OSDI '04 Paper
[OSDI '04 Technical Program]
Enhancing Server Availability and Security
Martin Rinard, Cristian Cadar, Daniel Dumitran,
Daniel M. Roy,
Tudor Leu, and William S. Beebee, Jr.
Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA 02139
We present a new technique, failure-oblivious computing, that
enables servers to execute through memory errors without
memory corruption. Our safe compiler for C inserts checks that
dynamically detect invalid memory accesses. Instead of terminating
or throwing an exception, the generated code simply discards
invalid writes and manufactures values to return for invalid reads,
enabling the server to continue its normal execution path.
We have applied failure-oblivious computing to a set of widely-used
servers from the Linux-based open-source
computing environment. Our results show that our techniques 1) make
these servers invulnerable to known security attacks that
exploit memory errors, and 2) enable the servers to continue to
operate successfully to service legitimate requests and satisfy the
needs of their users even after attacks trigger their memory errors.
We observed several reasons for this successful continued
execution. When the memory errors occur in irrelevant computations,
failure-oblivious computing enables the server to execute through the
memory errors to continue on to execute the relevant computation.
Even when the memory errors occur
in relevant computations, failure-oblivious computing converts
requests that trigger unanticipated and dangerous execution paths into
anticipated invalid inputs, which the error-handling logic in the
server rejects. Because servers tend to have small error propagation
distances (localized errors in the computation for one request tend to
have little or no effect on the computations for subsequent requests),
redirecting reads that would otherwise cause addressing errors and
discarding writes that would otherwise corrupt critical data
structures (such as the call stack) localizes the effect of the memory
errors, prevents addressing exceptions from terminating the
computation, and enables the server to continue on to successfully
process subsequent requests. The overall result is a substantial
extension of the range of requests that the server can successfully
Memory errors such as out of bounds array accesses and
invalid pointer accesses are a common source of program failures. Safe
languages such as ML and Java use dynamic checks to eliminate such
errors -- if, for example, the program attempts to access an out of
bounds array element, the implementation intercepts the attempt and
throws an exception. The rationale is that an invalid memory access
indicates an unanticipated programming error and it is unsafe to
continue the execution without first taking some action to recover
from the error.
Recently, several research groups have developed compilers that
augment programs written in unsafe languages such as C with dynamic
checks that intercept out of bounds array accesses and accesses via
invalid pointers (we call such a compiler a safe-C
compiler) [17,58,45,36,50,37]. These checks use additional information about the
layout of the address space to distinguish illegal accesses
from legal accesses. If the program fails a check, it
terminates after printing an error message.
Note that it is possible for the compiler to automatically transform
the program so that, instead of throwing an exception or terminating,
it simply ignores any memory errors and continues to execute
normally. Specifically, if the program attempts to read an out of
bounds array element or use an invalid pointer to read a memory
location, the implementation can simply (via any number of mechanisms)
manufacture a value to supply to the program as the result of the
read, and the program can continue to execute with that
value. Similarly, if the program attempts to write a value to an out
of bounds array element or use an invalid pointer to write a memory
location, the implementation can simply discard the value and
continue. We call a computation that uses this strategy a failure-oblivious computation, since it is oblivious to its failure
to correctly access memory.
It is not immediately clear what will happen when a program
uses this strategy to execute through a memory error. When we started
this project, our hypothesis was that, for at least some programs, this
continued execution would produce acceptable results. To test this
hypothesis, we implemented a C compiler that generates failure-oblivious
code, obtained some C programs with known memory errors, and
observed the execution of failure-oblivious versions of these
programs. Here is a summary of our observations:
- Acceptable Continued Execution:
We targeted memory errors in servers that
correspond to security vulnerabilities as documented at
vulnerability tracking web sites [13,12].
For all of our tested servers, failure-oblivious computing 1) eliminates
the security vulnerability
and 2) enables the server to successfully execute through the error
to continue to serve the needs of its users.
- Acceptable Performance: Failure-oblivious computing
entails the insertion of dynamic bounds checks into the compiled
program. Previous experiments with safe-C compilers have indicated that
these checks usually cause the program to run less than a factor of
two slower than the version without checks, but that in some cases
the program may run as much as eight to twelve times
Our results are consistent with these previous results.
Note that many of our servers implement interactive
computations for which the appropriate performance measure is the observed
pause times for processing interactive requests.
For all of our interactive servers, the
application of failure-oblivious computing does not perceptibly
increase the pause times.
Our conclusion is that continued execution through memory errors produces
completely acceptable results for all of our servers
as long as failure-oblivious computing
prevents these errors from corrupting the server's address space or
Memory errors can damage a computation in several ways: 1) they can
cause the computation to terminate with an addressing exception, 2)
they can cause the computation to become stuck in an infinite loop, 3)
they can change the flow of control to cause the computation to
generate a new and unacceptable interaction sequence (either with the
user or with I/O devices), 4) they can corrupt data structures that
must be consistent for the remainder of the computation to execute
acceptably, or 5) they can cause the computation to produce
Because failure-oblivious computing intercepts all invalid memory
accesses, it eliminates the possibility that the computation may
terminate with an addressing exception. It is still possible for the
computation to infinite loop, but we have found a sequence of return
values for invalid reads that, in practice, appears to eliminate this
problem for our server programs. Our servers have simple interaction
sequences -- read a request, process the request without further
interaction, then return the response. As long as the computation that
processes the request terminates, control will appropriately flow back
to the code that reads the next request and there will be no
unacceptable interaction sequences. Discarding invalid writes tends
to localize any memory corruption effects. In particular, it prevents
an access to one data unit (such as a buffer, array, or allocated
memory block) from corrupting another data unit. In practice, this
localization protects many critical data structures (such as widely
used application data structures or the call stack) that must remain
consistent for the program to execute acceptably.
The remaining issue is the potential production of unacceptable
results. Manufacturing values for reads clearly has the potential to
cause a subcomputation to produce an incorrect or unexpected
result. The key question is how (or even if) the incorrect or
unexpected result may propagate through the remaining computation to
affect the overall results of the program.
All of our initially targeted memory errors eventually boil down to
buffer-overrun problems: as it processes a request, the server
allocates a fixed-size buffer, then (under certain circumstances)
fails to check that the data actually fits into this buffer. An
attacker can exploit this error by submitting a request that causes
the server to write beyond the bounds of the buffer to overwrite the
contents of the stack or heap, typically with injected code that the
server then executes. Such attacks are currently the most common
source of exploited security vulnerabilities in modern networked
computer systems . Estimates place the total cost of
such attacks in the billions of dollars annually .
Failure-oblivious computing makes a server invulnerable to this kind
of attack -- the server simply discards the out of bounds writes,
preserving the consistency of the call stack and other critical data
structures. For two of our servers the memory errors occur in
computations and buffers that are irrelevant to the overall results
that the server produces for that request. Because failure oblivious
computing eliminates any addressing exceptions that would otherwise
terminate the computation, the server executes through the irrelevant
computation and proceeds on to process the request (and subsequent
requests) successfully. For the other servers (in these servers the
memory errors occur in relevant computations and buffers) ,
failure-oblivious computing converts the attack request (which would
otherwise trigger a dangerous, unanticipated execution path) into an
anticipated invalid input which the server's standard error-handling
logic rejects. The server then proceeds on to read and process
subsequent requests acceptably.
One of the reasons that failure-oblivious computing works well for our
servers is that they have short error propagation distances -- an
error in the computation for one request tends to have little or no
effect on the computation for subsequent requests. By discarding
invalid writes, failure-oblivious computing isolates the effect of any
memory errors to data local to the computation for the request that
triggered the errors. The result is that the server has short data
error propagation distances -- the errors do not propagate to data
structures required to process subsequent requests. The servers also
have short control flow error propagation distances: by preventing
addressing exceptions from terminating the computation,
failure-oblivious computing enables the server to return to a control
flow path that leads it back to read and process the next request.
Together, these short data and control flow propagation distances
ensure that any effects of the memory error quickly work their way out
of the computation, leaving the server ready to successfully process
Our expectation is that failure-oblivious computing will work best
with computations, such as servers, that have short error propagation
distances. Failure-oblivious computing enables these programs to
survive otherwise fatal errors or attacks and to continue on to
execute and interact acceptably. Failure-oblivious computing should
also be appropriate for multipurpose systems with many components --
it can prevent an error in one component from corrupting data in other
components and keep the system as a whole operating so that other
components can continue to successfully fulfill their purpose in the
Until we develop technology that allows us to track results derived
from computations with memory errors, we anticipate that
failure-oblivious computing will be less appropriate for programs
(such as many numerical computing programs) in which a single error
can propagate through to affect much of the computation. We also
anticipate that it will be less appropriate for programs in which it
is acceptable and convenient to terminate the computation and await
external intervention. This situation occurs, for example, during
development -- the program is typically not producing any useful
results and developers with the ability and motivation to find and
eliminate any errors are readily available. We therefore see
failure-oblivious computing as useful primarily for deployed programs
whose users 1) need the results that the program produces and 2) are
unable or unwilling to tolerate failures or to find and fix errors in
The primary characteristic of failure-oblivious computing as compared
with previous approaches is continued execution combined with the
elimination of data structure corruption caused by memory errors. The
potential benefits include:
The combination of protection against data structure corruption and
continued execution in the face of memory errors can significantly
increase the availability of the server. This combination enables the
server to continue to provide service to legitimate users even in the
face of repeated attacks (or, for that matter, other
infrequently-triggered fatal memory errors).
- Security: Failure-oblivious computing eliminates
the possibility that an attacker can exploit memory errors to corrupt
the address space of the server. The result is a more secure system
that is immune to buffer-overrun attacks.
- Minimal Adoption Cost: The net adoption cost
to the developer is to recompile the server using a compiler that
generates failure-oblivious code. There is no need to change
programming languages, write exception handling code, or modify the
software in any way. Failure-oblivious computing can therefore be
applied immediately to today's software infrastructure.
- Reduced Administration Overhead:
One of the most challenging system administration tasks is ensuring
that servers are kept up to date with a constant stream of
(potentially disruptive) patches and upgrades; this stream is driven,
in large part, by the need to eliminate memory-error based security
vulnerabilities in otherwise perfectly acceptable servers. Because
failure-oblivious computing eliminates this class of errors, it may
enable system administrators to safely ignore patches whose purpose is
to eliminate security vulnerabilities caused by memory errors.
Ideally, administrators would become able to patch their systems
primarily to obtain new functionality, not because they need to close
security vulnerabilities in programs that are otherwise fully serving
the needs of their users.
There are also several potential drawbacks:
- Unanticipated Execution Paths: Failure-oblivious computing
has the potential to take the program down an execution path that was
unanticipated by the programmer, with the prospect of this path
producing unacceptable results.1 This possibility can be especially problematic
if errors in the unanticipated path have long propagation distances
through the relevant data or when control fails to flow back to an
appropriate point in the program. This drawback is, in our view, an
unavoidable consequence of any mechanism that is intended to
increase the resilience of programs in the face of errors -- errors
occur precisely because the program encountered a situation that the
programmer either did not anticipate or did not deem worth handling
- The Bystander Effect: A more abstract issue is the
potential for failure-oblivious computing to trigger the bystander effect in developers. In a variety of settings that range
from manufacturing  to personal
relationships [40,24], the mere presence of mechanisms that
may detect and compensate for errors has the effect of reducing the
effectiveness of the participants in the setting and, in the end, the
overall quality of the system as a whole. A potential explanation is
that the participants start to rely psychologically on the error
recovery mechanisms, which reduces their motivation to eliminate
errors in their own work. Deploying failure-oblivious computing into a
software development setting may therefore reduce the quality of the
software that the developers are able to deliver. One obvious way to
combat the bystander effect in this setting is to ban the use of
failure-oblivious computing during development. Once again, note that
the possibility of triggering the bystander effect is not restricted
to failure-oblivious computing -- any error recovery mechanism
has the potential to trigger this effect.
This paper makes the following contributions:
- Failure-Oblivious Computing: It introduces
the concept of failure-oblivious computing, in which the program
discards illegal writes, manufactures values for illegal reads, and
continues to execute through memory errors without address space or
data structure corruption.
- Experience: It presents our experience
using failure-oblivious computing to enhance the security and
availability of a range of widely used open-source servers. Our
results show that:
- Standard Compilation: With the standard
unsafe C compiler, the servers are vulnerable to memory errors and
attacks that exploit these memory errors.
- Safe Compilation: With a C compiler that generates
code that exits with an error message when it detects a memory error,
the servers exit when presented with an input that
triggers a memory error (denying the user access to the services
that the server is intended to provide).
- Failure-Oblivious Compilation: With our C compiler
that generates failure-oblivious code, all of our servers execute
successfully through memory errors and attacks to continue to satisfy
the needs of their users. Failure-oblivious computing improves both
the availability and the security of the servers in our test suite.
- Explanation: By relating the properties
of servers to the properties of failure-oblivious
computing, we explain why failure-oblivious computing may work well
for this general class of programs.
We next present a simple example that illustrates how
failure-oblivious computing operates. Figure 1
presents a (somewhat simplified) version of a procedure from the
Mutt mail client discussed in Section 4.6.
This procedure takes as input a string encoded in the UTF-8 format
and returns as output the same string encoded in modified UTF-7
format. This conversion may increase the size of
the string; the problem is that the procedure fails to
allocate sufficient space in the return string
for the worst-case size increase. Specifically, the
procedure assumes a worst-case increase ratio
of 2; the actual worst-case ratio is 7/3.
When passed (the very rare) inputs with large increase ratios,
the procedure attempts to write beyond the end of its output array.
String Encoding Conversion Procedure
With standard compilers, these writes succeed, corrupt the address
space, and the program terminates with a segmentation violation. With
safe-C compilers, Mutt exits with a memory error and does not even
start the user interface. With our compiler, which generates
failure-oblivious code, the program discards all writes beyond the end
of the array and the procedure returns with an incompletely translated
(truncated) version of the string. Mutt then uses the return value to
tell the mail server which mail folder it wants to open. The mail
server responds with an error code indicating that the folder does not
exist. Mutt correctly handles this error and continues to execute,
enabling the user to process email from other, legitimate, folders.
This example illustrates two key aspects of applying
- Subtle Errors: Real-world programs can contain
subtle memory errors that can be very difficult to detect
by either testing or code inspection, and these errors
can have significant negative consequences for the program
and its users.
- Mostly Correct Programs: Testing usually
ensures that the program is mostly correct and works well except
for exceptional operating conditions or inputs.
can therefore be seen as a way to enable the program
to proceed past such exceptional situations
to return back within its normal operating envelope.
And as this example illustrates, failure-oblivious computing
can actually facilitate this return
by converting unanticipated memory corruption
errors into anticipated error cases that the program
A failure-oblivious compiler generates two kinds of additional code:
checking code and continuation code. The checking code detects memory
errors and can be the same as in any memory-safe implementation. The
continuation code executes when the checking code detects an attempt
to perform an illegal access. This code is relatively simple: it
discards erroneous writes and manufactures a sequence of values for
Our implementation uses a checking scheme originally developed by
Jones and Kelly  and then significantly
enhanced by Ruwase and Lam . This checking scheme
maintains a table that maps locations to data units (each struct,
array, and variable is a data unit) and uses this table to
distinguish in bounds and out of bounds pointers.
Our implementation of the write continuation code simply discards the
value. Our implementation of the read continuation code redirects the
read to a preallocated buffer of values. In principle, any sequence
of manufactured values should work. In practice, these values are
sometimes used to determine loop conditions. Midnight Commander (see
Section 4.5), for example, contains a loop that, for some
inputs, searches past the end of a buffer looking for the ``
character. If the sequence of generated values does not include this
character, the loop never terminates and Midnight Commander hangs. We
therefore generate a sequence that iterates through all small
integers, increasing the chance that, if the values are used to
determine loop conditions, the computation will hit upon a value that
will exit the loop (and avoid nontermination). Because zero and one
are usually the most commonly loaded values in computer
programs , the sequence is designed to return
these values more frequently than other, less common, values.
One potential concern is that failure-oblivious computing may hide
errors that would otherwise be detected and eliminated.
To help make the errors more apparent, our compiler can
optionally augment the generated code to produce a log
containing information about the program's attempts to
commit memory errors. This log may help
administrators to detect and respond appropriately to the presence such
errors. Note, however, that hiding errors is one of the primary goals
of this research, and that any technique that makes programs more resilient
in the face of errors will reduce the negative impact of the errors
and therefore the incentive to find and eliminate them.
We implemented a compiler that generates failure-oblivious code,
obtained several widely-used open-source servers with known memory
errors, and evaluated the impact of failure-oblivious computing on
Many of these servers are
key components of the Linux-based open-source interactive computing
We evaluate the behavior of three different versions of each server:
the Standard version compiled with a standard C compiler (this
version is vulnerable to any memory errors that the server may
contain), the Bounds Check version compiled with the CRED safe-C
compiler  (this version terminates the server
with an error message at the first memory error), and the Failure Oblivious version compiled with our compiler.
We evaluate three aspects of each server's behavior:
- Security and Resilience: We chose a
workload that contains an input that triggers a known memory error
in the server; this input typically exploits a
security vulnerability as documented by vulnerability-tracking
organizations such as Security Focus  and SecuriTeam .
We observe the behavior of the different versions on this workload;
for the Failure Oblivious version we focus on the acceptability of the
continued execution after the error.
- Performance: We chose a workload that
both the Standard and Failure Oblivious versions can execute
successfully. We use this workload to measure the request
processing time, or the time required for each version to process
representative requests. We obtain this time by instrumenting the
server to record the time when it starts processing the request and
the time when it stops processing the request, then subtracting the
start time from the stop time.
- Stability: When possible, we deploy the Failure Oblivious
version of each server into daily use as part of our normal
During this deployment we ensure that the workload contains attacks
that trigger memory errors in each server. We focus on the
long-term acceptability of the continued execution of the
Failure Oblivious version of the deployed server.
We note that two of our servers (Pine and Midnight Commander) use out
of bounds pointers in pointer inequality comparisons. While this is,
strictly speaking, an error, the intention of the programmer is
clear. To avoid having these errors cripple the Bounds Check versions
of these servers, we (manually) rewrote the code containing the
inequality comparisons to eliminate pointer comparisons involving out
of bounds pointers.
We ran all the servers on a Dell workstation with
two 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processors, 2 GBytes of RAM, and running
Red Hat 8.0 Linux.
Pine is a widely used mail user agent (MUA) that is distributed with
the Linux operating system . Pine allows users to read
mail, fetch mail from an IMAP server, compose and forward mail
messages, and perform other email-related tasks. We use Pine 4.44,
which is distributed with Red Hat Linux version 8.0. This version of
Pine has a memory error associated with a failure to correctly parse
certain From fields .
4.2.1 The Memory Error
When Pine displays a list of messages, it processes the From field of
each message to quote certain characters. This quoting is implemented
by transferring the From field into a heap-allocated character buffer
for display, inserting a \ character into the buffer before any
quoted character. As part of the transfer, the length of the string can
increase because of the additional
\ characters. The procedure
that calculates the maximum possible length of the character buffer
fails to correctly account for the potential increase
and produces a length that is too short for messages whose
From fields contain many quoted characters.
4.2.2 Security and Resilience
The Standard version of Pine writes beyond the end of the buffer,
corrupts its heap, and terminates with a segmentation violation. The
Bounds Check version detects the memory error and terminates the
computation. With both of these versions, the user is unable to use
Pine to read mail because Pine aborts or terminates during
initialization as the mail file is loaded and before the user has a
chance to interact with the server. The user must manually eliminate
the From field from the mail file (using some other mail reader or
file editor) before he or she can use Pine to read mail at all.
The Failure Oblivious version discards the out of bounds writes (in
effect, truncating the translated From field) and continues to execute
through the memory error, enabling the user to process their
mail. Because the mail list user interface displays only an initial
segment of long From fields, the truncation
is not visible to the user. If the user selects the message, a different
execution path correctly translates the From field. The displayed
message contains the complete From field and the user can read,
forward, and otherwise process the message.
Figure 2 presents the request processing times for the
Standard and Failure Oblivious versions of Pine. All times are given
in milliseconds. The Read request displays a selected empty message,
the Compose request brings up the user interface to compose a message,
and the Move request moves an empty message from one folder to
another. We performed each request at least twenty times and report
the means and standard deviations of the request processing times.
All times are given in milliseconds.
Request Processing Times for Pine
Because Pine is an
interactive program, its performance is acceptable
as long as it feels responsive to its users. Assuming a pause perceptibility
threshold of 100 milliseconds for this kind of
interactive program ,
it is clear that failure-oblivious computing should
not degrade the program's interactive feel.
Our subjective experience confirms this expectation:
all pause times are imperceptible
for all versions.
During our stability testing period, we used Pine as a default mail
reader. Our activities included reading mail, replying to mails,
forwarding mails, and managing mail folders. During this time we used
Pine to process roughly 25 new mail messages a day (after spam
filtering). To test Pine's ability to successfully execute through
errors, we periodically sent an email that triggered the memory error
discussed above in Section 4.2.1. We also used the
failure-oblivious version of Pine to successfully process a large mail
folder containing over 100,000 messages.
During this usage period, the Failure
Oblivious version executed successfully through all errors to perform
all requests flawlessly.
The Apache HTTP server is the most widely used web server in the
world: a recent survey found that 64% of the web sites on the
Internet use Apache . Apache version 2.0.47 contains
a (under certain circumstances) remotely exploitable memory
Apache can be configured to automatically redirect incoming URLs via a
set of URL rewrite rules. Each rewrite rule contains a match
pattern (a regular expression that may match an incoming URL) and a
replacement pattern. The match pattern may contain parenthesized captures, each of which may match a substring from the incoming URL.
The replacement pattern may reference these captures. When an
incoming URL matches the match pattern, Apache replaces the URL with
the replacement pattern after substituting out any referenced captures
with the corresponding captured substrings from the incoming URL. As
Apache processes the incoming URL, it uses a (stack-allocated) buffer
to hold pairs of offsets that identify the captured substrings in the
incoming URL. The buffer contains enough room for ten captures. If
there are more, Apache writes the corresponding pairs of offsets
beyond the end of the buffer.
4.3.2 Security and Resilience
The Standard version performs the out of bounds writes, corrupts its
stack, and terminates with a segmentation violation. The Bounds Check
version correctly processes legitimate requests without memory errors
until it is presented with a URL that triggers the memory error. At
this point the child process serving the connection detects the error
and terminates. Apache uses a pool of child processes to serve
incoming requests. When one of the child processes terminates, the
main Apache process creates a new child process to take its place.
This mechanism allows both the Standard and Bounds Check versions of
Apache to continue to service requests even when repeatedly presented
with inputs that cause the child processes to terminate because of
The Failure Oblivious version discards the out of bounds writes and
continues to execute. It proceeds on to copy the first ten pairs of
offsets into another data structure. Apache uses this data structure
to apply the rewrite rule and generate the new URL. Because the
rewrite rule uses a single digit to reference each captured substring
(these substrings have names $0 through $9), it will never attempt
to access any discarded substring offset data. The Failure-Oblivious
version of Apache therefore processes each input correctly and
continues on to successfully process any subsequent requests. Because
the memory errors occur in irrelevant data structures and
computations, Failure Oblivious computing eliminates the memory error
without affecting the results of the computation at all.
Because Apache isolates request processing inside a pool of
regenerating processes, the Bounds Check version successfully
processes subsequent requests. The overhead of killing and restarting
child processes, however, makes this version vulnerable to an attack
that ties up the server by repeatedly presenting it with requests that
trigger the error. To investigate this effect, we used several
(local) machines to load the server with requests that trigger the
error. We then used another client machine to repeatedly fetch the
home page of our research project and measured the request throughput
at the client. For this workload, the Failure Oblivious version
provides a throughput roughly 5.7 times more than the Bounds Check
version provides (the insecure Standard version provides a throughput
roughly 4.8 times less than the Failure Oblivious version). We
attribute the slowdown for the Bounds Check and Standard versions to
process management overhead.
Figure 5 presents the request processing times for the
Standard and Failure Oblivious versions of Apache. The Small request
serves an 5KByte page (this is the home page for our research
project); the large request serves an 830KByte file used only for this
experiment. Both requests were local -- they came from the same
machine on which Apache was running. We performed each request at
least twenty times and report the means and standard deviations of the
request processing times. All times are given in milliseconds.
Request Processing Times for Apache
For the last nine months we have been using the Failure Oblivious
version of Apache to serve our research project's web site at www.flexc.csail.mit.edu; during this time period we measured
approximately 400 requests a day from outside our institution. We
also generated tens of thousands of requests from another
machine, all of which were served correctly. We anticipate that we
will continue to use the Failure Oblivious version to serve this web
site for the foreseeable future.
During this time period we periodically presented the web server
with requests that triggered the vulnerability discussed above.
The Failure Oblivious version executed successfully through
all of these attacks to continue to successfully service legitimate requests.
We observed no anomalous behavior and received no complaints from the
users of the web site.
Sendmail is the standard mail transfer agent for Linux and other Unix
systems . It is typically configured to run as a
daemon which creates a new process to service each new mail transfer
connection. This process executes a simple command language that
allows the remote agent to transfer email messages to the Sendmail
server, which may deliver the messages to local users or (if
necessary) forward some or all of the messages on to other Sendmail
servers. Versions of Sendmail earlier than 8.11.7 and 8.12.9 (8.11
and 8.12 are separate development threads) have a memory error
vulnerability which is triggered when a remote attacker sends a
carefully crafted email message through the Sendmail
daemon . We worked with Sendmail version 8.11.6.
The memory error occurs when Sendmail parses a mail address. A
prescan procedure processes the address one character at a time to
transfer characters from the address into a fixed-size stack-allocated
buffer. This transfer is coded to use a lookahead character and to
\ character specially. It is possible for there to be
no lookahead character, in which case the integer variable that holds
the lookahead character is set to -1. If this variable is set to -1
or contains a
\ character that appears in an odd position
(first, third, fifth, ...) in a sequence of contiguous
characters in the address, the prescan skips the block of code that
writes the lookahead character into the buffer (also skipping a check
to see if the buffer has enough space to hold the lookahead
character). It later writes a
\ character into the buffer
without a check if the lookahead character was
\ and not -1.
If the execution platform performs sign extension on character to
integer assignments, an attack message containing an appropriately
placed alternating sequence of -1 and
\ characters in the
address can therefore cause the prescan to write arbitrarily many
\ characters beyond the end of the buffer.
4.4.2 Security and Resilience
The Standard version of Sendmail performs the out of bounds writes and
corrupts its call stack. It is apparently possible for an attacker to
exploit the memory error to cause the Sendmail server to execute
arbitrary injected code . The Bounds Check
version exits with a memory error during initialization and fails to
operate at all. The Failure Oblivious version is not vulnerable to the
attack -- when sent the attack message, it discards the out of bounds
writes (preserving the integrity of the stack) and returns back out of
the prescan to continue to parse the email address. The next step is
to check if the input mail address is too long. This check fails,
throwing Sendmail into an anticipated error case. The standard error
processing logic in Sendmail then rejects the address, enabling
Sendmail to continue on to successfully process subsequent commands.
Figure 4 presents the means and standard
deviations of the request processing times for the Standard and
Failure Oblivious versions of Sendmail. All times are given in
milliseconds. The Receive Small request receives a message whose body
is 4 bytes long; the Send Small request sends the same message. The
Receive Large request receives a message whose body is 4Kbytes long;
the Send Large request sends the same message. We performed each test
at least twenty times to obtain the numbers in
Request Processing Times for Sendmail
We installed the Failure Oblivious version of Sendmail on one of our
machines and, over the course of several days, used it to send and
receive hundreds of thousands of email messages. During this time we
repeatedly sent the attack message through the Sendmail daemon, which
continued through the attack to correctly process all subsequent
Sendmail commands. All of the messages were correctly delivered with
no problems. Our memory error logs indicate that Sendmail generates a
steady stream of memory errors during its normal execution. In
particular, every time the Sendmail daemon wakes up to check for
incoming messages, it generates a memory error. This memory error
apparently completely disables the Bounds Check version.
4.5 Midnight Commander
Midnight Commander is an open source file management tool that allows
users to browse files and archives, copy files from one folder
to another, and delete files . Midnight Commander is
vulnerable to a memory-error attack associated with accessing an
uninitialized buffer when processing symbolic links in tgz
archives . We used Midnight Commander version
4.5.55 for our experiments.
Midnight Commander converts absolute symbolic links in tgz files into
links relative to the start of the tgz file. It uses the
strcat procedure to build up the name of the relative link in a
stack-allocated buffer. Unfortunately, the buffer is never
initialized. If there are multiple symbolic links in the directory,
the component names from all of the links simply accumulate
sequentially in the buffer as Midnight Commander processes the set of
links. If the combined length of all of the component names exceeds
the length of the buffer,
strcat writes the component names beyond
the end of the buffer.
4.5.2 Security and Resilience
The Standard version performs the writes, corrupts its stack, and
terminates with a segmentation violation. The Bounds Check version
detects the out of bounds access and terminates. The Failure
Oblivious version discards the out of bounds writes, enabling Midnight
Commander to continue and attempt to look up the data for the
referenced file. This lookup always fails (apparently even for the
first symbolic link, when the name in the buffer is correct). This is
an anticipated case in the Midnight Commander code, which treats the
symbolic link as a dangling link and displays it as such to the
user. Midnight Commander then continues on to successfully process any
subsequent user commands.
Figure 5 presents the request processing times
for the Standard and Failure Oblivious versions of Midnight Commander.
The Copy request
copies a 31Mbyte directory structure, the Move request moves
a directory of the same size, the MkDir request makes a new directory, and the
Delete request deletes a 3.2 Mbyte file.
We performed each request at least twenty times and report the means
and standard deviations of the request processing times. All times
are given in milliseconds.
Request Processing Times for Midnight Commander
As these numbers indicate, the Failure Oblivious version is not dramatically
slower than the Standard version. Moreover, because Midnight
Commander is an interactive program, its performance is acceptable
as long as it feels responsive to its users,
and these performance results make
it clear that the application of failure-oblivious computing
to this program should not degrade its interactive feel.
Our subjective experience confirms this expectation:
all pause times are imperceptible
for both the Standard and Failure Oblivious versions.
One of the authors uses Midnight Commander on a daily basis as his
standard file manipulation tool. During the stability testing period,
he used the Failure Oblivious version of Midnight Commander to manage
his files. Periodically during the sessions he attempted to open the
problematic archive (causing the program to execute through the
resulting memory error), then went back to using the Midnight
Commander to accomplish his work. Midnight Commander performed
without a problem during this time.
The error log shows that Midnight Commander has a memory error that is
triggered whenever a blank line occurs in its configuration file. We
verified that this error completely disabled the Bounds Check version until
we removed the blank lines. The Failure Oblivious version, on the other hand,
executed successfully through all memory errors to perform flawlessly
for all requests.
Mutt is a customizable, text-based mail user agent that is widely used
in the Unix system administration community . It is
descended from ELM  and supports a variety of features
including email threading and correct NFS mail spool locking. We used
Mutt version 1.4. As described at  and discussed in
Section 2, this version is vulnerable to an attack
that exploits a memory error in the conversion from UTF-8 to UTF-7
When Mutt opens a mailbox with an IMAP address, it converts the mail
folder name from UTF-8 to UTF-7 character encoding. Mutt allocates (in
the heap) a temporary character buffer to hold the UTF-7 encoded
name. Because UTF-8 to UTF-7 conversion can increase the length of the
name, Mutt allocates a buffer twice as long as the UTF-8 name to hold
the converted UTF-7 name. However, this buffer is not, in general,
long enough -- the conversion can increase the length of the UTF-8
name by as much as a factor of 7/3 and not just a factor of 2. When
presented with an appropriately constructed UTF-8 folder name, Mutt
writes the converted name beyond the end of the UTF-7 buffer.
4.6.2 Security and Resilience
The Standard version performs the writes, corrupts its heap, and terminates
with a segmentation violation. The Bounds Check version detects the
memory error and terminates before the user interface comes up. The
Failure Oblivious version discards the out of bounds writes,
effectively truncating the converted name. Note that even though the
UTF-7 buffer may contain no null characters, the folder name is
effectively null-terminated: reads beyond the end of the buffer will
eventually return null. Once Mutt has obtained the converted folder
name, the next step is to place a quoted and escaped version of the
name into yet another buffer, then pass this name on as part of a
command to the IMAP server. The IMAP server returns an error code
indicating that the folder does not exist, Mutt's standard
error-handling logic handles the returned error code, and Mutt
continues on to successfully process any subsequent user commands.
Figure 6 presents the request processing times for the
Standard and Failure Oblivious versions of Mutt. The Read request
reads a selected empty message and the Move request moves an empty
message from one folder to another. We performed each request at
least twenty times and report the means and standard deviations of the
request processing times. All times are given in milliseconds.
Request Processing Times for Mutt
is an interactive program, its performance is acceptable
as long as it feels responsive to its users. These performance results make
it clear that the application of failure-oblivious computing
to this program should not degrade its interactive feel.
Our subjective experience confirms this expectation:
all pause times are imperceptible
for both the Standard and Failure Oblivious versions.
During the stability testing period we used the Failure Oblivious
version of Mutt to process email messages. We configured Mutt to
trigger the security vulnerability described above when it
loaded. Mutt successfully executed through the resulting memory errors
to correctly execute all of his requests. We were able to read,
forward, and compose mail with no problems even after executing
through the memory error. We also used Mutt to process (with no
problems) a large mail folder containing over 100,000 messages.
Despite the fact that the dynamic bounds checks have, in theory, the
potential to substantially degrade the performance, for several of our
servers the overhead is relatively small -- the execution times of
many of the tasks we measured are apparently dominated by activities
(such I/O or operating system functionality) outside the
program. Because failure-oblivious computing does not affect the
efficiency of these activities, the amortized overhead is relatively
small. Moreover, several of our servers are interactive, and
interactive tasks can tolerate substantial execution time increases as
long as the system maintains its interactive feel. Our results show
that failure-oblivious computing maintained acceptable interactive
response times for all of our interactive tasks, even
for tasks with substantial execution time increases.
For servers, a monitor that detects memory errors and reboots the
server when it commits such an error might seem to provide an obvious
potential alternative to failure-oblivious computing. Apache, for
example, implements a regenerating pool of child processes.
The net effect is that the Bounds Check version of Apache can
terminate child processes at the first memory error without impairing
its ability to continue to service new requests. In comparison with
the Failure Oblivious version, the only downside is the performance
degradation associated with the resulting increase in process
The situation is somewhat different for Pine, Mutt, and Midnight
Commander. All of these programs initialize with no memory errors on
standard workloads. But once the mailbox contains a message that
elicits a memory error (Pine), the system is configured to use a
mail folder whose name elicits a memory error (Mutt), or the
configuration file contains a blank line (Midnight Commander), the
Bounds Check versions exit during initialization. In this situation,
restarting is of no use because the restarted computations would, once
again, simply exit during initialization. Because these errors are
triggered only by carefully crafted or unusual inputs, they could
easily make it through a fairly rigorous testing process without being
detected. These servers illustrate how aggressively terminating
computations at the first memory error can leave deployed systems
vulnerable to unanticipated inputs that trigger memory errors and
persist or recurr in the environment.
Because Sendmail has a memory error whenever it wakes up to check for
work, the Bounds Check version is simply unusable with or without
restarting. But note that because the memory errors occur on every
execution, it should be possible to use the Bounds Check version to
find and eliminate them (as well as any other reproducible memory
errors that occur during testing). Even with this change, however,
terminating and restarting Sendmail might prove to be problematic --
the Sendmail monitor would somehow have to avoid repeatedly presenting
Sendmail with messages that triggered a memory error. In contrast,
the Failure Oblivious version of Sendmail correctly executed
through memory errors to correctly process subsequent messages
and the Failure Oblivious version of Pine
correctly processed mail messages with headers that elicited memory
5 Related Work
We first note that failure-oblivious computing is an instance of
acceptability-oriented computing .
Acceptability-oriented computing replaces
the concept of program correctness with a set of acceptability
properties that must hold for the execution of the program to remain
acceptable. The programmer then builds and deploys acceptability
enforcement mechanisms whose actions ensure that these acceptability
properties do, in fact, hold. In the case of failure-oblivious
computing, the acceptability properties are the absence of memory
errors and continued execution; the acceptability enforcement
mechanism discards invalid writes and returns manufactured values for
Memory errors, failures, and failure recovery have been core concerns
in the field of computer systems since its inception. We discuss
related work in these areas.
We have implemented several variants and
extensions of our
basic failure-oblivious compiler. These include a compiler that
implements boundless memory blocks -- instead of discarding
invalid writes, the generated code stores the values in a hash table
indexed under the data unit identifier and
offset . Corresponding invalid reads return the
appropriate stored values. This variant eliminates size calculation
errors -- if the program logic is otherwise acceptable, the program
will execute acceptably. Another variant redirects out of bounds
accesses back into the accessed data unit at an appropriate offset.
This strategy may help related sets of out of bounds reads return
consistent values from properly initialized data units. Our experience
indicates that our set of servers works acceptably with both of these
Researchers have also developed a technique to protect servers
against buffer-overflow attacks by dynamically detecting buffer
overflows, then immediately terminating the enclosing function and
continuing on to execute the code immediately following the
corresponding function call . The results indicate
that, in many cases, the program can continue on to execute acceptably
after the premature function termination. This experience is
consistent with our experience that servers can continue to execute
successfully through memory errors if they simply discard out of
bounds writes and manufacture values for out of bounds reads.
Our work builds directly on previous research into
implementations [17,58,45,36,50,37]. Building on Ruwase and Lam's implementation
enabled us to apply failure-oblivious computing directly to legacy
programs without modification (some implementations also have this
property ); some other implementations may require
It is also feasible
to apply failure-oblivious computing to safe languages such as Java or
ML by simply replacing the generated code that throws an exception in
response to a memory error. As for safe-C implementations, the new
code would simply discard illegal writes and return manufactured
values for illegal reads.
It is also possible to attack the memory error problem directly at its
source: a combination of static analysis and program annotations
should, in principle, enable programmers to deliver programs that are
completely free of memory errors [28,27,57,49]. All of these
techniques share the same advantage (a static guarantee that the
program will not exhibit a specific kind of memory error) and
drawbacks (the need for programmer annotations or the possibility of
conservatively rejecting safe programs). Even if the analysis is
not able to verify that the entire program is free of memory
errors, it may be able to statically recognize some accesses that will never
cause a memory error, remove the dynamic checks for those accesses,
and thereby reduce any dynamic checking overhead [32,18,49].
Researchers have also
developed unsound, incomplete analyses that heuristically identify
potential errors [54,19]. The advantage is that such
approaches typically require no annotations and scale better to larger
programs; the disadvantage is that (because they are unsound) they may
miss some genuine memory errors.
Researchers have developed techniques that are designed to detect
buffer-overrun attacks after they have occurred, then halt the
execution of the program before the attack can take
effect. StackGuard  and
StackShield  modify the compiler to generate code to
detect attacks that overwrite the return address on the stack;
StackShield also performs range checks to detect overwritten function
pointers. It is also possible to apply buffer-overrun detection
directly to binaries. Purify instruments the binary to detect a range
of memory errors, including buffer overruns . Program
shepherding uses an efficient binary interpreter to prevent an
attacker from executing injected code . A
key difference is that failure-oblivious computing prevents the attack
from performing the writes that corrupt the address space, which
enables the program to continue to execute successfully.
A traditional and widely used error recovery mechanism is to reboot
the system, with repair applied during the reboot if necessary to
bring the system back up successfully . Mechanisms
such as fast reboots  and
checkpointing [41,42] can improve the performance of
the basic reboot process.
It is also possible to subdivide (potentially recursively) a system
into isolated components, then apply a partial reboot strategy at the
granularity of the components. By promoting the construction of the
operating system as a collection of small components, microkernel
architectures [46,33,29] support the application of
this approach to operating systems. It is also possible to use
mechanisms such as software-based fault isolation  or
fine-grained hardware memory protection  to apply this
strategy to selected parts of monolithic operating systems such as
kernel extensions. The experimental results show that this approach
can eliminate the vast majority of system crashes caused by such
extensions . Helper agents are often useful to facilitate
the clean termination and reintegration of the restarted component
back into the running system (this approach generalizes to support
arbitrary recovery actions) . It may also be worthwhile to
recursively restart larger and larger subsystems until the system
successfully recovers .
Failure-oblivious computing differs in that it is designed to keep the
system operating through errors instead of restarting.
The potential advantages include
better availability because of the elimination of down time and the
elimination of vulnerabilities to persistent errors. Rebooting, on
the other hand, may help ensure that the system stays more closely
within the anticipated operating envelope.
Motivated in part by the need to avoid rebooting, researchers have
developed more fine-grain error recovery mechanisms. The Lucent 5ESS
switch and the IBM MVS operating system, for example, both contain
software components that detect and attempt to repair inconsistent
data structures [35,44,31]. Other techniques include
failure recovery blocks and exception handlers, both of which may
contain hand-coded recovery algorithms .
To apply these techniques, the programmer
must anticipate some aspects of the error and, based on this
understanding, develop an appropriate recovery strategy.
Failure-oblivious computing, on the other hand, can be applied without
programmer intervention to any system and may therefore make the
system oblivious to even completely unanticipated errors. Of course,
this generality cuts both ways -- in particular, failure-oblivious
computing may produce less appropriate responses to anticipated
errors. We therefore view failure-oblivious computing as largely
orthogonal to more application-tailored recovery mechanisms (although
failure-oblivious computing may eliminate some of the errors that
these mechanisms would otherwise have handled).
Data structure repair  occupies a middle ground. Like
more traditional error detection and recovery techniques, it requires
the programmer to provide some application-specific information (in
the case of data structure repair, a data structure consistency
specification). But because there is no explicit recovery procedure
and because the consistency specification is not tied to specific
blocks of code, data structure repair may enable systems to more
effectively recover from unanticipated data structure corruption
The seemingly inherent brittleness, complexity, and
vulnerability (to both errors and attacks) of computer programs can make
them frustrating or even dangerous to use.
While existing memory-safe languages and memory-safe implementations
of unsafe languages may eliminate memory-error vulnerabilities, they
can also decrease availability by aggressively throwing exceptions or
even terminating the program at the first sign of an error.
Our results show that failure-oblivious computation enhances availability,
resilience, and security by continuing to execute through memory
errors while ensuring that such errors do not corrupt the
address space or data structures of the computation.
In many cases failure-oblivious computing can automatically
convert unanticipated and dangerous inputs or data
into anticipated error cases that the program
is designed to handle correctly. The result is that the program
survives the unanticipated situation, returns back into its
normal operating envelope, and continues to satisfy the needs
of its users.
One of the major long-term goals of computer science has been understanding
how to build more robust, resilient programs that can flexibly and
successfully cope with unanticipated situations.
Our research suggests that, remarkably, current systems may
already have a substantial capacity for exhibiting this kind of
desirable behavior if we only provide a way for them to
ignore their errors, protect their data structures from
damage, and continue to execute.
The authors would like to thank our shepherd David Wagner and the
anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and helpful comments. This
research was supported in part by the Singapore-MIT Alliance,
DARPA award FA8750-04-2-0254, and NSF
grants CCR00-86154, CCR00-63513, CCR00-73513, CCR-0209075,
CCR-0341620, and CCR-0325283.
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- We note in passing that this
potential is already present in every program -- the mere absence of
memory errors provides no guarantee that the program is, in fact,
Enhancing Server Availability and Security
Through Failure-Oblivious Computing
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