PNaCl Undefined Behavior

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C and C++ undefined behavior allows efficient mapping of the source language onto hardware, but leads to different behavior on different platforms.

PNaCl exposes undefined behavior in the following ways:

  • The Clang frontend and optimizations that occur on the developer’s machine determine what behavior will occur, and it will be specified deterministically in the pexe. All targets will observe the same behavior. In some cases, recompiling with a newer PNaCl SDK version will either:

    • Reliably emit the same behavior in the resulting pexe.
    • Change the behavior that gets specified in the pexe.
  • The behavior specified in the pexe relies on PNaCl’s bitcode, runtime or CPU architecture vagaries.

    • In some cases, the behavior using the same PNaCl translator version on different architectures will produce different behavior.
    • Sometimes runtime parameters determine the behavior, e.g. memory allocation determines which out-of-bounds accesses crash versus returning garbage.
    • In some cases, different versions of the PNaCl translator (i.e. after a Chrome update) will compile the code differently and cause different behavior.
    • In some cases, the same versions of the PNaCl translator, on the same architecture, will generate a different nexe for defense-in-depth purposes, but may cause code that reads invalid stack values or code sections on the heap to observe these randomizations.


PNaCl’s goal is that a single pexe should work reliably in the same manner on all architectures, irrespective of runtime parameters and through Chrome updates. This goal is unfortunately not attainable; PNaCl therefore specifies as much as it can and outlines areas for improvement.

One interesting solution is to offer good support for LLVM’s sanitizer tools (including UBSan) at development time, so that developers can test their code against undefined behavior. Shipping code would then still get good performance, and diverging behavior would be rare.

Note that none of these issues are vulnerabilities in PNaCl and Chrome: the NaCl sandboxing still constrains the code through Software Fault Isolation.

Behavior in PNaCl Bitcode


The following are traditionally undefined behavior in C/C++ but are well defined at the pexe level:

  • Dynamic initialization order dependencies: the order is deterministic in the pexe.
  • Bool which isn’t 0/1: the bitcode instruction sequence is deterministic in the pexe.
  • Out-of-range enum value: the backing integer type and bitcode instruction sequence is deterministic in the pexe.
  • Aggressive optimizations based on type-based alias analysis: TBAA optimizations are done before stable bitcode is generated and their metadata is stripped from the pexe; behavior is therefore deterministic in the pexe.
  • Operator and subexpression evaluation order in the same expression (e.g. function parameter passing, or pre-increment): the order is defined in the pexe.
  • Signed integer overflow: two’s complement integer arithmetic is assumed.
  • Atomic access to a non-atomic memory location (not declared as std::atomic): atomics and volatile variables all lower to the same compatible intrinsics or external functions; the behavior is therefore deterministic in the pexe (see Memory Model and Atomics).
  • Integer divide by zero: always raises a fault (through hardware on x86, and through integer divide emulation routine or explicit checks on ARM).

Not Well-Defined

The following are traditionally undefined behavior in C/C++ which also exhibit undefined behavior at the pexe level. Some are easier to fix than others.

Potentially Fixable

  • Shift by greater-than-or-equal to left-hand-side’s bit-width or negative (see bug 3604).

    • Some of the behavior will be specified in the pexe depending on constant propagation and integer type of variables.
    • There is still some architecture-specific behavior.
    • PNaCl could force-mask the right-hand-side to bitwidth-1, which could become a no-op on some architectures while ensuring all architectures behave similarly. Regular optimizations could also be applied, removing redundant masks.
  • Using a virtual pointer of the wrong type, or of an unallocated object.

    • Will produce wrong results which will depend on what data is treated as a vftable.
    • PNaCl could add runtime checks for this, and elide them when types are provably correct (see this CFI bug 3786).
  • Some unaligned load/store (see bug 3445).

    • Could force everything to align 1; performance cost should be measured.
    • The frontend could also be more pessimistic when it sees dubious casts.
  • Some values can be marked as undef (see bug 3796).
  • Reaching end-of-value-returning-function without returning a value: reduces to ret i32 undef in bitcode. This is mostly-defined, but could be improved (see bug 3796).
  • Reaching “unreachable” code.

    • LLVM provides an IR instruction called “unreachable” whose effect will be undefined. PNaCl could change this to always trap, as the llvm.trap intrinsic does.
  • Zero or negative-sized variable-length array (and alloca) aren’t defined behavior. PNaCl’s frontend or the translator could insert checks with -fsanitize=vla-bound.


PNaCl offers a IEEE-754 implementation which is as correct as the underlying hardware allows, with a few limitations. These are a few sources of undefined behavior which are believed to be fixable:

  • Float cast overflow is currently undefined.
  • Float divide by zero is currently undefined.
  • The default denormal behavior is currently unspecified, which isn’t IEEE-754 compliant (denormals must be supported in IEEE-754). PNaCl could mandate flush-to-zero, and may give an API to enable denormals in a future release. The latter is problematic for SIMD and vectorization support, where some platforms do not support denormal SIMD operations.
  • NaN values are currently not guaranteed to be canonical; see bug 3536.
  • Passing NaN to STL functions (the math is defined, but the function implementation isn’t, e.g. std::min and std::max), is well-defined in the pexe.

SIMD Vectors

SIMD vector instructions aren’t part of the C/C++ standards and as such their behavior isn’t specified at all in C/C++; it is usually left up to the target architecture to specify behavior. Portable Native Client instead exposed Portable SIMD Vectors and offers the same guarantees on these vectors as the guarantees offered by the contained elements. Of notable interest amongst these guarantees are those of alignment for load/store instructions on vectors: they have the same alignment restriction as the contained elements.

Hard to Fix

  • Null pointer/reference has behavior determined by the NaCl sandbox:

    • Raises a segmentation fault in the bottom 64KiB bytes on all platforms, and on some sandboxes there are further non-writable pages after the initial 64KiB.
    • Negative offsets aren’t handled consistently on all platforms: x86-64 and ARM will wrap around to the stack (because they mask the address), whereas x86-32 will fault (because of segmentation).
  • Accessing uninitialized/free’d memory (including out-of-bounds array access):

    • Might cause a segmentation fault or not, depending on where memory is allocated and how it gets reclaimed.
    • Added complexity because of the NaCl sandboxing: some of the load/stores might be forced back into sandbox range, or eliminated entirely if they fall out of the sandbox.
  • Executing non-program data (jumping to an address obtained from a non-function pointer is undefined, can only do void(*)() to intptr_t to void(*)()).

    • Just-In-Time code generation is supported by NaCl, but is not currently supported by PNaCl. It is currently not possible to mark code as executable.
    • Offering full JIT capabilities would reduce PNaCl’s ability to change the sandboxing model. It would also require a “jump to JIT code” syscall (to guarantee a calling convention), and means that JITs aren’t portable.
    • PNaCl could offer “portable” JIT capabilities where the code hands PNaCl some form of LLVM IR, which PNaCl then JIT-compiles.
  • Out-of-scope variable usage: will produce unknown data, mostly dependent on stack and memory allocation.
  • Data races: any two operations that conflict (target overlapping memory), at least one of which is a store or atomic read-modify-write, and at least one of which is not atomic: this will be very dependent on processor and execution sequence, see Memory Model and Atomics.

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