Sep 20 – 24, 2021
US/Pacific timezone

A proof-carrying approach to building correct and flexible BPF verifiers

Sep 23, 2021, 9:30 AM
Networking and BPF Summit/Virtual-Room (LPC Virtual)

Networking and BPF Summit/Virtual-Room

LPC Virtual

Networking & BPF Summit (Closed) BPF & Networking Summit


Luke Nelson (University of Washington) Xi Wang (University of Washington) Emina Torlak (University of Washington)


The BPF verifier is an integral part of the BPF ecosystem, aiming to
prevent unsafe BPF programs from executing in the kernel. Due to its
complexity, the verifier is susceptible to bugs that can allow malicious
BPF programs through. A number of bugs have been found in the BPF
verifier, some of which have led to CVEs (1, 2, 3). These bugs are severe,
since the verifier is on the critical path for ensuring kernel security.

Due to its design, the verifier is also overly strict: it may reject many
safe BPF programs because it lacks sophisticated analyses to recognize
their safety. When a BPF program is rejected by the verifier, it can be a
frustrating experience (4). To get their program accepted by the verifier,
developers often have to resort to ad-hoc fixes, tweaking C source code
or disabling optimizations in LLVM. This solution becomes brittle as
developers write more complex BPF programs and new optimizations are
introduced in LLVM.

In this talk, we argue that a more systematic approach is to freeze
the kernel side of the BPF verifier and move most of its complexity
to user space. To do so, we introduce formal, machine-checkable proofs
of the safety of BPF programs. Applications provide proofs that their
BPF programs are safe, and a proof checker in the kernel validates the
proofs. By decoupling proof validation from generation, this achieves
two goals. First, the kernel side of the interface is fixed to be a
specification of BPF program safety and the proof checker, avoiding
the ever-growing complexity of the BPF verifier in the kernel. Second,
applications can choose an appropriate strategy to generate proofs for
their BPF programs. Since the proofs are untrusted, there is no risk of
applications introducing bugs from complex proof strategies.

We have been building a prototype BPF verifier using this approach.
Our prototype uses the logic of the Lean theorem prover (5), which has
been thoroughly analyzed (6) and has multiple independent implementations
of proof checkers (7). We are developing two automated strategies for
generating proofs. The first strategy mimics the current BPF verifier.
It implements an abstract interpreter for BPF programs that uses ranges
and tristate numbers to approximate sets of values of BPF registers. The
second strategy uses symbolic execution to encode the semantics of a
BPF program as boolean constraints, which are discharged using a SAT
solver. Both strategies produce proofs that are validated by the proof
checker, avoiding the possibility of introducing bugs like those that
have been found in the current verifier.

Our goal is to present an alternative approach to building the BPF
verifier, and explore the advantages and limitations of this approach.
We would like to start a discussion on ways to combine both approaches
in a pragmatic way.

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Primary authors

Luke Nelson (University of Washington) Xi Wang (University of Washington) Emina Torlak (University of Washington)

Presentation materials

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