The semantics of pointers and memory objects in C has been a vexed question for many years. C values cannot be treated as either purely abstract or purely concrete entities: the language exposes their representations, but compiler optimisations rely on analyses that reason about provenance and initialisation status, not just runtime representations. The ISO WG14 standard leaves much of this unclear, and in some respects differs with de facto standard usage --- which itself is difficult to investigate.
In this paper we explore the possible source-language semantics for memory objects and pointers, in ISO C and in C as it is used and implemented in practice, focussing especially on pointer provenance. We aim to, as far as possible, reconcile the ISO C standard, mainstream compiler behaviour, and the semantics relied on by the corpus of existing C code. We present two coherent proposals, tracking provenance via integers and not; both address many design questions. We highlight some pros and cons and open questions, and illustrate the discussion with a library of test cases. We make our semantics executable as a test oracle, integrating it with the Cerberus semantics for much of the rest of C, which we have made substantially more complete and robust, and equipped with a web-interface GUI. This allows us to experimentally assess our proposals on those test cases. To assess their viability with respect to larger bodies of C code, we analyse the changes required and the resulting behaviour for a port of FreeBSD to CHERI, a research architecture supporting hardware capabilities, which (roughly speaking) traps on the memory safety violations which our proposals deem undefined behaviour. We also develop a new runtime instrumentation tool to detect possible provenance violations in normal C code, and apply it to some of the SPEC benchmarks. We compare our proposal with a source-language variant of the twin-allocation LLVM semantics proposal of Lee et al. Finally, we describe ongoing interactions with WG14, exploring how our proposals could be incorporated into the ISO standard.
C remains central to our computing infrastructure. It is notionally defined by ISO standards, but in reality the properties of C assumed by systems code and those implemented by compilers have diverged, both from the ISO standards and from each other, and none of these are clearly understood.
We make two contributions to help improve this error-prone situation. First, we describe an in-depth analysis of the design space for the semantics of pointers and memory in C as it is used in practice. We articulate many specific questions, build a suite of semantic test cases, gather experimental data from multiple implementations, and survey what C experts believe about the de facto standards. We identify questions where there is a consensus (either following ISO or differing) and where there are conflicts. We apply all this to an experimental C implemented above capability hardware. Second, we describe a formal model, Cerberus, for large parts of C. Cerberus is parameterised on its memory model; it is linkable either with a candidate de facto memory object model, under construction, or with an operational C11 concurrency model; it is defined by elaboration to a much simpler Core language for accessibility, and it is executable as a test oracle on small examples.
This should provide a solid basis for discussion of what mainstream C is now: what programmers and analysis tools can assume and what compilers aim to implement. Ultimately we hope it will be a step towards clear, consistent, and accepted semantics for the various use-cases of C.