Limitations of ISA-Formal

As I was explaining the ISA-Formal technique for verifying ARM processors to people, I realized that it was important to be clear about what ISA-Formal does not verify and why.

(I need to emphasize that this does not imply gaps in the overall verification story: other parts of the ARM verification teams verify the other parts of the processors. I just want to be clear about which parts are verified using the ISA-Formal method.)

  • Floating point

    In the paper, we have this table of where we found bugs in processors so you might think that we are checking the floating point unit.

    Defect Area   Fraction
    FP/SIMD   25%
    Memory   21%
    Branch   21%
    Integer   18%
    Exception   8%
    System   7%

    But if you read the section on checking complex functional units, you will see that all we are doing is checking that the floating point unit is correctly connected to the pipeline, that FP forwarding logic works correctly, that FP dependencies are detected correctly, etc. Apart from a small subset of FP values, we don’t use ISA-Formal to check that the FPU does the right thing.

    The reason we don’t check this with ISA-Formal is that ISA-Formal is primarily about checking the interactions between instructions while checking the FPU is primarily about checking an individual instruction. More importantly, there are better ways of verifying FPUs.

  • Instruction Fetch

    ISA-Formal works by using a model checker to feed sequences of instructions into the instruction decoder. Which means that ISA-Formal explicitly excludes instruction fetch from consideration.

  • Exceptions

    When a processor takes an exception, it modifies a large number of registers: PC, SP, the current mode and privilege level, exception syndrome registers, fault address registers, etc. (On M-class, it even pushes values onto the stack.) And those changes depend on quite a lot of processor state.

    So checking every single aspect of exception handling requires significant extension of the “pipeline followers” which extract the architectural pre-state and post-state of an instruction.

    At the time we wrote the paper, we were only just scratching the surface of checking exception behaviour with ISA-Formal: checking that we pushed the correct return address or that we returned from exceptions correctly.

  • Instruction Ordering

    One of the most subtle limitations is that ISA-Formal does not check that all instructions retire in order or even that all the instructions that should retire (non-speculative, not-cancelled, etc) do retire and only retire once. All it checks is that, if an instruction does retire, then it has the correct effect.

    You can also specify the necessary properties to check that instructions are not reordered, lost or duplicated to some processors so this is not a fundamental limitation but it doesn’t just fall out of the rest of the ISA-Formal flow.

  • Memory Accesses

    To improve performance of the pipeline checker, we treat the memory system as a black box into which we feed addresses and which gives back memory faults or data values. And we use memory interface specifications to ensure that this black box has the full range of legal behaviours that the actual memory system can exhibit.

    We omit the memory system because it is very large and stateful (making it a challenge for model checkers) and because the concurrency between the processor on one side and the bus/cache on the other side is better checked using other techniques.

All verification techniques have limitations in what they can check. The important thing is understanding those limitations so that you can find some other technique to fill the gaps.


This is one 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 presented at the 2016 International Conference on Computer Aided Verification on Friday 22nd July, 2016. 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 30, 2016