Quality RTOS & Embedded Software

Ensuring the Memory Safety of FreeRTOS Part 1

FreeRTOS is a real-time operating system designed for resource-constrained devices, including devices in the Internet of Things (IoT). Because these devices are resource-constrained, they do not provide all the hardware mechanisms richer operating systems utilize to protect the system from external adversaries. On such small devices, security depends on simpler memory protection and execution privilege level hardware, and on the operating system code itself.

In this article, we want to tell you about how we are dealing with an important source of security issues (buffer overflow) by ensuring the memory safety of functions in the FreeRTOS+TCP library that parse TCP, IP, ARP, DHCP, and DNS packets. Our work uses an automated reasoning technique that gives a level of assurance we could not obtain through bug-finding tools. The same proofs are being extended to additional libraries, and to the FreeRTOS kernel itself. This article is the first of two on this topic. Part 1 (this article) gives an overview of the technique by applying it to a FreeRTOS example and Part 2 (to follow) dives deeper into how the technique works. After reading both, we hope you will be equipped to read, understand, and re-run our results (proofs of memory safety), all of which are publicly available.

Moving from Bug-finding to Proof

There are many techniques and tools for improving and testing software quality. Techniques include coding standards, code reviews, defensive programming and dynamic testing. Tools include static analyzers such as Coverity and Infer as well as dynamic testing with fuzzers and the clang sanitizer family. These tools are easy-to-use, scale to large code-bases, and are effective bug-finders. Used together, these techniques and tools can give high confidence in the quality of software.

Such tools, however, cannot guarantee the absence of security issues. They either use heuristics for finding bugs or only consider dynamic runs of the program, which cannot explore all possible behaviors of a program. Some tools may, in fact, intentionally skip over known instances of bugs that the tool does not consider to be high-risk; skipping low-risk instances avoids the user from being overwhelmed with long lists of minor issues.

There are times when we would like a guarantee that a class of software bugs has been completely eliminated. An example is a parser of network packets that takes packets off the network—data potentially under the control of an adversary with the ability to generate malformed packets intended to trigger a buffer overflow—and parses the data into structures consumed by higher-level software. It is critical that an adversary is not able to induce unwanted behavior in the parser by sending malformed packets, especially if the parser is running with the privileges of the kernel itself.

One route to achieving greater confidence in the absence of security issues is through the use of automated reasoning techniques, based on mathematical logic and proof. A software model checker is a tool that takes source code as input and, in effect, reasons about all possible execution paths through the code on all possible inputs looking for executions in which an assertion in the code could be violated, and looking for executions in which a security issue like buffer overflow might occur. When a model checker fails to find buffer overflow in any execution, the model checker’s certification amounts to a mathematical proof that buffer overflow cannot occur.

An important takeaway to keep in mind with proofs is that all proofs make assumptions. For example, a proof of the statement “if a and b are positive integers then a+b is a positive integer” only guarantees that a+b is positive if both a and b are positive. With software model checking, the assumptions are typically about the inputs to the program being proved. A strong proof may assume a buffer can be of any length with any contents. A weaker proof may assume that the length of the buffer is limited to 1000 bytes. That is, the weaker proof does not make any guarantees about what can happen if the buffer is 1001 bytes long. The art of using a model checker is finding the weakest set of assumptions that allows the model checker to prove the desired property. Our proofs are publicly available: you can see the assumptions we are making, and assure yourself that our assumptions are reasonable.

Memory Safety

A program is memory safe if it only reads and writes to memory that it is allowed to. A common example of a memory safety violation is buffer overflow. A buffer overflow occurs when a program writes beyond the bounds of an object in memory, such as an input buffer, potentially overwriting trusted data, such as the function return pointer. A Microsoft study indicates that approximately 70% of security issues addressed by Microsoft security updates each year are due to memory safety violations. [Slide 10, Trends, challenge, and shifts in software vulnerability mitigation, Miller]

An interesting example of buffer overflow is described in CVE-2019-15505. In this example, an adversary with the ability to craft the stream of bytes for the USB driver could overwrite the kernel with arbitrary code, and run that code with the privileges of the kernel itself. This is an example of a simple error with significant consequences for software security.

Our goal is to prove that memory safety violations can never happen in the FreeRTOS kernel and libraries.

Software Model Checking

Software model checking is an automated reasoning technique for proving properties like memory safety. Model checking works by effectively reasoning about every execution path through a program on every input, searching for executions that violate an assertion in the code or violate a property like memory safety. It is important to note that modern software model checkers can be applied effectively to real-world code-bases such as FreeRTOS. Because the FreeRTOS code-base is written in C, we have applied a software model checker called CBMC (C Bounded Model Checker).

Proving an API Method of HTTP Memory Safe

To help you understand how we have applied software model checking to FreeRTOS consider one component that we have proved memory safe: the client-side implementation of HTTP [GitHub]. Let us discuss the memory safety of the AddHeader method. The purpose of this method is to add a header—consisting of a header name and a header value—to the list of headers of an HTTP request under construction. The signature of the function is:

IotHttpsReturnCode_t IotHttpsClient_AddHeader(
    IotHttpsRequestHandle_t reqHandle,
    const char * pName,
    uint32_t nameLen,
    const char * pValue,
    uint32_t valueLen );

The first argument reqHandle is a pointer to a request object under construction. The handle contains the context for the request, including the response header. The following figure shows the state of the program heap before the method call. The header is a buffer of bytes pointed-to by reqHandle->pHeaders. There is space for appending new header name/value pairs at reqHandle->pHeadersCur. To avoid buffer overflow the method must not write past the end of the buffer (pointed-to by reqHandle->pHeadersEnd). Note there are other memory safety issues (such as passing NULL pointers) that are also handled by our proof.

If there is sufficient space for the name/value pair then the method is successful and the following figure shows the state of the program heap.

Our goal is to prove that the implementation of this method is memory safe. In particular, we want to prove that for every execution of the method on every possible input, the implementation never triggers a buffer overflow. To analyze this problem with CBMC, we write a proof harness that constructs an arbitrary state that the method is called-on. Note that the harness is not executable. Consider the input variable nameLen: a 32-bit unsigned integer. In a bug-finding tool, we would need to consider each 2^32 value (or more-likely do a representative sampling). In the proof harness, we leave the variable uninitialized – this lets CBMC consider any value for the variable.

1    void harness() {
2      IotHttpsRequestHandle_t reqHandle = allocate_IotRequestHandle();
3      if (reqHandle)
4        __CPROVER_assume(is_valid_IotRequestHandle(reqHandle));
5      uint32_t nameLen;
6      uint32_t valueLen;
7      char * pName = allocate_CString(nameLen);
8      char * pValue = allocate_CString(valueLen);
9      IotHttpsClient_AddHeader(reqHandle, pName, nameLen, pValue, valueLen);
10  }

The function allocate_IotRequestHandle on line 2 returns either a NULL pointer or a pointer to space allocated to hold a request object. This space is initialized to a completely unconstrained value. For example, the header buffer can contain any arbitrary character data. In addition, the pointers in the object are allowed to point-to arbitrary locations in memory.

This is too unconstrained: for example, the pointer to the end of the header buffer might point-to a location before the start of the buffer. To avoid reasoning about these unreasonable cases we use the Boolean function (also called a predicate) is_valid_IotRequestHandle to test that the response object is “well-formed”. For example, that the pointers for the header buffer are ordered pHeaders <= pHeadersCur <= pHeadersEnd. The harness assumes using __CPROVER_assume() on line 4 that the request object has at-least these characteristics.

The function allocate_CString on lines 7 and 8 encapsulates (for clarity in this article) repeated lines appearing in the actual harness. The function returns either a NULL pointer or a pointer to a C string (a byte buffer terminated with a null termination ‘\0’ character) of the given length. The function adds an assumption to the length to being at most one less than the maximum value of a 32-bit unsigned integer in order to leave enough space for the null termination character.The function allocate_CString on lines 7 and 8 encapsulates for this article a few repeated lines appearing in the actual harness. The function returns either a NULL pointer or a pointer to a C string (a byte buffer terminated with a null termination ‘\0’ character) of the given length. The function adds an assumption to the length to being at most one less than the maximum value of a 32-bit unsigned integer in order to leave enough space for the null termination character.

1  char * allocate_CString(uint32_t len) {
2     __CPROVER_assume(len < UINT32_MAX-1);
3     char * result = safeMalloc(len+1);
4     if (result) result[len] = '\0';
5     return result;
6 }

Finally, the harness invokes the IotHttpsClient_AddHeader method with the arbitrary request handle and the arbitrary strings for the name and value of the header being added. If CBMC cannot find a memory safety violation then this is a proof that the HTTP API function is memory safe for any arbitrary input that satisfies the assumptions of the harness.


We have discussed how we are using software model checking, an automated reasoning technique, to ensure the memory safety of code in FreeRTOS. Unlike bug-finding tools, this technique can give guarantees of correctness based on mathematical logic and proof. So far, we have applied this technique to the TCP, IP, ARP, DHCP, and DNS headers parsing in the FreeRTOS+TCP library, as well as to HTTP header processing.

All proofs we have written are available in the AWS FreeRTOS repository on [GitHub], and are being migrated into the main FreeRTOS repository, which is now also in [Github] . All of the tools we have used, such as CBMC, are available in the open source, and instructions for installing them are also available in the AWS FreeRTOS repository [GitHub].

Now that you’ve read this article, we hope you will be encouraged to examine our proofs and assure yourself that the assumptions in our proof harnesses are reasonable. If you are truly inspired then you can run and re-validate the proofs by following the instructions [GitHub]. Looking forward, we are excited about pushing automated reasoning techniques even further to provide even stronger assurances to our customers and supporting a community of developers interested in adopting these techniques to develop high-quality code themselves.

Stay tuned for the second article in this series that will dive deeper into how software model checking works under the hood.


We are grateful to the following individuals whose work is covered in this article: Debasmita Lohar (Max Planck Institute for Software Systems) who wrote the FreeRTOS HTTP library proofs as an intern with Amazon in 2019, Sarena Meas (Software Development Engineer, AWS) lead engineer of the FreeRTOS HTTP library, and Mark Tuttle (Principal Applied Scientist, AWS). We also acknowledge and thank Jonathan Eidelman, Kareem Khazem, Felipe Monteiro, Daniel Schwartz-Narbonne, Michael Tautschnig, Mark Tuttle, and Mike Whalen for their contributions to the use and adoption of CBMC in Amazon.

About the author

Nathan Chong is a Principal Engineer with the Automated Reasoning Group at Amazon Web Services. His work focuses on the correctness of concurrent systems code, particularly at the hardware-software boundary.
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