the complete instruction-set architecture (ISA) at the heart of the design and engineering process, both in lightweight ways that support and improve normal engineering practice – as documentation, in emulators used as a test oracle for hardware and for running software, and for test generation – and for formal verification. We formalise key intended security properties of the design, and establish that these hold with mechanised proof. This is for the same complete ISA models (complete enough to boot operating systems), without idealisation.

We do this for CHERI, an architecture with hardware capabilities that supports fine-grained memory protection and scalable secure compartmentalisation, while offering a smooth adoption path for existing software. CHERI is a maturing research architecture, developed since 2010, with work now underway to explore its possible adoption in mass-market commercial processors. The rigorous engineering work described here has been an integral part of its development to date, enabling more rapid and confident experimentation, and boosting confidence in the design.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Nienhuis, Kyndylan and Joannou, Alexandre and Fox, Anthony
          	  and Roe, Michael and Bauereiss, Thomas and Campbell, Brian
          	  and Naylor, Matthew and Norton, Robert M. and Moore, Simon
          	  W. and Neumann, Peter G. and Stark, Ian and Watson, Robert
          	  N. M. and Sewell, Peter},
  title = 	 {{Rigorous engineering for hardware security: formal
         	   modelling and proof in the CHERI design and implementation
  year = 	 2019,
  month = 	 sep,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  doi = 	 {10.48456/tr-940},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-940}