Thursday, June 01, 2006

Metacompilers and Checkers

Imagine if your favorite compiler were extensible in such a way that you could add your own custom static checks, to find bugs of a special kind that you need to be able to find but that your compiler is too stupid to know about out-of-the-box. That's the intuition behind metacompiler (MC) technology. You write a checker, which is a snap-in that knows how to check for whatever kind of syntactic or other blunder you care about, and add it to the compiler. Then the compiler knows how to emit new warnings or error messages.

A checker can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want it to be. Maybe you want to be sure that every call to foo( ) is eventually followed by a corresponding call to bar( ). Or you may have application-specific security concerns (in the context of export laws, perhaps). Or you may have company policy around certain syntactical idiosyncracies that would only be of specific concern to your department or your company.

Interestingly, the Stanford MC guys did a pass against the Linux kernel using their own custom checkers plugged into their own MC-aware gcc and found almost 600 potentially serious bugs, most of which have not been looked into yet (if you believe Coverity's latest findings).

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