Flux Research Group / School of Computing

Volatiles Are Miscompiled, and What to Do about It

Eric Eide and John Regehr

Proceedings of the 8th ACM International Conference on Embedded Software (EMSOFT) 2008.

DOI: 10.1145/1450058.1450093

Languages, Software Testing


C's volatile qualifier is intended to provide a reliable link between operations at the source-code level and operations at the memory-system level.  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.

Our contribution is centered on a novel technique for finding volatile bugs and a novel technique for working around them.  First, we present access summary testing: an efficient, practical, and automatic way to detect code-generation errors related to the volatile qualifier.  We have found a number of compiler bugs by performing access summary testing on randomly generated C programs.  Some of these bugs have been confirmed and fixed by compiler developers.  Second, we present and evaluate a workaround for the compiler defects we discovered.  In 96% of the cases in which one of our randomly generated programs is miscompiled, we can cause the faulty C compiler to produce correctly behaving code by applying a straightforward source-level transformation to the test program.