Authors: Brooks Davis, Robert N. M. Watson, Alexander Richardson, Peter G. Neumann, Simon W. Moore, John Baldwin, David Chisnall, James Clarke, Nathaniel Wesley Filardo, Khilan Gudka, Alexandre Joannou, Ben Laurie, A. Theodore Markettos, J. Edward Maste, Alfredo Mazzinghi, Edward Napierala, Robert Norton, Michael Roe, Peter Sewell, Stacey Son, Jonathan Woodruff
Abstract: The CHERI architecture allows pointers to be implemented as capabilities (rather than integer virtual addresses) in a manner that is compatible with, and strengthens, the semantics of the C language. In addition to the spatial protections offered by conventional fat pointers, CHERI capabilities offer strong integrity, enforced provenance validity, and access monotonicity. The stronger guarantees of these architectural capabilities must be reconciled with the real-world behavior of operating systems, run-time environments, and applications. When the process model, user-kernel interactions, dynamic linking, and memory management are all considered, we observe that simple derivation of architectural capabilities is insufficient to describe appropriate access to memory. We bridge this conceptual gap with a notional abstract capability that describes the accesses that should be allowed at a given point in execution, whether in the kernel or userspace. To investigate this notion at scale, we describe the first adaptation of a full C-language operating system (FreeBSD) with an enterprise database (PostgreSQL) for complete spatial and referential memory safety. We show that awareness of abstract capabilities, coupled with CHERI architectural capabilities, can provide more complete protection, strong compatibility, and acceptable performance overhead compared with the pre-CHERI baseline and software-only approaches. Our observations also have potentially significant implications for other mitigation techniques.
Further Reading: Extended technical report version