Enforcing Strong Typing¶
Annex C of MISRA C:2012 summarizes the problem succinctly:
"ISO C may be considered to exhibit poor type safety as it permits a wide range of implicit type conversions to take place. These type conversions can compromise safety as their implementation-defined aspects can cause developer confusion."
The most severe consequences come from inappropriate conversions involving pointer types, as they can cause memory safety violations. Two sections of MISRA C are dedicated to these issues: "Pointer type conversions" (9 rules) and "Pointers and arrays" (8 rules).
Inappropriate conversions between scalar types are only slightly less severe, as they may introduce arbitrary violations of the intended functionality. MISRA C has gone to great lengths to improve the situation, by defining a stricter type system on top of the C language. This is described in Appendix D of MISRA C:2012 and in the dedicated section on "The essential type model" (8 rules).
Enforcing Strong Typing for Pointers¶
Pointers in C provide a low-level view of the addressable memory as a set of integer addresses. To write at address 42, just go through a pointer:
Running this program is likely to hit a segmentation fault on an operating
system, or to cause havoc in an embedded system, both because address 42 will
not be correctly aligned on a 32-bit or 64-bit machine and because this address
is unlikely to correspond to valid addressable data for the application. The
compiler might issue a helpful warning on the above code (with option
-Wint-conversion implied by
-Wall in GCC or LLVM), but note that the
warning disappears when explicitly converting value 42 to the target pointer
type, although the problem is still present.
Beyond their ability to denote memory addresses, pointers are also used in C to pass references as inputs or outputs to function calls, to construct complex data structures with indirection or sharing, and to denote arrays of elements. Pointers are thus at once pervasive, powerful and fragile.
Pointers Are Not Addresses¶
In an attempt to rule out issues that come from direct addressing of memory with pointers, MISRA C states in Rule 11.4 that "A conversion should not be performed between a pointer to object and an integer type". As this rule is classified as only Advisory, MISRA C completes it with two Required rules:
- Rule 11.6: "A cast shall not be performed between pointer to void and an arithmetic type"
- Rule 11.7: "A cast shall not be performed between pointer to object and a non-integer arithmetic type"
In Ada, pointers are not addresses, and addresses are not integers. An opaque
System.Address is used for addresses, and conversions to/from
integers are provided in a standard package
previous C code can be written as follows in Ada:
The integer value 42 is converted to a memory address
A by calling
System.Storage_Elements.To_Address, which is then used as the address of
M. The pointer variable
P is set to point to
(which is allowed because
M is declared as
Ada requires more verbiage than C:
- The integer value
42must be explicitly converted to type
- To get a pointer to a declared variable such as
M, the declaration must be marked as
The added syntax helps first in making clear what is happening and, second, in ensuring that a potentially dangerous feature (assigning to a value at a specific machine address) is not used inadvertently.
The above example is legal Ada but not SPARK, since SPARK does not support pointers (they significantly complicate formal analysis). SPARK does allow addresses, however.
Pointers Are Not References¶
Passing parameters by reference is critical for efficient programs, but the absence of references distinct from pointers in C incurs a serious risk. Any parameter of a pointer type can be copied freely to a variable whose lifetime is longer than the object pointed to, a problem known as "dangling pointers". MISRA C forbids such uses in Rule 18.6: "The address of an object with automatic storage shall not be copied to another object that persists after the first object has ceased to exist". Unfortunately, enforcing this rule is difficult, as it is undecidable.
In SPARK, parameters can be passed by reference, but no pointer to the
parameter can be stored, which completely solves this issue. In fact, the
decision to pass a parameter by copy or by reference rests in many cases with
the compiler, but such compiler dependency has no effect on the functional
behavior of a SPARK program. In the example below, the compiler may decide to pass
P of procedure
Rotate_X either by copy or by reference, but
regardless of the choice the postcondition of
Rotate_X will hold:
the final value of
P will be modified by rotation around the
SPARK's analysis tool can mathematically prove that the postcondition is true.
Pointers Are Not Arrays¶
The greatest source of vulnerabilities regarding pointers is their use as substitutes for arrays. Although the C language has a syntax for declaring and accessing arrays, this is just a thin syntactic layer on top of pointers. Thus:
- Array access is just pointer arithmetic;
- If a function is to manipulate an array then the array's length must be separately passed as a parameter; and
- The program is susceptible to the various vulnerabilities originating from the confusion of pointers and arrays, such as buffer overflow.
Consider a function that counts the number of times a value is present in an array. In C, this could be written:
count has no control over the range of addresses accessed from
p. The critical property that the
len parameter is a valid length
for an array of integers pointed to by parameter
p rests completely with
the caller of
count has no way to check that this is
To mitigate the risks associated with pointers being used for arrays, MISRA C
contains eight rules in a section on "Pointers and arrays". These rules
forbid pointer arithmetic (Rule 18.4) or, if this Advisory rule is not
followed, require pointer arithmetic to stay within bounds (Rule 18.1). But,
even if we rewrite the loop in
count to respect all decidable MISRA C
rules, the program's correctness still depends on the caller of
passing a correct value of
The resulting code is more readable, but still vulnerable to incorrect values
len passed by the caller of
count, which violates
undecidable MISRA C Rules 18.1 (pointer arithmetic should stay within bounds)
and 1.3 (no undefined behavior). Contrast this with the same function in SPARK
The array parameter
P is not simply a homogeneous sequence of Integer
values. The compiler must represent
P so that its lower and upper bounds
P'Last) and thus also its length (
can be retrieved. Function
simply loop over the range of valid array indexes
P'First .. P'Last (or
P'Range for short). As a result, function
Count can be verified in
isolation to be free of vulnerabilities such as buffer overflow, as it does
not depend on the values of parameters passed by its callers. In fact, we can
go further in SPARK and show that the value returned by
Count is no greater
than the length of parameter
P by stating this property in the postcondition of
Count and asking the SPARK analysis tool to prove it:
The only help that SPARK analysis required from the programmer, in order to prove the
postcondition, is a loop invariant (a special kind of assertion) that reflects
the value of
Count at each iteration.
Pointers Should Be Typed¶
The C language defines a special pointer type
void* that corresponds to an
untyped pointer. It is legal to convert any pointer type to and from
which makes it a convenient way to simulate C++ style templates. Consider the following
code which indirectly applies
assign_int to integer
assign_float to floating-point
f by calling
assign on both:
The references to the variables
f are implicitly converted to
void* type as a way
assign to any second parameter
p whose type matches the
argument type of its first argument
fun. The use of an untyped argument
means that the responsibility for the correct typing rests completely
with the programmer. Swap
f in the calls to
and you still get a compilable program without warnings, that runs and produces
completely bogus output:
i = 1109917696; f = 0.000000
instead of the expected:
i = 42; f = 42.000000
Generics in SPARK (and Ada) can implement the desired functionality in a fully
typed way, with any errors caught at compile time, where procedure
applies its parameter procedure
Initialize to its parameter
The generic procedure
Assign must be instantiated with a specific
T and a specific procedure (taking a single
of this type) for
Initialize. The procedure resulting from the
instantiation applies to a variable of this type. So switching
F above would result in an error detected by the compiler.
Likewise, an instantiation such as the following would also be
a compile-time error:
procedure Assign_I is new Assign (Integer, Assign_Float);
Enforcing Strong Typing for Scalars¶
In C, all scalar types can be converted both implicitly and explicitly to any other scalar type. The semantics is defined by rules of promotion and conversion, which can confuse even experts. One example was noted earlier, in the Preface. Another example appears in an article introducing a safe library for manipulating scalars by Microsoft expert David LeBlanc. In its conclusion, the author acknowledges the inherent difficulty in understanding scalar type conversions in C, by showing an early buggy version of the code to produce the minimum signed integer:
return (T)(1 << (BitCount()-1));
The issue here is that the literal
1 on the left-hand side of the shift is an
int, so on a 64-bit machine with 32-bit
int and 64-bit type
above is shifting 32-bit value
1 by 63 bits. This is a case of undefined behavior,
producing an unexpected output with the Microsoft compiler. The correction is to convert
the first literal
T before the shift:
return (T)((T)1 << (BitCount()-1));
Although he'd asked some expert programmers to review the code, no one found this problem.
To avoid these issues as much as possible, MISRA C defines its own type system on top of C types, in the section on "The essential type model" (eight rules). These can be seen as additional typing rules, since all rules in this section are decidable, and can be enforced at the level of a single translation unit. These rules forbid in particular the confusing cases mentioned above. They can be divided into three sets of rules:
- restricting operations on types
- restricting explicit conversions
- restricting implicit conversions
Restricting Operations on Types¶
Apart from the application of some operations to floating-point arguments (the bitwise, mod and array access operations) which are invalid and reported by the compiler, all operations apply to all scalar types in C. MISRA C Rule 10.1 constrains the types on which each operation is possible as follows.
Arithmetic Operations on Arithmetic Types¶
Adding two Boolean values, or an Apple and an Orange, might sound like a bad idea, but it is easily done in C:
No error from the compiler here. In fact, there is no undefined behavior in the
above code. Variables
f3 both end up with value 1. Of course it
makes no sense to add Boolean or enumerated values, and thus MISRA C
Rule 18.1 forbids the use of all arithmetic operations on Boolean and
enumerated values, while also forbidding most arithmetic operations on
characters. That leaves the use of arithmetic operations for signed or unsigned
integers as well as floating-point types and the use of modulo operation
for signed or unsigned integers.
Here's an attempt to simulate the above C code in SPARK (and Ada):
Here is the output from AdaCore's GNAT compiler:
1. package Bad_Arith is 2. 3. B1 : constant Boolean := True; 4. B2 : constant Boolean := False; 5. B3 : constant Boolean := B1 + B2; | >>> there is no applicable operator "+" for type "Standard.Boolean" 6. 7. type Fruit is (Apple, Orange); 8. F1 : constant Fruit := Apple; 9. F2 : constant Fruit := Orange; 10. F3 : constant Fruit := F1 + F2; | >>> there is no applicable operator "+" for type "Fruit" defined at line 7 11. 12. end Bad_Arith;
It is possible, however, to get the predecessor of a Boolean or enumerated
Value'Pred and its successor with
Value'Succ, as well as
to iterate over all values of the type:
Boolean Operations on Boolean¶
"Two bee or not two bee? Let's C":
The answer to the question posed by Shakespeare's Hamlet is 1, since it
A or not A and this is true in classical logic.
As previously noted, MISRA C forbids the use of the multiplication operator
with an operand of an enumerated type. Rule 18.1 also forbids
the use of Boolean operations "and", "or", and "not" (
respectively, in C) on anything other than Boolean operands. It would
thus prohibit the Shakespearian code above.
Below is an attempt to express the same code in SPARK (and Ada), where the Boolean operators are
or operators evaluate both
operands, and the language also supplies short-circuit forms that evaluate
the left operand and only evaluate the right operand when its value may affect
As expected, the compiler rejects this code. There is no available
that works on an enumeration type, and likewise no available
Bitwise Operations on Unsigned Integers¶
Here's a genetic engineering example that combines a Bee with a Dog to produce a Cat, by manipulating the atomic structure (the bits in its representation):
This algorithm works by accessing the underlying bitwise representation
Dog (0x01 and 0x03, respectively) and, by applying the
^, transforming it into the underlying bitwise
representation of a
Cat (0x02). While powerful, manipulating the bits
in the representation of values is best reserved for unsigned integers as
illustrated in the book Hacker's Delight.
MISRA C Rule 18.1 thus forbids the use of all bitwise operations on anything
but unsigned integers.
Below is an attempt to do the same in SPARK (and Ada). The bitwise operators are
not, and the related bitwise functions are
The declaration of
Mutant is illegal, since the
xor operator is only
available for Boolean and unsigned integer (modular) values; it is not available
Animal. The same restriction applies to the other bitwise operators
listed above. If we really wanted to achieve the effect of the above code
in legal SPARK (or Ada), then the following approach will work (the type
is an 8-bit modular type declared in the predefined package
xor are used both as logical operators
and as bitwise operators, but there is no possible confusion between these two uses.
Indeed the use of such operators on values from modular types is a natural
generalization of their uses on Boolean, since values from modular types are often
interpreted as arrays of Booleans.
Restricting Explicit Conversions¶
A simple way to bypass the restrictions of Rule 10.1 is to explicitly convert the arguments of an operation to a type that the rule allows. While it can often be useful to cast a value from one type to another, many casts that are allowed in C are either downright errors or poor replacements for clearer syntax.
One example is to cast from a scalar type to Boolean. A better way to
(bool)x is to compare
x to the zero value of its type:
x != 0
x != 0.0 for floats,
x != '\0' for characters,
x != Enum
Enum is the first enumerated value of the type. Thus, MISRA C
Rule 10.5 advises avoiding casting non-Boolean values to Boolean.
Rule 10.5 also advises avoiding other casts that are, at best, obscure:
- from a Boolean to any other scalar type
- from a floating-point value to an enumeration or a character
- from any scalar type to an enumeration
The rules are not symmetric, so although a float should not be cast to an enum, casting an enum to a float is allowed. Similarly, although it is advised to not cast a character to an enum, casting an enum to a character is allowed.
The rules in SPARK are simpler. There are no conversions between numeric types (integers, fixed-point and floating-point) and non-numeric types (such as Boolean, Character, and other enumeration types). Conversions between different non-numeric types are limited to those that make semantic sense, for example between a derived type and its parent type. Any numeric type can be converted to any other numeric type, with precise rules for rounding/truncating values when needed and run-time checking that the converted value is in the range associated with the target type.
Restricting Implicit Conversions¶
Rules 10.1 and 10.5 restrict operations on types and explicit conversions. That's not enough to avoid problematic C programs; a program violating one of these rules can be expressed using only implicit type conversions. For example, the Shakespearian code in section Boolean Operations on Boolean can be reformulated to satisfy both Rules 10.1 and 10.5:
Here, we're implicitly converting the enumerated value
Bee to an int,
and then implicitly converting the integer value
2 * b to a Boolean.
This does not violate 10.1 or 10.5, but it is prohibited by
MISRA C Rule 10.3: "The value of an
expression shall not be assigned to an object with a narrower essential type or
of a different essential type category".
Rule 10.1 also does not prevent arguments of an operation from being inconsistent, for example comparing a floating-point value and an enumerated value. But MISRA C Rule 10.4 handles this situation: "Both operands of an operator in which the usual arithmetic conversions are performed shall have the same essential type category".
In addition, three rules in the "Composite operators and expressions" section avoid common mistakes related to the combination of explicit/implicit conversions and operations.
The rules in SPARK (and Ada) are far simpler: there are no implicit conversions! This applies both between types of a different essential type category as MISRA C puts it, as well as between types that are structurally the same but declared as different types.
The compiler reports a mismatch on every statement in the above procedure (the declarations are all legal).
Adding explicit conversions makes the assignments to
since SPARK (and Ada) allow conversions between numeric types and between a derived
type and its parent type, but all other conversions are illegal:
Although an enumeration value cannot be converted to an integer (or vice
versa) either implicitly or explicitly, SPARK (and Ada) provide functions
to obtain the effect of a type conversion. For any enumeration type
T'Pos(e) takes an enumeration value from type
and returns its relative position as an integer, starting at
0. In the other direction,
n is an integer,
returns the enumeration value in type
T at relative position
n is negative or greater then
T'Pos(T'Last) then a run-time
exception is raised.
Hence, the following is valid SPARK (and Ada) code;
Character is defined as
an enumeration type: