The Tower of Weakenings: Memory Models For Everyone

Aria Beingessner

April 5th, 2022

In my previous article I looked at the ways that Rust could be better at pointers. Half of the problems were fundamental issues that affect basically every programming language that lets you mess with pointers directly, and the other half were rust-specific issues. My article also proposed two solutions: for the fundamental issues I proposed “strict provenance”, and for the specific issues I proposed the ~ operator.

I knew talk was cheap and that no one would actually implement them, but I still wanted to get the ideas out there, especially for syntax changes! But wait, the solution to the fundamental issues didn’t have any syntax. Actually it was essentially adding 2 completely trivial functions to the standard library.

So I just did it, because I could. And I ported most of Rust’s codebase to it to prove that it actually works. And I made a stable polyfill so that everyone could use it right away.

Shoutouts to others: Ralf Jung went added a mode to miri to check it! eddyb and niluxv both chipped in on some potential future rustc lints to check for certain casts! Jubilee helped a ton with shepherding the review and cleaning up my PR into a shippable form! Y’all rock!


The actual feature was basically trivial. I made more work for myself by insisting on porting rust’s codebase to the APIs, but that was just to Prove My Point. The real work was just endless discussions to convince stakeholders, and writing an absolute metric fuckton of documentation on “the model”.

Shockingly, the core ideas in my article essentially held true all the way through this process, and the core APIs are there exactly as proposed. What did evolve was the depth of the concepts, and how I communicated them, and that’s what this article is really about.

Really late into the process I stumbled across an extremely powerful way of framing Strict Provenance: The Tower Of Weakenings. I hastily added it to the FAQ right before announcing the feature, but now that I have some more room to breathe, I want to really give it a chance to shine on its own.

1 The Tower of Weakenings

Just to have it upfront, I will start with what The Tower Of Weakenings is, and then go back to the motivation and ideas behind it. The Tower Of Weakenings is simply the idea that having One True Memory Model is a frustrating and futile endeavour that leaves no one satisfied. Instead, we should have a tower of Memory Models, with the ones at the top being “what users should think about and try to write their code against”. As you descend the tower, the memory models become increasingly complex or vague but critically always more permissive than the ones above it. At the bottom of the tower is “whatever the compiler actually does” (and arguably “whatever the hardware actually does” in the basement, if you care about that).

Here is a sketch of what the tower looks like under my proposal:

  1. The “Clean” Memory Model: a painfully strict and simple model that you can teach and check.
  2. The “Real” Memory Model: similar to the “Clean” one, but messier to allow for Useful Crimes.
  3. The Compiler’s Semantics: whatever random primitives compilers expose, and optimizations they do.

In some sense the bottom of the tower is the one that “matters” because that’s the thing that (mis)compiles your code, but it’s also a shifting target, and trying to expose its semantics leads to sadness. Unfortunately, this is also basically true of “real” memory models. We’re still trying to figure out what on earth C’s memory model is, and every language infamously defers to “the C11 memory model” on hard questions. So as an educator, I eventually have to bottom out on sending you a shrug-emoji if you keep asking for what the real rules are. No one really knows!

Even relatively rigorous things like CompCert are just doing their best. We’re all just doing our best. I started becoming acutely aware of this around 2015 when I tried to document Rust’s semantics and had to leave the section on aliasing as a big 🤷‍♀️. Since then I have been slowly working my way through the stages of grief, and The Tower Of Weakenings is Acceptance.

Memory Models are messy, and that’s ok, because I will give you a simpler model. It will be teachable. It will be simple to reason about. It will be machine-checkable by sanitizers like miri. It will be overly strict, and that’s ok, because if you want you can always take a step down the Tower Of Weakenings and follow the lower level’s rules instead. You will just have to deal with the reality of everything getting fuzzier, and the fact that you don’t get as nice tools for catching your mistakes.

There is always a Tower of Weakenings, and we’re all messing with it, so why not just be honest about it and use it to our advantage? Like, once you get to the level of things like The Linux Kernel you start finding things that are blatantly breaking the rules of friggin’ Intel CPUs, because hey it turns out there’s a sub-basement of the Tower of Weakenings that’s just “look this works on every CPU I can find, and why would this possibly break, and also I’m Linux so if your CPU doesn’t run me you’re the asshole, so you can’t break it now”.

2 Memory Models Are Being Asked To Do Too Much

Ok yes get your jokes out about solving all problems with another layer of abstraction, but this is painfully needed. And really, what I’m doing here isn’t adding a layer but cleaving a bloated and messy layer into two much more manageable parts. No offense to all the people doing great work on memory models, but as far as I’m concerned they’ve been given an impossible task. There are simply too many competing concerns and stakeholders to produce a truly satisfying design for all of them. Here are some of the many stakeholders:

And all of these people are working together so they all agree that whatever the other person claims they need to do their job should definitely be allowed, because they want to all mutually benefit. And definitely make sure not to break all that code or even make it run slower! kthxbai!

Look if you do Memory Model stuff and think this is tractable. Fucking rad, I hope you succeed, but I am willing to call this “absolutely fucking impossible”. You have been given a Shitty Gordian Knot and I am here to offer you the gift of my sword slicing it in half so we can all get on with our lives and make computers less terrible.

The new layer I am adding to The Tower Of Weakenings rejects the possibility of serving all those concerns, and instead focuses on giving everyone a Really Great Lie that we can all agree to pretend is true and make everyone’s job easier. For everyone who doesn’t like the Lie, they can either admit they don’t care and hope to not get miscompiled (as we have all been doing already) or they can walk down the steps of the tower and start reading some academic papers.

Critically, the fact this lie is part of The Tower Of Weakenings means that if you follow its rules, then whatever the “real” model is doesn’t matter anymore. We will absolutely guarantee that your code works, because you followed the really strict and simple rules that everyone can agree obviously have to work. Just as you’re not supposed to worry about the compiler backend you’re using, you shouldn’t have to worry about the fiddly details of what the current working memory model is.

Let’s look at how this addresses the concerns of the many stakeholders:

As far as I am concerned, The Tower of Weakenings is horrifyingly effective. Like really it’s actually fucked up that I can hand out wins like this by just saying “but what if we just all agree to pretend things are simpler most of the time”.

3 Ok But What The Heck Is Strict Provenance?

You’re really not gonna go read any of all the docs I wrote about it are you? Ok it’s fine. It’s fine. I write the docs. I will write more here.

Here is the 6 step summary of what the model is.

  1. Use this library.

  2. Stop using ptr as usize and usize as ptr – use ptr.addr() and ptr.with_addr(addr).

  3. Test your code with “MIRIFLAGS=‘-Zmiri-strict-provenance’ cargo miri test”

  4. Report any nasty problems you run into on the tracking issue, or Zulip, or contact your local congressman.

  5. Then go ahead and ignore the previous 3 steps and insist that your evil code is special and good. Then use ptr.expose_addr() and ptr::from_exposed_addr(addr) instead to at least document this assertion and help us identify Fun Things.

  6. Then go ahead and just ignore that previous step, because you’re busy and tired and have too much garbage unsafe code you technically “own” (same, I hate it here!). Maybe update your code to the new more clear system whenever you’re poking in there, or just let someone else file a PR because you’re blowing up miri for their project. Rest safe in the knowledge that Strict Provenance Is All Lies and that the language is exactly the same as it was yesterday, and will remain the same tomorrow too.

Yes that sure didn’t explain anything at all. That was actually “What Should I Do?”, which is actually the important thing. Did you follow all 6 steps? Ok great, here’s an actual explanation:

Under Strict Provenance (which is all playing pretend), if you cast an integer to a pointer, that’s ok, it’s fun to play pretend, but that pointer is invalid. That means reading/writing through that pointer or using offset on it is Undefined Behaviour. (wrapping_offset is fine, and the usual ZSTs Get To Lie rules apply.)

If you’re doing FFI, just make sure that the API is “right” from Rust’s perspective. This may involve tweaking extern decls that lie about pointers.

If you’re doing MMIO stuff, you’re basically outside the memory model already but we’re working on having a nicer story for you too, but this is too far outside my domain of expertise to help with.

The golden rule is that the union of int | ptr is ptr, not int. ABIs generally all agree that pointers and pointer-sized-integers should have identical ABIs, because this punning is super common… unless your on an m68k, which thinks you’re a sinner either way (for return values). God, nothing can be simple, can it?

Please also do this for AtomicUsize and AtomicPtr.

That’s it. Just say things that are pointers are pointers.

The next section will discuss why we care about that.

4 Strict Provenance: No More Getting Lucky

Without proper memory models formalizing things like “what is a pointer”, compiler backends can very innocently introduce several optimizations that are all fine in isolation but can rube-goldberg machine into miscompilations when combined.

These situations are especially nasty because you can’t obviously just point at one optimization and say “oh it’s that one, that one is bad”. How do you decide which seemingly-innocent optimization is a problem? This is what a memory model is for.

You define an “Abstract Machine” that your language is “emulating” the semantics of, and then optimizations which change the observable behaviour of “the Abstract Machine” are “bad”. This is basically the same situation as a SNES emulator glitching out and flipping Mario upside-down. You generally want your emulator to faithfully reproduce the game!

Conversely, having a memory model also defines the scope of what programmers are allowed to expect to work, and the compiler doesn’t have to care about somehow trying to faithfully reproduce things that don’t work on the Abstract Machine. Returning to SNES emulators, this is like refusing to support romhacks that do things that wouldn’t work on the actual hardware, because you have no idea what on earth that even means. Harsh, but fair!

Things that “can’t work” on the Abstract Machine are Undefined Behaviour. One thing we generally all agree should definitely be Undefined Behaviour is Use After Frees, because it makes no sense, is non-deterministic, and is a huge source of security vulnerabilities.

Ok so let’s make that rule part of our Abstract Machine.

…how do you do that? Can you do that??

Let’s think it through:

  1. Allocate some memory
  2. Get a pointer into that memory
  3. Free the memory (dangling pointer)
  4. Allocate some more memory
  5. GET LUCKY and have your dangling pointer point into it
  6. Read through the pointer (use after free)

How do you define a machine where this isn’t “allowed”? One option is to define the machine to never reuse addresses, so you can never Get Lucky. This is a real thing some systems try to do, but most systems just aren’t like that. Is that a problem? Are we breaking our promise to faithfully emulate the Abstract Machine if we reuse allocations? You can’t reliably observe it, but whenever you Get Lucky you can. But maybe that’s fine because it’s Undefined Behaviour to dereference the pointer, so it’s the programmer’s fault if they observed it! Yeah!

Wait, does that mean it has to be Undefined Behaviour to check if a “dangling” pointer is equal to another one? Oof, saying pointer equality is UB is rough. Like sure we can all agree inequalities between pointers from different allocations should be unspecified, that’s Totally Natural And Fine, but equality? Say it ain’t so!

…Ok so you can see how this gets really wonky really fast right?

As I understand it, the consensus solution to this is to just admit that stuff like banning Use After Frees implies pointers are kinda magic, and you just say they “know” the allocation they point into and aren’t allowed to access any other memory. Use After Frees are then forbidden on the premise that a reallocation is a “different” allocation, and so any dangling pointers that happen to point into it can’t access it. No Getting Lucky. Well, you can get lucky enough to notice two pointers are “randomly” equal, but you don’t get to do anything scary with that information because your dangling pointer is still “invalid”.

The idea that pointers just “know” what allocation they’re part of is provenance. So, cool, pointers have provenance in the Abstract Machine, problem solved!

…huh? What’s that? You want to turn a pointer into an integer? Ok well that’s f- AND TURN IT BACK INTO A POINTER? Oh. My. Um. Did you want all integers to have provenance too? That has some very large implications for like… x==y not letting you substitute x for y anywhere in your optimizer, because they might have different provenance even if they compare equal. Yeah that sounds horrible to me too.

Ah ok, but the C folks seem to have cracked this one. If you hop on over to this 123 page paper, you’ll see the PNVI-ae-udi model, which at a high level roughly says:

This makes a lot of sense! Basically it’s saying if you cast a pointer to an integer, the compiler has to throw up its hands in disgust and just accept that any integer gets to be cast into a pointer into that allocation. That’s… pretty tame? Assuming you don’t need to allow other operations to expose.

But also… it lets you write this:

  1. Allocate some memory
  2. Get a pointer into that memory
  3. Cast it to an integer (A)
  4. Free the memory
  5. Allocate some more memory
  6. Also expose that one somehow
  7. Cast (A) back into a pointer
  8. GET LUCKY and have your pointer now get blessed with provenance over the new allocation

This is just a Use After Free with extra steps! Trying to allow for int-to-ptr casts just reintroduces the concept of Getting Lucky, and that sucks. It might be a necessary evil, but it still makes me sad.

It also makes sanitizers really sad. The more you crank up “things that are allowed to expose addresses” (Hmm, doesn’t memcpy operate on char*? Isn’t that an integer..?), the more flexible a sanitizer needs to be about things that Should Definitely Be Undefined Behaviour, But I Have To Assume You’re Very Smart And Perfect Because Integer Casts Say So. Which is to say, you can have a dynamic execution that everyone 100% agrees should be a Use After Free, and which you would therefore hope a sanitizer to catch… and it just has to shrug it’s shoulders and assume it isn’t.

On the flip side, if you say “screw that”, your sanitizer will constantly set off false alarms because everyone is told that int-to-ptr casts are totally fine and cool. This also sucks!

This whole mess is why Strict Provenance is such a nice simplification to a memory model: it just puts it foot down and says No Absolutely Not You Do Not Get To Get Lucky.

But of course, Strict Provenance is “a lie”, so you still can get lucky, so what’s the point? The point is that if everyone agrees to just pretend that you’re not allowed to do int-to-ptr casts, then having our sanitizers default to the strict semantics is actually useful and effective! Programmers that opt into this game also don’t have to worry about “are we doing PNVI-ae-udi” or something else, because… it doesn’t matter! Tower Of Weakenings Baby! Allowing any kind of int-to-ptr shenanigans is definitely weaker than forbidding them completely!

But ok we have all this code that does pointer crimes, this is useless! It would be, if we didn’t have the glorious hack innovation of with_addr! This is the part of strict provenance that makes everything “work”:

fn with_addr(self, addr: usize) -> Self

This is basically the exact same thing as usize as ptr BUT instead of being a unary operation, it’s binary. You need to bring along a pointer with the provenance you think your new pointer should have, and then we use it to properly “rebuild” the pointer, unambiguously re-establishing the provenance chain of custody, hooray! Toss in some conveniences like map_addr and you’ve got yourself an actually tolerable system for still doing tagged pointer crimes while staying in the confines of Strict Provenance:

unsafe {
    // A flag we want to pack into our pointer
    static HAS_DATA: usize = 0x1;
    static FLAG_MASK: usize = !HAS_DATA;

    // Our value, which must have enough alignment to have spare least-significant-bits.
    let my_precious_data: u32 = 17;
    assert!(core::mem::align_of::<u32>() > 1);

    // Create a tagged pointer
    let ptr = &my_precious_data as *const u32;
    let tagged = ptr.map_addr(|a| a | HAS_DATA);

    // Check the flag:
    if tagged.addr() & HAS_DATA != 0 {
        // Untag and read the pointer
        let data = *tagged.map_addr(|a| a & FLAG_MASK);
        assert_eq!(data, 17);
    } else {


Oh also strict provenance is basically actually implemented in hardware by CHERI, so uh, doing this also just makes your code portable to CHERI. (Which also means the CHERI people are willing to help make this experiment work, thank you CHERI people you have been very helpful!!!)

Strict Provenance does a lot of weird little things for a lot of people, but going into all the weird side-benefits would take forever and I want to just focus this post on memory-models. TL;DR It’s Kind Of A Big Deal, For Many Reasons.

5 Strict Provenance News

Since the MVP shipped, we’ve made a couple changes. Those are my “release notes” for the change, but here’s a summary:

Ralf decided it would be best to make it more explicit as to whether you’re actually playing this game or not. In his PR he added APIs that explicitly use the “expose” terminology and some vague gesturing to the same kind of thing the C proposal is doing – which is basically all we would have been able to tell you before strict provenance too. The new APIs are:

And these are 100% semantically identical to ptr as usize and usize as ptr, while also actually telling us that you understand this is a thing and you are relying on. The other change he made (which I was dubious of at first) was to mark addr() as actually not exposing the address. Which is to say that ptr::from_exposed_addr(my_ptr.addr()) doesn’t “work”. This technically makes it more dangerous to use addr, but it’s still a safe function for the usual reasons of “it’s only a problem if you actually try to deref/offset the resulting pointer”.

I asked him to explicitly mark in the docs that this UB is not actually exploited right now and if this ends up being a mess we’re willing to weaken it back to be identical to expose_addr. The motivation for marking it UB is twofold:

  1. Having an actual semantic distinction allows miri to operate in a “mixed” mode where code that is playing along with strict provenance isn’t exposing addresses and will generally be more strictly checked, but code which isn’t playing along gets more leeway and we still let you Get Lucky sometimes.

  2. It justifies the kind of optimizations llvm already does today, which are definitely unsound absent any proper provenance model. In particular something like PNVI-ae-udi effectively bans eliminating “useless” ptr->int->ptr roundtrips because it makes the compiler “forget” an address was exposed and make wrong inferences. Making addr explicitly not expose the allocation makes that transform sound!