Up Next

Chapter 1  CompCert C: a trustworthy compiler

Traduttore, traditore   (“Translator, traitor”)
(Italian proverb)

CompCert C is a compiler for the C programming language. Its intended use is the compilation of life-critical and mission-critical software written in C and meeting high levels of assurance. It accepts almost all of the ISO C 99 and ANSI C languages, with some exceptions and a few extensions. It produces machine code for the PowerPC, ARM, x86 and RISC-V architectures. Performance of the generated code is decent but not outstanding: on PowerPC, about 90% of the performance of GCC version 4 at optimization level 1.

What sets CompCert C apart from any other production compiler, is that it is formally verified, using machine-assisted mathematical proofs, to be exempt from miscompilation issues. In other words, the executable code it produces is proved to behave exactly as specified by the semantics of the source C program. This level of confidence in the correctness of the compilation process is unprecedented and contributes to meeting the highest levels of software assurance. In particular, using the CompCert C compiler is a natural complement to applying formal verification techniques (static analysis, program proof, model checking) at the source code level: the correctness proof of CompCert C guarantees that all safety properties verified on the source code automatically hold as well for the generated executable.

1.1  Can you trust your compiler?

Compilers are complicated pieces of software that implement delicate algorithms. Bugs in compilers do occur and can cause incorrect executable code to be silently generated from a correct source program. In other words, a buggy compiler can insert bugs in the programs that it compiles. This phenomenon is called miscompilation.

Several empirical studies demonstrate that many popular production compilers suffer from miscompilation issues. For example, in 1995, the authors of the Nullstone C conformance test suite reported that

Nullstone isolated defects [in integer division] in twelve of twenty commercially available compilers that were evaluated. (http://www.nullstone.com/htmls/category/divide.htm)

A decade later, E. Eide and J. Regehr showed similar sloppiness in C compilers, this time concerning volatile memory accesses:

We tested thirteen production-quality C compilers and, for each, found situations in which the compiler generated incorrect code for accessing volatile variables. This result is disturbing because it implies that embedded software and operating systems — both typically coded in C, both being bases for many mission-critical and safety-critical applications, and both relying on the correct translation of volatiles — may be being miscompiled. [3]

More recently, Yang et al generalized their testing of C compilers and, again, found many instances of miscompilation:

We created a tool that generates random C programs, and then spent two and a half years using it to find compiler bugs. So far, we have reported more than 325 previously unknown bugs to compiler developers. Moreover, every compiler that we tested has been found to crash and also to silently generate wrong code when presented with valid inputs. [13]

For non-critical, “everyday” software, miscompilation is an annoyance but not a major issue: bugs introduced by the compiler are negligible compared to those already present in the source program. The situation changes dramatically, however, for safety-critical or mission-critical software, where human lives, critical infrastructures, or highly-sensitive information are at stake. There, miscompilation is a non-negligible risk that must be addressed by additional, difficult and costly verification activities such as extra testing and code reviews of the generated assembly code.

An especially worrisome aspect of the miscompilation problem is that it weakens the usefulness of formal, tool-assisted verification of source programs. Increasingly, the development process for critical software includes the use of formal verification tools such as static analyzers, deductive verifiers (program provers), and model checkers. Advanced verification tools are able to automatically establish valuable safety properties of the program, such as the absence of run-time errors (no out-of-bound array accesses, no arithmetic overflows, etc). However, most of these tools operate at the level of C source code. A buggy compiler has the potential to invalidate the safety guarantees provided by source-level formal verification, producing an incorrect executable that crashes or misbehaves from a formally-verified source program.

1.2  Formal verification of compilers

The CompCert project puts forward a radical, mathematically-grounded solution to the miscompilation problem: the formal, tool-assisted verification of the compiler itself. By applying program proof techniques to the source code of the compiler, we can prove, with mathematical certainty, that the executable code produced by the compiler behaves exactly as specified by the semantics of the source C program, therefore ruling out all risks of miscompilation [7].

Compiler verification, as outlined above, is not a new idea: the first compiler correctness proof (for the translation of arithmetic expressions to a stack machine) was published in 1967 [9], then mechanized as early as 1972 using the Stanford LCF proof assistant [10]. Since then, compiler verification has been the topic of much academic research. The CompCert project carries this line of work all the way to a complete, realistic, optimizing compiler than can be used in the production of critical embedded software systems.

Semantic preservation

The formal verification of CompCert consists in proving the following theorem, which we take as the high-level specification of a correct compiler:

Semantic preservation theorem:
For all source programs S and compiler-generated code C,
if the compiler, applied to the source S, produces the code C,
without reporting a compile-time error,
then the observable behavior of C improves on one of the allowed observable behaviors of S.

In CompCert, this theorem has been proved, with the help of the Coq proof assistant, taking S to be abstract syntax trees for the CompCert C language (after preprocessing, parsing, type-checking and elaboration), and C to be abstract syntax trees for the assembly-level Asm language (before assembling and linking). (See section 1.3 for more details.)

There are three noteworthy points in the statement of semantic preservation above:

What are observable behaviors?

In a nutshell, they include everything the user of the program, or the physical world in which it executes, can “see” about the actions of the program, with the notable exception of execution time and memory consumption. More precisely, we follow the ISO C standards in considering that we can observe:

The observable behavior of a program is, therefore, a trace of all I/O and volatile operations it performs, plus an indication of whether it terminates and how it terminates (normally or on an error).

How do we define the possible behaviors of a source or executable program?

This is the purpose of a formal semantics for the corresponding languages. A formal semantics is a mathematically-defined relation between programs and their possible behaviors. Several such semantics are defined as part of CompCert’s verification, including one for the CompCert C language and one for the Asm language (assembly code for each of the supported target platforms). These semantics can be viewed as mathematically-precise renditions of (relevant parts of) the ISO C 99 standard document and of (relevant parts of) the reference manuals for the PowerPC, ARM, RISC-V and x86 architectures.

What does semantic preservation tell us about source-level verification?

A straightforward corollary of the semantic preservation theorem shows the following:

Let Σ be a set of acceptable behaviors, characterizing a desired safety or liveness property of the program.
Assume that a source program S satisfies Σ: all possible observable behaviors of S are in Σ.
Further assume that the compiler, applied to the source S, produces the code C.
Then, the compiled code C satisfies Σ: the observable behavior of C is in Σ.

The purpose of a sound source-level verification tool is precisely to establish that a specification Σ holds for all possible executions of a source program S. The specification can be defined by the user, for instance as pre- and post-conditions, or fixed by the tool, for instance the absence of run-time errors. Therefore, a formally-verified compiler guarantees that if a sound source-level verification tool says “yes, this program satisfies this specification”, then the compiled code that really executes also satisfies this specification. In other words, using a formally-verified compiler justifies verification at the source level, insofar as the guarantees established over the source program carry over to the compiled code that actually executes in the end.

How do we conduct the proof of semantic preservation?

Because of the inherent complexity of an optimizing compiler, the proof is a major endeavor. We split it into 15 separate proofs of semantic preservation, one for each pass of the CompCert compiler. The final semantic preservation theorem, then, follows from the composition of these separate proofs. For every pass, we must prove semantic preservation for all possible input programs and for all possible executions of the input program (there can be many such executions depending on the unpredictable results of input operations). To this end, we need to consider every possible reachable state in the execution of the program and every transition that can be performed from this state according to the formal semantics. The proofs take advantage of the inductive structure of programming languages: for example, to show that a compound expression a + b is correctly compiled, we assume, by induction hypothesis, that the two smaller subexpressions a and b are correctly compiled, then combine these results with reasoning specific to the + operator.

If the compiler proof were conducted using paper and pencil, it would fill hundreds of pages, and no mathematician would be willing to check it. Instead, we leverage the power of the computer: CompCert’s proof of correctness is conducted using the Coq proof assistant, a software tool that helps us construct the proof in interaction with the tool, then automatically re-checks the validity of the proof [2, 11]. Such mechanization of the proof brings near-absolute confidence in its validity.

How effective is formal compiler verification?

As mentioned above and detailed in section 1.3, CompCert is still a work in progress, and complete, end-to-end formal verification has not been achieved yet: as of this writing, about 90% of the compiler’s algorithms (including all optimizations and all code generation algorithms) are proved correct in Coq, but the remaining 10% (including elaboration, presimplifications, assembling and linking) are not verified. This can only improve in the future. Nonetheless, this incomplete formal verification already demonstrates major correctness improvements compared with ordinary compilers. Yang et al report:

The striking thing about our CompCert results is that the middle-end bugs we found in all other compilers are absent. As of early 2011, the under-development version of CompCert is the only compiler we have tested for which Csmith cannot find wrong-code errors. This is not for lack of trying: we have devoted about six CPU-years to the task. The apparent unbreakability of CompCert supports a strong argument that developing compiler optimizations within a proof framework, where safety checks are explicit and machine-checked, has tangible benefits for compiler users. [13]

1.3  Structure of the CompCert C compiler

Figure 1.1: General structure of the CompCert C compiler

The general structure of the CompCert C compiler is depicted in Figure 1.1. The compilation of a C source file can be conceptually decomposed into the following phases:

  1. Preprocessing: file inclusion, macro expansion, conditional compilation, etc. Currently performed by invoking an external C preprocessor (not part of the CompCert distribution), which produces preprocessed C source code.
  2. Parsing, type-checking, elaboration, and construction of a CompCert C abstract syntax tree (AST) annotated by types. In this phase, some simplifications to the original C text are performed to better fit the CompCert C language. Some are mere cleanups, such as collapsing multiple declarations of the same variable. Others are source-to-source transformations, such as pulling block-local static variables to global scope, renaming them if needed to keep names unique. (CompCert C has no notion of local static variable.) Some of these source-to-source transformations are optional and controlled by command-line options (see section 3.2.9).
  3. Verified compilation proper. From the CompCert C AST, the compiler produces an Asm code, going through 8 intermediate languages and 15 compilation passes. Asm is a language of abstract syntax for assembly language; it exists in five different versions, one each for PowerPC, ARM 32 bits, AArch64 (ARM 64 bits), x86, and RISC-V. The 8 intermediate languages bridge the semantic gap between C and assembly, progressively exposing an increasing machine-like view of the program. Each of the 15 passes performs either translation to a lower-level language (re-expressing high level construct into lower-level constructs), or optimizations (rewriting the code so as to improve its performance), or both at the same time. (For more details on the passes and the intermediate languages, see Leroy [7, 8].)
  4. Production of textual assembly code, followed by assembling and linking. The latter two passes are performed by an external assembler and an external linker, not part of the CompCert distribution.

As shown in Figure 1.1, only phase 3 (from CompCert C AST to Asm AST) and the parser in phase 2 are formalized and proved correct in Coq. One reason is that some of the other phases lack a mathematical specification, making it impossible to state, let alone prove, a correctness theorem about them. This is typically the case for the preprocessing phase 1. Another reason is that the CompCert effort is still ongoing, and priority was given to the formal verification of the delicate compilation passes, especially of optimizations, which are all part of the verified phase 3. Future evolutions of CompCert will move more of phase 2 (unverified simplifications) into the verified phase 3. For phase 4 (assembly and linking), we have no formal guarantees yet, but the Valex tool, available from AbsInt, provides additional assurance via a posteriori validation of the executable produced by the external assembler and linker.

The main optimizations performed by CompCert are:

Loop optimizations are not performed yet.

1.4  CompCert C in practice

1.4.1  Supported target platforms

CompCert C provides code generators for the following architectures:

Note, that CompCert may utilize floating-point registers in certain situations unless the option -fno-fpu is specified (refer to section 3.2.4).

For each architecture, here are the supported Application Binary Interfaces (ABI) and operating systems:

PowerPCEABI and ELF/SVR4Linux (all 32-bit distributions)
ARMEABIDebian and Ubuntu GNU/Linux, armel or armeb architecture
 EABI-HFDebian and Ubuntu GNU/Linux, armhf or armebhf architecture
AArch64standardLinux (all distributions)
x86ELF/SVR4Linux (all distributions), both 32 bits (i686) and 64 bits (x86_64)
 macOSmacOS 10.9 and more recent (64 bits only)
 COFFMicrosoft Windows with the Cygwin environment (32 bits only)

Other operating systems that follow one of the ABI above could be supported with minimal effort.

1.4.2  The supported C dialect

Chapter 5 specifies the dialect of the C language that CompCert C accepts as input language. In summary, CompCert C supports all of ISO C 99 [5], with the following exceptions:

Consequently, CompCert supports all of the MISRA-C 2004 subset of C, plus many features excluded by MISRA-C, such as recursive functions and dynamic heap memory allocation.

Some extensions to ISO C 99 are supported:

1.4.3  Performance of the generated code

Figure 1.2: Performance of CompCert-generated code relative to GCC 4.1.2-generated code on a Power7 processor. Shorter is better. The baseline, in blue, is GCC without optimizations. CompCert is in red.

On PowerPC and ARM, the code generated by CompCert runs at least twice as fast as the code generated by GCC without optimizations (gcc -O0), and approximately 10% slower than GCC 4 at optimization level 1 (gcc -O1), 15% slower at optimization level 2 (gcc -O2) and 20% slower at optimization level 3 (gcc -O3). These numbers were obtained on the homemade benchmark mix shown in Figure 1.2. By lack of aggressive loop optimizations, performance is lower on HPC codes involving lots of matrix computations.

The IA32 architecture, with its paucity of registers and its inefficient calling conventions, is not a good fit for the CompCert compilation model. This results in performance approximately 20% slower than GCC 4 at optimization level 1.

1.4.4  ABI conformance and interoperability

CompCert attemps to generate object code that respects the Application Binary Interface of the target platform and that can, therefore, be linked with object code and libraries compiled by other C compilers. It succeeds to a large extent, as summarized in the following two tables.

Data representation and memory layout:

Data typeARMPowerPCx86-32x86-64RISC-VAArch64
Not containing long double FP numbers
Containing long double FP numbers

Calling conventions (passing function arguments and returning function results):

Type of argument or resultARMARMPowerPCx86-32x86-64RISC-VAArch64
Scalar types (see exceptions below)
long double
— more than 8 FP arguments
— variadic functions
Struct and union types

Exceptions for scalar types

In some situations there are notable exceptions from ABI compatibility regarding the calling conventions and scalar types:

Exceptions for struct and union types

Here is a more detailed description of the ABI incompatibilities regarding the passing/returning and layout of struct/union types mentione above:

Layout of bit-fields in struct types: Several incompatibilities with the ELF ABIs are known for bitfields of type _Bool, char or short, and also for bitfields of type int that could share storage with a regular field of type char or short. If the structure contains only bitfields of type int and regular fields of type int or bigger, the layout conforms to the ELF ABI.

CompCert uses a two-pass layout algorithm for structs. The first pass packs bitfields together as regular fields. To this end, groups of consecutive bitfields are identified whose total size is less than or equal to 32 bits. For each such group a carrier field is allocated with a type depending on the total group size. It is:

Within the carrier field, bit offsets are assigned to the members of the group, starting with bit 0 for little-endian platforms and bit 7/15/31 for big-endian platforms.

The process is then repeated with the remaining bitfields. A bitfield of width 0 always terminates a group.

In the second layout pass, the fields (regular fields of the original struct and carrier fields for bitfield groups) are laid out consecutively, at byte offsets that are multiples of the natural alignments of their types. Padding can be introduced between two consecutive fields in order to satisfy alignment constraints.

Note that for bitfields, the type given to the bitfield in the C source (int or short or char, possibly signed or unsigned) is ignored as far as the layout is concerned. The width of the bitfield is only checked to be less than or equal to the bit size of the type.

In contrast to this, the ELF ABI documents describe a single-pass, greedy layout algorithm. Key differences to CompCert’s algorithm are that named bitfields of type T are always located in storage units with size sizeof(T) with an alignment of alignof(T). It is also possible that storage units for bitfields overlap with storage units for regular fields.


    struct s {
      int x: 4;
      int y: 4;

CompCert packs the two bitfields in a carrier field of type char. The resulting struct size and alignment are 1 byte. ELF shares a storage unit of type int between the two bitfields. Therefore the resulting struct size will be 4 bytes with an alignment to 4 bytes.

    struct s {
      short x: 10;
      short y: 10;
      short z: 10;

CompCert packs all three bitfields in a carrier field of type int. Size and alignment are therefore 4 bytes. ELF cannot share storage units of type short between any two bitfields. Hence, three short storage units are used. This results in a struct size of 6 bytes with an alignment to 2 byte addresses.

If the type of the three bitfields would be int instead of short the ELF algorithm would result in the same layout as CompCert: a single int storage unit enclosing all three bitfields with size and alignment of 4 bytes. This example shows that the ELF layout, taking the type of bitfields into account during layout, has fewer opportunities for packing data of types char and short, but a reduced alignment size.

    struct s {
      char x;
      int  y: 24;

CompCert’s layout algorithm never merges bitfields and regular fields together. Hence, x starts at byte offset 0, followed by 3 bytes of padding, and y starts at byte offset 4. The total struct size will be 8 bytes with an alignment to 4 bytes. ELF is able to overlap x’s byte with the int storage unit for y. Hence, x is located at byte offset 0 and y starts at byte offset 1. No padding is introduced and the total size and alignment of the struct will be 4 bytes.

Up Next