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USENIX 2nd Symposium on OS Design and Implementation (OSDI '96)

Safe Kernel Extensions Without Run-Time Checking

Best Paper Award

George C. Necula and Peter Lee
Carnegie Mellon University


This paper describes a mechanism by which an operating system kernel can determine with certainty that it is safe to execute a binary supplied by an untrusted source. The kernel first defines a safety policy and makes it public. Then, using this policy, an application can provide binaries in a special form called proof-carrying code, or simply PCC. Each binary contains, in addition to the native code, a formal proof that the code obeys the safety policy. The kernel can easily validate the proof without using cryptography and without consulting any external trusted entities. If the validation succeeds, the code is guaranteed to respect the safety policy without relying on run-time checks.

The main practical difficulty of is in generating the safety proofs. In order to gain some preliminary experience with this, we have written several network packet filters in hand-tuned DEC Alpha assembly language, and then generated binaries for them using a special prototype assembler. The binaries can be executed with no run-time overhead, beyond a one-time cost of 1 to 3 milliseconds for validating the enclosed proofs. The net result is that our packet filters are formally guaranteed to be safe and are faster than packet filters created using Berkeley Packet Filters, Software Fault Isolation, or safe languages such as Modula-3.

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