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Third USENIX Conference on Object-Oriented Technologies (COOTS), 1997

A Tool for Constructing Safe Extensible C++ Systems

Christopher Small
Harvard University


The boundary between application and system is becoming increasingly permeable. Extensible applications, such as web browsers, database systems, and operating systems, demonstrate the value of allowing end-users to extend and modify the behavior of what was formerly considered to be a static, inviolate system. Unfortunately, flexibility often comes with a cost: systems unprotected from misbehaved end-user extensions are fragile and prone to instability.

Object-oriented programming models are a good fit for the development of this kind of system. An extensions can be designed as a refinement of an existing class, and loaded into a running system. In our model, when code is downloaded into the system, it is used to replace a virtual function on an existing C++ object. Because our tool is source-language neutral, it can be used to build safe extensible systems written in other languages as well.

There are three methods commonly used to make end-user extensions safe: restrict the extension language (e.g., Java), interpret the extension language (e.g., Tcl), or combine run-time checks with a trusted environment. The third technique is the one discussed here; it offers the twin benefits of the flexibility to implement extensions in an unsafe language, such as C++, and the performance of compiled code.

MiSFIT, the Minimal i386 Software Fault Isolation Tool, can be used as the central component of a tool set for building safe extensible systems in C++. MiSFIT transforms C++ code, compiled by g++, into safe binary code. Combined with a runtime support library, the overhead of MiSFIT is an order of magnitude lower than the overhead of interpreted Java, and permits safe extensible systems to be written in C++.

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