Department of Computer Science and Technology

Technical reports

Complete spatial safety for C and C++ using CHERI capabilities

Alexander Richardson

June 2020, 189 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted October 2019 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Emmanuel College.

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”) and HR0011-18-C-0016 (“ECATS”) as part of the DARPA CRASH and SSITH research programs.

The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this report are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

This work was supported in part by HP Enterprise, Arm Limited and Google, Inc.

Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited.


Lack of memory safety in commonly used systems-level languages such as C and C++ results in a constant stream of new exploitable software vulnerabilities and exploit techniques. Many exploit mitigations have been proposed and deployed over the years, yet none address the root issue: lack of memory safety. Most C and C++ implementations assume a memory model based on a linear array of bytes rather than an object-centric view. Whilst more efficient on contemporary CPU architectures, linear addresses cannot encode the target object, thus permitting memory errors such as spatial safety violations (ignoring the bounds of an object). One promising mechanism to provide memory safety is CHERI (Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions), which extends existing processor architectures with capabilities that provide hardware-enforced checks for all accesses and can be used to prevent spatial memory violations. This dissertation prototypes and evaluates a pure-capability programming model (using CHERI capabilities for all pointers) to provide complete spatial memory protection for traditionally unsafe languages.

As the first step towards memory safety, all language-visible pointers can be implemented as capabilities. I analyse the programmer-visible impact of this change and refine the pure-capability programming model to provide strong source-level compatibility with existing code. Second, to provide robust spatial safety, language-invisible pointers (mostly arising from program linkage) such as those used for functions calls and global variable accesses must also be protected. In doing so, I highlight trade-offs between performance and privilege minimization for implicit and programmer-visible pointers. Finally, I present CheriSH, a novel and highly compatible technique that protects against buffer overflows between fields of the same object, hereby ensuring that the CHERI spatial memory protection is complete.

I find that the byte-granular spatial safety provided by CHERI pure-capability code is not only stronger than most other approaches, but also incurs almost negligible performance overheads in common cases (0.1% geometric mean) and a worst-case overhead of only 23.3% compared to the insecure MIPS baseline. Moreover, I show that the pure-capability programming model provides near-complete source-level compatibility with existing programs. I evaluate this based on porting large widely used open-source applications such as PostgreSQL and WebKit with only minimal changes: fewer than 0.1% of source lines.

I conclude that pure-capability CHERI C/C++ is an eminently viable programming environment offering strong memory protection, good source-level compatibility and low performance overheads.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Richardson, Alexander},
  title = 	 {{Complete spatial safety for C and C++ using CHERI
  year = 	 2020,
  month = 	 jun,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-949}