The CS 6120 Course Blog

Shrimp: Verifying IRs with Rosette

by Rachit Nigam & Sam Thomas

The Problem

Writing programs is famously hard. Writing program that generate programs (compilers) is harder still. Compiler verification usually comes in two flavors: (1) Proving a compiler is correct by construction using a proof-assistant, or (2) proving that each compiler pass preserves the observable semantics of a program by checking the equivalence of the input and the output programs. The salient difference is that in the correct-by-construction approach, the compiler is verified, i.e. the verification is done once, while in the equivalence-checking approach, the output is verified which requires verification to happen every time a pass is run.

Non-trivial correct by construction compilers have been demonstrated to be viable for but require several person-years of work to implement, specify1, and prove correct. On the other hand, proving program equivalence automatically is a remarkably hard problem which forces such verification efforts to somehow bound the space of program behaviors.

For our project, we implemented a pass verification infrastructure for Bril using the Rosette framework and verified the correctness of a local value numbering pass.

SMT Solving, Briefy

Underyling a lot of automatic proof generation is SMT solving. Satisfiability Modulo Theories (SMT) is a generalization of the SAT problem that allows us to augment our logic with various "theories" (naturals, rationals, arrays, etc.) to prove properties in a domain that we care about. For example, SAT + theory of integers can be used to solve Integer Linear Programming problems.

Program properties can be verified by first encoding the semantics of your language as an SMT formula and asking a solver to prove its correctness by finding a satisfying assignment.


Rosette is a symbolic execution engine for the Racket programming language. It lets us write normal Racket programs and does the work of automatically lifting them to perform symbolic computations. This is different than simply having bindings into an SMT solver where you use code to generate constraints because Rosette gives symbolic meaning to actual Racket programs.

Consider the following program:

def add(x):
  return x + 1

In addition to running this program with concrete inputs (like 1), Rosette allows us to run it with a symbolic input. When computing with symbolic inputs, Rosette lifts operations like + to return symbolic formulas instead. So, running this program with the symbolic input x would give us the symbolic value x + 1.

Rosette also lets us ask verification queries using a symbolic inputs. We can write the following program:

symbolic x integer?
verify (forall x. add(x) > x)

Rosette will convert this into an SMT formula and verify its correctness using a backend solver.

If we give Rosette a falsifiable formula:

symbolic x integer?
verify (forall x. add(x) < x)

Rosette generate a model where the formula is false. In this case, Rosette will report that when x = 0, this formula is false.

Symbolic Interpretation

A symbolic interpreter is simply an interpreter that executes over symbolic values rather than real values. A standard interpreter takes an expression, such as x + 2 + 3, and a concrete variable assignment, like x = 1, and then recursively evaluates the expression, substituting the value for x every time we see it. In this case x + 2 + 3 evaluates to 6. A symbolic interpreter works on the same types of programs, but takes symbols as arguments instead of concrete value assignments. For the same program, x + 2 + 3, symbolic interpretation produces the formula x + 5. Computations that don't involve symbols are still run concretely and Rosette is smart enough to do this regardless of the parenthesization of the expression.

This proves useful for verification because it reduces the problem of program equivalence to formula equivalence. To prove that the program x + 2 + 3 is equivalent to the program 3 + 2 + x we only need to reduce these to formulas and then prove their equivalence. This still looks hard, but it turns out that we can use SMT solvers to do most of the hard work.

We have reduced the problem of program equivalence to symbolic interpretation plus a query to an SMT solver. Fortunately, Rosette makes both of these tasks simple. We can write a normal interpreter for Bril in Racket and Rosette will lift the computation into SMT formulas and also make the query to the SMT solver.

Limiting scope to basic blocks

The scalability of SMT-based verification depends on the choice of the theories we use (reals, integers, arrays, etc.) and the size of formulas we generate.

Choosing rich theories like non-linear arithemtic make it easier to translate the semantics of a program but also genearate formulaes that might be undecidable. We restrict ourselves to the fragement of Quantifier Bitvector Formulas which have fast, decidable solvers. Rosette automatically translates all integers to bitvectors of a programmer defined size.

To reduce the size of the formulas we generate, we only try to prove equivalence at the basic block level. Note that basic-block equivalence implies program equivalence but not the other way around. That means that our verifier is necessarily conservative and might give false positives. We think basic block equivalence is the right level of verification because most optimizations only locally change the program structure (they either add basic blocks or remove them, but not both). We defer the problem of verifier more complicated optimizations.

To verify that two basic blocks are equivalent, we assume that the common set of live variables are equal, and ask Rosette to verify that the symbolic formulas we get from interpretation for each assigned variable are equivalent. Formally, for two basic blocks $b1$ and $b2$, we generate the formula:

$ \forall lives(b1), lives(b2). interpret(b1) = interpret(b2) $

where the $lives$ function generates the live variables in a basic block and $interpret$ returns a new state map for all variables in the basic block.

Concretely, given the following basic block:

block1 {
  sum1: int = add a b;
  sum2: int = add a b;
  prod: int = mul sum1 sum2;

a simple CSE and dead code elimination will produce the following code:

block2 {
  sum1: int = add a b;
  prod: int = mul sum1 sum1;

We first find the common set of live variables. In this case, a, b are live at the beginning of both of these blocks. Next, we create a symbolic version of these variables for each block. We'll use $ to designate symbolic variables. This gives us a$1, b$1 for the first block and a$2, b$2 for the second block. We assume that a$1 = a$2 and b$1 = b$2. Then we can call our basic block symbolic interpreter with these variables to get the following formula:

sum1 = a$1 + b$1
prod = (a$1 + b$1) * (a$1 + b$1)

sum1 = a$2 + b$2
sum2 = a$2 + b$2
prod = (a$2 + b$2) * (a$2 + b$2)

Finally we check if the variables which are defined in both blocks are equivalent. In other words, assuming that the common live variables are equal, is the following true:

$ \forall a1, a2, b1, b2. a1 + b1 = a2 + b2 \land (a1 + b1) * (a1 + b1) = (a2 + b2) * (a2 + b2) $

The SMT solver will verify this for us, and if it can't prove the formula to be valid, it will provide a counter-example to prove it. In this case, it is not too hard to see that this formula is in fact valid, which shows that these two basic blocks are functionally equivalent.


The downside of this approach is that it only conservatively approximates the result of each basic block. We may lose information about constraints on variables that cross basic block boundaries and are therefore unable to verify the correctness of global program optimizations. For example, consider the following toy program:

main {
  a: int = const 2;
  b: int = const 4;
  c: int = id a;
  jmp next;
  sum: int = add a c;

Because c is a copy of a, this program would be functionally the same if you replaced the assignment to sum with sum: int = add a a. However, because we are only doing verification on the basic block level, we don't know that these programs are equivalent.

Another problem is that this approach to verification relies on the existence of test programs. We are not actually analyzing the code of the optimization so if you don't have extensive enough tests, bugs may go by unnoticed. Of course, you could run this after every invocation of the compiler to increase the likelihood of finding bugs.


To evaluate Shrimp, we implemented Common sub-expression elimination (CSE) using Local value numbering (LVN) to show that Shrimp is useful in finding correctness bugs. We intentionally planted two bugs and found a third bug in the process of testing.

There are some subtleties to a correct implementation of LVN. If you know that the variable sum1 holds the value a + b, you have to make sure that sum1 is not assigned to again before you use it. For example, consider the following Bril program:

sum1: int = add a b;
sum1: int = id a;
sum2: int = add a b;
prod: int = mul sum1 sum2;

We would like to replace sum2: int = add a b with sum2: int = id sum1 because we have already computed the value. However, we can't do this directly because then sum2 would have the value a, not a + b. The solution is to rename the first instance of sum1 to something unique so that we don't lose our reference to the value a + b. We can then replace sum2 with a copy from this new variable.

We implemented the faulty version and ran Shrimp. It was able to show that the programs are not equivalent and even produced a counter example to prove this. With this information, it is easy to walk through the execution of the code and discover the source of the bug.

Next we tried extending CSE to deal with associativity. It would be nice if the compiler knew that a + b is equal to b + a so that it could eliminate more sub-expressions. The most naïve thing to do is sort the arguments for all expressions when you compare them so that a + b is the same value as b + a. However, this by itself is not enough. Testing the following example with Shrimp reveals the problem:

 sub1: int = sub a b;
 sub2: int = sub b a;
 prod: int = mul sub1 sub2;

Shrimp gives us the counter example a = -8, b = -4. The problem is that we can't sort the arguments for every instruction; $a - b \neq b - a$. Shrimp helps to reveal this problem.

The final bug was actually an unintentional bug that Shrimp helped us find. We made the arguably bad decision to give each Bril instruction its own structure that is a sub-type of a dest-instr structure rather than to give dest-instr an op-code field. When we were looking up values in the LVN table, we were only comparing that fields in dest-instr were the same. We forgot to compare the actual types of the instructions! Shrimp was able to reveal this code from the following example:

sub1: int = sub a b;
sub1: int = add a b;
sub2: int = sub b a;
prod: int = mul sub1 sub2;

This made it easy to find and fix a rather embarrassing bug in the LVN implementation.


Symbolic verification provides a trade-off between verification effort and the completeness of a verification procedure. Beyond our implementation, there has also been recent work in verifying correctness of file systems, memory models, and operating systems code using symbolic verification demonstrating the flexibility of this approach to program verification.


The problem of specifying the correctness condition of a compiler is itself a non-trivial, open research problem. Should the compiler preserve the stdout behavior, or should it give even stronger guarantees such as preserving the timing behavior?