Finding Bugs versus Proving Absence of Bugs

Probably the most important thing I didn’t say enough in my paper about verifying ARM processors is why we focus on finding bugs.

As John Regehr says in his talk SQL-Lite with a Fine-Tooth Comb, you don’t want to waste time trying to show that a buggy program is bug-free because dealing with bugs is a major distraction from trying to show that there are no bugs. So if you are verifying a processor, you should think of having two distinct phases with different goals:

  • Finding as many bugs as you can. During this phase, you use as many techniques as you can to find bugs.

  • Proving that there are no bugs. During this phase, you focus on proving correctness.

ISA-Formal focusses on that first phase and it is very effective at catching complex bugs in the processor pipeline. And it is just one of several techniques we use. We use more traditional techniques on the processor pipeline in parallel with ISA-Formal and we use other techniques for the floating point unit, for the memory system, etc.

Another important factor is that finding bugs is easy to measure and fits well into conventional project planning. This is important when you are trying to get a new verification technique adopted: you can try to show that it catches more bugs earlier or with less effort than other techniques. And it is also important when you are trying to decide whether you are done: you are done when the bug curve flattens off.

The third reason is that we have been using the model checker in a bug-finding mode which is optimized for breadth-first exploration of the search space but does not attempt to find invariants. As a result, our usual mode of running cannot hope to prove absence of bugs because it only goes a finite number of cycles deep.

So, for now, we are focussing on finding bugs.


This is the first of several notes I am writing about the key ideas in our paper “End-to-End Verification of ARM Processors with ISA-Formal” which I am presenting at the 2016 International Conference on Computer Aided Verification on Friday 22nd July. There is nothing quite like trying to squeeze a 16 page paper into a 16 minute presentation for figuring out what the important messages are and how to present them.

Written on July 18, 2016