Lecture 18: Verification

We will use the term verification to refer to a process that generates high assurance code that works on all inputs and in all environments. Testing is a good, cost-effective way of getting assurance, but it is not a verification process in this sense because there is no guarantee that the coverage of the tests is sufficient for all uses of the code. Verification generates a proof (sometimes only implicitly) that all inputs will result in outputs that conform to the specification. In this lecture, we look at verification based on explicitly but somewhat informally proving correctness of the code.

Verification tends to be expensive and to require thinking carefully about and deeply understanding the code to be verified. In practice, it tends to be applied to code that is important and relatively short. Verification is particularly valuable for critical systems where testing is less effective. Because their execution is not deterministic, concurrent programs are hard to test, and sometimes subtle bugs can only be found by attempting to verify the code formally. In fact, tools to help prove programs correct have been getting increasingly effective and some large systems have been fully verified, including compilers, processors and processor emulators, and key pieces of operating systems.

Another benefit to studying verification is that when you understand what it takes to prove code correct, it will help you reason about your own code (or others') and to write code that is correct more likely to be correct, based on specs that are more precise and useful.

In recent years, techniques have been developed that combine ideas from verification and testing have been developed that can sometimes give the best of both worlds. These ideas, model checking and abstract interpretation, can give the same level of assurance as formal verification at lower cost, or more assurance than testing at similar cost. However, in this lecture, we'll look at verification in the classic sense.

A Simple Example

Let's prove a short piece of code correct in a slightly informal but hopefully convincing way. Here is a slightly odd implementation of the max function on integers, using abs, whose spec is also given:

(* Returns: max x y is the maximum of x and y.  That is,
 * ((max x y = x) or (max x y = y)) and (max x y >= x) and (max x y >= y)
 * Requires: Both x and y are between min_int/2 and max_int/2
let max x y = (x + y + abs(y-x))/2

(* Returns: abs x  is x if x >= 0, -x otherwise. *)
val abs : int -> int

Because this implementation doesn't use if (assuming abs doesn't), it's conceivable that this could be faster than the obvious implementation!

To verify a function like this max, we'll use two ideas. First, we'll consider the possible executions of the code starting from an arbitrary call satisfying the precondition. As execution proceeds, we'll accumulate facts we know about the current execution. Second, at some points during execution we won't know enough about what is supposed to happen, and we'll have to consider some possible cases. We have to argue that the postcondition of the function is satisfied no matter which case is taken.

We start by considering an evaluation of max x y, where x and y represent are integers satisfying the precondition. We record the precondition as an assumption in the right column. As a shorthand, we'll use PRE to represent the precondition, (min_int ≤ x ≤ max_int and min_int ≤ y ≤ max_int). One thing we need to know is that the OCaml operators + and act like mathematical addition and subtraction as long as the mathematical result is within the range min_int to max_int:

   (* (+) x y is x + y.
      Requires: min_int ≤ x + y ≤ max_int *)
   (* (−) x y is x − y.
      Requires: min_int ≤ x − y ≤ max_int *)

Now we proceed with the proof, which is organized as a table in which each row represents another evaluation step.

max x y PRE We consider an arbitary legal application of max.
(x+y+abs(y-x))/2 PRE Substitute the actuals for the formals in the function body.
(n1+abs(y-x))/2 PRE
n1 = x + y
x+y evaluates to some number n1. PRE says that x and y are both less than half of min_int or max_int, so their sum must be a valid integer; therefore there can't be overflow when they are added.
(n1+abs(n2))/2 PRE
n1 = x + y
n2 = y − x
y−x evaluates to some number n2. Again, we can't have an overflow doing this subtraction. But now we don't know the result of abs. We use the spec of abs, but separately consider the cases where y ≥ x and where y < x.
Case: y ≥ x
(n1+n2)/2 PRE
n1 = x + y
n2 = y − x
Since y≥x, abs(n2) = n2.
n3/2 PRE
n1 = x + y
n2 = y − x
n3 = n1+n2 = 2y
n1+n2 = x+y + (y−x) = 2y. Because y ≤ max_int/2, we can't get an overflow here either.
n1+n2 = x+y + (y−x) = 2y. Since y≥x, the answer we got (y) is the correct one according to the spec. Now we consider the other case, which is symmetrical.
Case: y < x
(n1+n2)/2 PRE
n1 = x + y
n2 = y − x
Since y<x, abs(n2) = −n2 = x−y
n3/2 PRE
n1 = x + y
n2 = y − x
n3 = n1−n2 = 2x
n1+n2 = x+y - (y−x) = 2x. Since x ≤ max_int/2, we can't get an overflow here either.
n1+n2 = x+y - (y−x) = 2x. Because y<x, the answer we got (x) is the correct one according to the spec.

The rule of the game here is that we can make an evaluation step on the left column as long as we have enough information in our assumptions to know what evaluation step is taken. And we can introduce fresh variables like n1, n2, n3 to represent unknown values that are computed. We can apply functions, such as abs, if their preconditions are satisfied. If we don't have enough information in our current set of assumptions (the middle column), then we can break our analysis into a set of cases as long as the cases are exhaustive. An analysis by cases acts like a stack: each case is a separate assumption or assumptions that create a hypothetical world that we must reason about. The indenting in the table above indicates when we are in such a hypothetical world. Once we arrive at a result, we need to be able to show that result satisfies the postcondition, using information available in the current set of assumptions.

Modular Verification

In our proof that max met its spec, we assumed that the abs met its spec. This was good because we didn't have to look at the code of abs. This was an example of modular verification, in which we were able to verify one small unit of code at a time. Function specifications, abstraction functions, and rep invariants make it possible to verify modules one function at a time, without looking at the code of other functions. If modules have no cyclic dependencies, which OCaml enforces, then the proof of each module can be constructed assuming that every other module satisfies the specs in its interface. The proof of the entire software system is then built from the bottom up.


Sometimes one specification is stronger than another specification. For example, consider two possible specifications for find:

A: (* find lst x  is an index at which x is
    *   is found in lst; that is, nth(lst, find lst x) = x
    * Requires: x is in lst *)
B: (* find lst x  is the first index at which x is
    *   is found in lst, starting from zero
    * Requires: x is in lst *)

Here specification B is strictly stronger than specification A: given a particular input to function as specified by B, the set of possible results or outcomes is smaller than it is for A. Compared to A, specification B reduces the amount of nondeterminism. In this case we say that specification B refines specification A. In general, specification B refines specification A if any implementation of B is a valid implementation of A.

The interaction between refinement and preconditions can be confusing at first. Suppose that specifications A and B have the same postcondition (results clause), but specification A has a stronger precondition. In the example A above, we might require not only that x is in lst, but that it is in the list exactly once. In this case B still refines A: it has a stronger (more restrictive) postcondition and a weaker (less restrictive) precondition, which means that an implementation of B satisfies the spec of A. Thinking about this from the viewpoint of a client who expects A but actually gets B may be helpful. The client makes calls that satisfy A's precondition, and therefore satisfy B's precondition to. The client gets back results that satisfy B's postcondition, and therefore satisfy A's postcondition too.

There are other ways to refine a specification. For example, if specification A contains a requires clause, and specification B is identical but changes the requires clause to a checks clause, B refines A: it more precisely describes the behavior of the specified function.

We can think of the actual code implementing the function as another specification of the computation to be performed. This implementation-derived specification must be at least as strong as the specification written in the comment; otherwise, the implementation may do things that the specification forbids. In other words, any correct implementation must refine its specification

Automatic verification

We've been looking at how to write human-readable specifications. It is possible to write specifications in a formal language that permits the computer to read them. These machine-readable specifications can be used to perform formal verification of the program. Using a formal specification, an automatic theorem prover can prove that the program as a whole actually does what it says it does. Formal program verification is an attractive technology because it can be used to guarantee that programs do not contain bugs!