Jens Gustedt's Blog

April 25, 2015

Demystify undefined behavior

Filed under: C11, compiler optimization, language, library, POSIX — Jens Gustedt @ 21:36

In discussions about C or other standards (e.g POSIX) you may often have come across the term undefined behavior, UB for short. Unfortunately this term is sometimes mystified and even used to scare people unnecessarily, claiming that arbitrary things even outside the scope of your program can happen if a program “encounters undefined behavior”. (And I probably contributed to this at some point.)

First, this is just crappy language. How can something “encounter” behavior?  It can’t. What is simple meant by such slang is that such a program has no defined behavior, or stated yet otherwise, the standard doesn’t define what to do if such a program reaches the state in question. The C standard defines undefined behavior

behavior, upon use of a nonportable or erroneous program construct or of erroneous data,
for which this International Standard imposes no requirements

That’s it.

Simple examples of undefined behavior in C are out-of-bounds access to arrays or overflow of signed integer types. More complicated cases arise when violating aliasing rules or when access to data races between different threads.

Now we often hear statements like “UB may format your hard drive” or “UB may steal all your money from your bank account” implying somehow that a program that is completely unrelated to my disk administration or to my online banking, could by some mysterious force have these evil effects. This is (almost) complete nonsense.

If UB in a simple program of yours formats your hard drive, you shouldn’t blame your program. No simple application run by an unprivileged user should have such devastating consequences, this would be completely inappropriate. If such things happen, it is your system which is at fault, get you another one.

As an analogy from every-day life, take the idea of locking your house at night, which seems to be the rule in some societies. Sure, if you don’t do that, you make it easier for somebody to sneak into your house and shoot you.   But still, that person would be a murderer, to be punished for that by the law, no sane legal system would acquit such a person or see this as mitigating circumstances.

Now things are in fact different when there is a direct relation between the object of your negligence and the ill-effect that it causes. If you leave your purse on the table in the pub when going to the bathroom, you should take a share in responsibility if it is stolen. Or to come back to the programming context, if you are programming a security sensible application (e.g handling passwords or bank credentials) then you should be extremely careful and stay on well-defined grounds.

When programming in C there are different kinds of constructs or data for which the program behavior then is undefined.

  • Behavior can be explicitly declared undefined or implicitly left undefined.
  • The error can be detectable or undetectable at compile time.
  • The error can be detectable or undetectable during execution.
  • Behavior of certain constructs can be undefined by a specific standard to allow extensions.

Unfortunately, people often use UB as an excuse to evacuate questions about certain behavior of their code (or compiler). This is just rude behavior by itself, and you usually shouldn’t accept this. An implementation should have reasons and policies how it deals with UB, otherwise it is just bad, and you should switch to something more friendly, if you may.

There is no reason not to be friendly, and there are many to be.

That is, in our context, once a (your!) code detects that it has a problem it must handle it. Possible strategies are

  • abort the compilation or the running program
  • return an error code
  • report the problem
  • define and document the behavior in your own terms

For the first you should always have in mind that the program should be debugable, so you really should use #error or static_assert for compile time errors and assert and abort for run time errors. Also, willingly aborting the program is not the same as having the program crash, see below.

Obviously, the second is only possible if the function in question has an established error return convention and if you can expect users of the function to check for that convention. POSIX has many such cases where the documentation says something like “may” return a certain error code. A C (or POSIX) library implementation that detects such a “may” case and doesn’t react accordingly, is of bad quality.

Reporting detected errors is an important alternative and some compiler implementors have chosen this as their default answer to problems. Perhaps you already have seen gcc’s famous “diagnostic” message

dereferencing pointer ‘bla’ does break strict-aliasing rules

This message supposes that you know what aliasing rules are, and that you also know why it came to that. Observe that it says “does” so the compiler claims to have proven that the aliasing rules are violated, and that the behavior is thus undefined. What the message doesn’t tell, and that is bad, is how it resolves the problem.

The last variant, defining your own stuff, should be handled with extreme care. Not only that what you define must be sensible, you also make a commitment in doing so. You promise your clients that you will follow these new rules in the future and that they may suppose that you will take care of the underlying problem. In most cases, you should leave the definition of extensions to the big players, platform designers or other standards. E.g POSIX defines a lot of cases that are UB for C as such.

As a last alternative, when

  • the error is undetectable
  • the detection of the error would be too expensive

you should simply let the program crash. The best strategy I know of is to always initialize all variables and always treat 0 as a special value. This may, under rare circumstance deal a tiny bit of performance against security, because on some rare occasions your compiler might not be able to optimize an unused initialization. If you do this, most errors that you will see are dereferences of null pointers.

Dereferencing a null pointer has UB. But modern architecture no how to handle this: they raise a  “segmentation fault” error and terminate the program. This is the nicest failure path that you can offer to your clients, failing anytime, anywhere.

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February 7, 2015

Modern C: Level 2 available

Filed under: C11, language, library — Jens Gustedt @ 16:35

I am pleased to announce the feature completion of Level 2 of my book

Modern C

It deals with most principal concepts and features of the C
programming language, such as control structures, data types,
operators and functions. Its knowledge should be sufficient for an
introductory course to Algorithms, with the noticeable particularity
that pointers aren’t fully introduced here, yet.

As before, the current version of the book can be found at my homepage

http://icube-icps.unistra.fr/index.php/File:ModernC.pdf

and also as before, constructive feedback is highly welcome. Many
thanks to those that already gave such valuable feedback for previous
version.

October 14, 2014

musl 1.1.5 with full C11 library support

Filed under: C11, library, lock structures, POSIX — Jens Gustedt @ 20:52

Today, Rich Felker has published the next release of musl the lightweight, standard conforming C library. He says:

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April 2, 2014

Don’t use casts

Filed under: C11, C99, language — Jens Gustedt @ 01:50

I recently reviewed some document on security recommendations where I was baffled by the fact that the code examples were sprinkled with casts all over the place. I had thought that people that are concerned with software security in mind would adhere to one of the most important rules in C programming:

Casts are harmful and evil.

The “evil” here is to be read as reference to black magic. Most uses of cast are merely done in the spirit of “casting a spell” by people that try to quieten their compiler. The sorcerer’s apprentice approach: if I don’t see the evil, it isn’t there.

For me it is evident that every cast punches a hole in C’s type system. So, concerned with code security, we should avoid them as much as possible. But this evidence doesn’t yet seem shared (meaning that it is not so evident 🙂 and I decided to explain things here in more detail.

Casts (explicit conversions) in C come with three different flavors, depending on the cast-to and cast-from type

  1. pointer to pointer
  2. pointer to integer or vice versa
  3. integer to integer

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October 28, 2013

different times in C: calendar times

Filed under: C11, C99, library, P99 — Jens Gustedt @ 08:41

Let’s take the occasion of the change back from DST here in Europe, not in the US, yet, to look how times are handled in C.
The C standard proposes a large variety of types for representing times: clock_t, time_t, struct timespec, struct tm, double and textual representations as char[]. It is a bit complicated to find out what the proper type for a particular purpose is, so let me try to explain this.

The first class of “times” can be classified as calendar times, times with a granularity and range as it would typically appear in a human calendar, as for appointments, birthdays and so on. Some of the functions that manipulate these in C99 are a bit dangerous, they operate on global state. Let us have a look how these interact:

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August 22, 2013

testing compile time constness and null pointers with C11’s _Generic

Filed under: C11, C99, language, P99, preprocessor, syntax — Jens Gustedt @ 13:23

Sometimes in C it is useful to distinguish if an expression is an “integral constant expression” or a “null pointer constant”. E.g for an object that is allocated statically, only such expressions are valid initializers. Usually we are able to determine that directly when writing an initializer, but if we want to initialize a more complicated struct with a function like initializer macro, with earlier versions of C we have the choice:

  • Use a compiler extension such as gcc’s __builtin_constant_p
  • We’d have to write two different versions of such a macro, one for static allocation and one for automatic.

In the following I will explain how to achieve such a goal with C11’s _Generic feature. I am not aware of a C++ feature that provides the same possibilities. Also, this uses the ternary operator (notably different in C and C++), so readers that merely come from that community should read the following with precaution.

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July 15, 2013

a praise of size_t and other unsigned types

Filed under: C11, C99, integers, language — Jens Gustedt @ 16:17

Again I had a discussion with someone from a C++ background who claimed that one should use signed integer types where possible, and who also claimed that the unsignedness of size_t is merely a historical accident and would never be defined as such nowadays. I strongly disagree with that, so I decided to write this up, for once.

What I write here will only work with C, and can possibly extended to C++ and other languages that implement unsigned integer types, e.g good old Pascal had a cardinal type.

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February 4, 2013

Runtime-constraint violations

Filed under: C11, library — Jens Gustedt @ 08:30

Somewhat hidden in Annex K, C11 introduces a new term into the C standard, namely runtime-constraint violations. They offer an important change of concept for the functions that are defined in that annex: if such a function is e.g called with invalid parameters, a specific function (called runtime-constraint handler) is called, that could e.g abort the program, or just issue an error message. This is in sharp contrast to the runtime error handling in the rest of the C standard, where the behavior under such errors is mostly undefined (anything may happen then) or sometimes reported to implementation defined behavior (and thus poorly portable and predictable).

Annex K, obscurely coined “Bounds checking interfaces“, introduces some typedef and a series of replacement functions for many C library functions. The function names in this series are usually derived from the name of the function they replace and by adding the suffix _s to the function name, e.g the function qsort gets a “secure” twin interface called qsort_s, as we have seen in an earlier post.

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December 4, 2012

inline functions as good as templates

Filed under: C11, C99, compiler optimization, library — Jens Gustedt @ 23:24

I recently started to implement parts of the “Bounds checking interfaces” of C11 (Annex K) for P99 and observed a nice property of my implementation of qsort_s. Since for P99 basically all functions are inlined, my compilers (gcc and clang) are able to integrate the comparison functions completely into the sorting code, just as an equivalent implementation in C++ would achieve with template code.

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November 21, 2012

P99 futexes: non-blocking integer valued condition variables

Filed under: C11, C99, linux, lock structures, P99, POSIX — Jens Gustedt @ 12:18

A while ago I already have written about Linux futexes as a really nice concept for a control data structure that goes beyond the ones that we learn or teach in school (mutex, semaphore, condition variable…). I have now gone one step further and integrated futexes into P99; if used on Linux this will evidently use the corresponding Linux feature under the hood, on other platforms a C11 thread implementation using mutexes and condition variables can be used.

One of the real disadvantages of most of the control structures is that they have two very different kinds of events: user events (e.g a call to cnd_signal) and system events, often called “spurious wakeups”. Unless we program system code, these spurious wakeups are just an annoyance. They are easily forgotten during development and lead to subtle bugs that only appear on heavy load or when changing the platform and handling them often makes the user code overly complex.

p99_futex are designed to work around this type of problems, by still providing a close integration of the control structure into the system and by efficiently distinguishing a “fast path” for operations from a “slow path” where we handle congestion. They provide a counter similar to a conditional variable that allows atomic increments and to wait for it, just as the Linux system call does. (Only that for ideological reasons the base type is an unsigned, instead of an int as in Linux.)

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