Online Discussion

12th February, 2020, 14:00 – 16:00 UTC 14:00 UTC - 16:00 UTC

Information for participating are below.

The VerifyThis Collaborative Large Scale Challenge aims at proving that deductive program verification can produce relevant results for real systems with acceptable effort. We selected HAGRID, a recently developed PGP-keyserver, for the challenge. Its development became necessary as the old keyserver had serious data protection and security issues.

In April 2020 four approaches to the verification challenge have been submitted to and presented during an online workshop, and in November 2020, a follow-up online discussion revealed interesting new ideas regarding specification and verifiation of interacting systems like Hagrid.

We would like to continue and deepen this discussion in this online meeting, in particular thinking about the potentials of using automata-based specifications for the specification of interacting systems. How does automata specification tie in with contract-based specification? How with model checking?



Who can join the meeting?

Everybody who is interested in the challenge, formal verification, the proposed solutions or VerifyThis is cordially invited to join the meeting!

How can I join the meeting?

The online event takes place with Zoom.

In protection against spammers, we require a short registration beforehand. The login credentials will be sent via your provided email address. Please register yourself with an email to

Note: If you had already registered for the Online Event in November, we will send you the required login credentials automatically. Another registration is not required in this case.

Minutes of the Meeting: Contracts Discussion

Prepared by Gidon Ernst, Marieke Huisman, Raúl Monti, Mattias Ulbrich, Alexander Weigl

February 12, 2021

The slides that were used to start the introduction are available above

The discussion started with an introduction to the topic by Mattias. We did a quick poll among the participants:

What do they understand by formal methods in software development:

Beforehand, participants were asked to explain what they consider as an automaton. The different answers are discussed.

Most remarkable is that some people consider the environment part of the automaton. This leads to a discussion on what we consider as the environment of an automaton: are these only the external events, or do we really expect to have a full model of the environment. A full model would include detailed information about the behaviour of the environment. But often when people talk about a model of the environment, they only consider the possible sequences of the environmental actions that are relevant to the automaton.

The discussion then zoomed in on top level specifications for the key registration system in Hagrid. Some example specifications were given, which consist of automata + contracts (pre- and postconditions). This is different from standard automaton specifications, where often guards are used. But here, we also want to be able to express postconditions of the actions in the automaton.

Event-B machines are an example of such stateful specifications, where actions have contracts (i.e. pre- and postconditions) and can be triggered by the environment. Different techniques exist to reason about such stateful specifications:

The following hypothesis is made: both sides (automaton and program) need to be aware of each other, otherwise we cannot establish a refinement between the two.

The discussion then moved on to synthesis: if we have an automaton, can we generate a program from this. The main issue is the performance of the resulting program, which is often not sufficient. An alternative approach is to use synthesis to derive a program template as a starting point for further improvements, towards a highly performant program.

In certain areas, code synthesis has been quite successful. Control systems are specified with Esterel, and they manage togenerate code with explicit time constraints. The conclusion is that this works because they target a limited domain.

Other experiences are discussed. It seems that B-refinement from specification to code is not actively developed anymore.

Paula Herber reports on experiences with a CSP to LLVM generator. The main problem when using this approach was to find the right abstractions in the refinement process (i.e. which steps to take). This is where most of the effort goes when code is being synthesised, and it seems more like a shift of effort, rather than a reduction.

Because of time zone issue, several new participants join the discussion.

Therefore, we poll again.

What do you think about when they think about formal methods in software development?

And we discuss the definition of automata, and the relation to the environment again.

Why3 can reason about a model and a specific environment. However, it does not provide you with a possibility to generate all possible clients or the most general clients.

So far we focused on: how can we prove that an implementation respects a specification. But we can also consider the following issue: what can we do already if we only have the (automaton-level) specification. In particular, this might be the right level to prove temporal properties. But then: what sort of properties can be proven. Eventually properties might be difficult, but absence of deadlock seems a useful one. Ideally, the automaton specification could then be used as input for a model checker.

We get back to the point that finding the right abstraction is often the most challenging in the whole refinement process. There are examples of case studies for a single system (using Event-B), where everybody does the refinement in a different way.

Why3 has some examples of multi-step refinements (replacing data structures, with a compositional approach), and it is shown that this approach can also help for proof automation. However, often a more limited approach is used, where only small parts are refined. A consequence is then that you often loose the overall view of what the system is doing.

In deductive verification, often asserts are used to explicitly break down the proof obligations. This is never advocated as refinement, but it can be considered that way. And moreover, the additional asserts often give a lot of insight in the proof structure and correctness argument.

The discussion then moved on to runtime verification, which can be useful to check temporal properties at code level. Runtime verification is often used to check whether model and code correspond. Models can also be used to control the behaviour of an application. For runtime verification, the internal data structures are less relevant, but the focus is more on what is going on at the abstract level.

The BIP system can help to go all the way from abstract specification to code, but it is usually used for a specific case study, and there is no fully generic approach. And it needs a lot of work.

We then discuss whether there are other important techniques that need to be discussed. Dependently typed languages can force you to write correct programs. Some of those languages have a possibility to generate C-code.

An alternative is to use model checking for C-code directly. These checkers typically work at system-level, looking at the composition of the individual components. A strong point of model checkers is that they have very good abstractions built in, but because of the abstraction, not all properties can be checked, in particular not when they are specific to the interaction between the components.

It is a pity that the verification communities are so separated. It would be good to have some notion of contract in the model checking community. Of course, one issue is that the logics are very different. It seems like model checking has a more monolithic view on verification, in contrast to the more fine-grained approach of deductive verification.

Next, we discussed how should we continue with the VTLTC. The suggested directions were a) to study what information should be included into the automaton for it to be useful for both model checking and deductive verificationm b) Investigate how to incorporate contracts into model checking, and c) how to do the other way round, i.e. support model checking of contracts.

We will continue with the current case study on the Hagrid system, while we investigate these points, and then think about moving to a more interesting case study once we find our approaches useful.