The Cerberus C semantics. Kayvan Memarian. Technical Report UCAM-CL-TR-981, University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory, May 2023. PhD thesis. [ bib | doi | .pdf ]
The C programming language, has since its introduction fifty years ago, become central to our computing infrastructure. It would therefore be desirable to have a precise semantics, that in particular could serve as a reference for implementers of compiler, analysis tools, etc. The ISO standard that notionally defines C suffers from two issues. First, as an inevitable result of being written in prose, it is imprecise. Second, it does not really attempt to precisely define the memory model. These shortcomings leave C's many obscure corners open to differing interpretations, and this is especially apparent when it comes to the memory model. While system programmers often rely on a very concrete view of pointers (even more concrete than what the ISO standard actually offers), compiler implementers take a more abstract view. Some optimisations, in particular ones based on alias analysis, reason about how pointer values are constructed during the program execution instead of only considering their representation, and perform transformations that would not be sound with respect to a concrete view of memory.

In this thesis, we present Cerberus, an executable model for a substantial fragment of C11. The dynamics of C is expressed as a compositional translation to a purpose-built language called Core. With this semantics by elaboration, we make the subtleties of C's expressions and statements explicit in the form of syntax in the Core representation. For these aspects of the semantics of C, the existing ISO standard has remained in agreement with de facto practice, and our model follows it. The elaboration allows for a model of the dynamics that is relatable to the ISO prose, and that is tractable despite the complexity of C.

For the memory model, as the de facto standards do not exist as coherent specifications that we could formalise, we opted at the start of this work for an empirical study of the design space for a realistic memory model. We surveyed the mainstream practice in C system programming and the assumptions made by compiler implementers. From this study and through engagement with WG14, the working group authoring the ISO standard, we have designed a family of memory models where pointer values have a provenance. At the time of writing one of these models is being published in collaboration with some members of WG14 as a ISO technical specification to accompany the standard.

We have dedicated significant effort in the executability of the model, both in term of performance and the scope of our frontend, which allows Cerberus to be used on medium scale off-the-self C programs with only limited amount of modification.

With this work we show that by suitably tailoring the target language, a semantics by elaboration produces a tractable definition of a large fragment of C.

RefinedC: Automating the Foundational Verification of C Code with Refined Ownership Types. Michael Sammler, Rodolphe Lepigre, Robbert Krebbers, Kayvan Memarian, Derek Dreyer, and Deepak Garg. In PLDI 2021. [ bib | pdf ]
Given the central role that C continues to play in systems software, and the difficulty of writing safe and correct C code, it remains a grand challenge to develop effective formal methods for verifying C programs. In this paper, we propose a new approach to this problem: a type system we call RefinedC, which combines ownership types (for modular reasoning about shared state and concurrency) with refinement types (for encoding precise invariants on C data types and Hoare-style specifications for C functions).

RefinedC is both automated (requiring minimal user intervention) and foundational (producing a proof of program correctness in Coq), while at the same time handling a range of low-level programming idioms such as pointer arithmetic. In particular, following the approach of RustBelt, the soundness of the RefinedC type system is justified semantically by interpretation into the Coq-based Iris framework for higher-order concurrent separation logic. However, the typing rules of RefinedC are also designed to be encodable in a new “separation logic programming” language we call Lithium. By restricting to a carefully chosen (yet expressive) fragment of separation logic, Lithium supports predictable, automatic, goal-directed proof search without backtracking. We demonstrate the effectiveness of RefinedC on a range of representative examples of C code.