Variadic Functions in TIS Interpreter

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Working on improving and applying TIS Interpreter, with funding from the CII, we ended up implementing support for program-defined variadic functions. Recently, while applying TIS Interpreter to the musl standard C library implementation, we found one slight violation of the C standard in the way musl defined functions of the printf family. This post describes program-defined variadic functions and the ways they can be misused, and argues that they are worth supporting in TIS Interpreter.

What are variadic functions and why should we care?

Variadic functions, found in several programming languages, accept a variable number of arguments. As an example, we can imagine a little variadic function add(arg1, arg2, …, argn) that takes some numbers as arguments, and computes their sum, arg1 + arg2 + … + argn, whatever the number of passed arguments actually is.

In C, variadic functions are not that popular, and a seasoned C programmer, anticipating what this is going to entail, would probably avoid specifying and implementing such an add function. Nevertheless, in some cases, the possibility of going beyond functions with fixed number and type of arguments is convenient. When, in the 1990s, C was still considered and used as a high-level language, variadic functions were a reasonable solution in situations where the flexibility they provided made a difference with more cumbersome alternatives. An especially good example of such a situation is for input and output formatting using format strings. Because of that, even though a contemporary C programmers would usually avoid defining new variadic functions, many are present in existing C software, notably in legacy code.

The printf function in C

Let us take a closer look at C’s ubiquitous printf function. Its declaration is a part of the stdio.h standard library header file and it looks like as follows:

int printf(const char * restrict format, ...);

The declaration states that the printf function takes:

The mandatory argument format here is the format string itself. The expected type of the remaining arguments is not established statically on the declaration level, but depends dynamically on the contents of this first argument. In the case of printf, this argument is a format string, and it is the conversion specifiers (the special patterns introduced with the % character) present in this format string that define the types and the number of arguments to be printed on the standard output. The conversion specifier %d expects an int argument and displays it in decimal style, the conversion specifier %c expects a char argument and displays it as an ASCII character, and so on; the list is long. The characters in the format string that are not conversion specifiers simply pass through unchanged.

A simple use of printf could be:

char c = 'X';
int i = 42;
printf("The %c is %d.", c, i);

This code snippet prints “The X is 42.” to the standard output when executed.

In a different context, the same printf function might be passed a double argument and a void* argument. Although this lax type handling has some advantages in the case of formatting functions (the same printf function can be used to print strings, floating-point values, pointers and integers), major dangers come with it. The main advantage is the flexibility that it offers: without it the whole printf function family could not exist in this form, and producing formatted outputs in C would be much more tedious. The danger is that this mechanism may give rise to a whole lot of significant type-safety related problems. If we follow section of the ISO C11 standard dedicated to the fprintf function (of whom printf is a specialised version), we discover that both failure to provide enough arguments and a mismatch in a provided argument’s type cause Undefined Behavior. CWE-134: Use of Externally-Controlled Format String shows that the security risks involved, information leak and—through the %n formatter—foreign code execution, are real and should be taken seriously.

Home-brew variadic functions in C

The printf function is only the most ubiquitous example of a C function that takes a variable number of arguments. The C standard library not only contains several other variadic functions, but also provides the tools necessary for the programmer to define their own variadic functions. The ingredients are available in the stdarg.h header file.

Declaring, calling, and defining variadic functions

We have already seen with printf how to declare a variadic function. After providing a number of mandatory arguments, together with their types, we simply add an ellipsis (i.e. ...) after the last argument, which means additional arguments may follow:

int add(int n, ...);

We also know how to call such functions, as they are in fact called almost exactly like the normal ones. The fixed mandatory arguments are simply followed by the additional variable ones. Therefore the number of passed arguments can differ between different call sites of the same function:

int foo = add(3, 23, 12, 7);
int bar = add(2, 23, 19);

Defining variadic functions is a bit more complicated. The function’s mandatory arguments are accessed just the usual way, but a special mechanism is needed in order to access the variable ones. The stdarg.h header provides four variadic macros: va_start, va_arg, va_end, and va_copy, as well as the type va_list, which together make it possible to cycle through the additional arguments that have been passed to a variadic function:

  • The type va_list holds the necessary information needed by the variadic macros. The traditional name of a variable of this type is ap, for argument pointer.
    Intuitively, we can imagine that an object of this type contains a pointer to the next variadic argument (or a list of remaining variadic arguments). Of course, as the interface is abstract, the actual implementation of this type is not known to the library user. The C standard only describes how it will behave if used correctly.
  • The macro va_start(va_list ap, parmN) initializes the va_list object ap.
    Intuitively, after invoking va_start the ap object points to the first variadic argument passed to the function.
    (Note: The parmN parameter here must be the same as the name of the last non-variadic argument in the function definition, that is, the argument just before the .... The necessity of passing this parameter hints at the low-level details of the implementation.)
  • The macro invocation va_arg(va_list ap, type) has the type and the value of the next variadic argument. Also, each invocation of va_arg on ap modifies ap so that subsequent arguments are returned in sequence. The type provided to the va_arg macro should match the actual type of the next argument.
    Intuitively, va_arg returns the argument that ap points to and makes ap point to the next one.
  • Finally, the macro va_end(va_list ap) deinitializes the ap object. Each va_list object should be deinitialized before the function returns.
  • For simplicity’s sake we will ignore the va_copy macro here, as it is not necessary for the examples in this post.

There is no built-in way (such as an additional variadic macro) to know from the inside of a variadic function how many arguments and of which types have been passed to it. The only way is to provide this information explicitly and consistently at each call site, and to retrieve it inside the variadic function. The usual approach is to encode it using the function’s mandatory arguments, exactly like in the case of printf‘s format string.

A full example

In order to see how this all works, let us implement the closest approximation that can be achieved in C of the add function that sums a variable number of arguments:

int add(int n, ...) {
  va_list ap;
  va_start(ap, n);
  int sum = 0;
  for (; n > 0; n--) {
    int next_arg = va_arg(ap, int);
    sum += next_arg;
  return sum;

The internal workings of function add are pretty straightforward:

  1. The beginning:
    • First we declare a va_list object ap and we intialize it using the va_start macro. Now, intuitively, ap points to the first variadic argument of add.
    • Also, we initialize the sum variable to zero.
  2. The middle:
    • n times we consume the next variadic argument, using the va_arg(ap, int) macro. Note that we expect each of the variadic arguments to be of type int and we expect their number to be equal at least n.
    • We add the subsequent arguments’ values to the variable sum.
  3. The end:
    • We deinitialize the ap variable using the va_end macro.
    • We return the sum variable’s value, which is now (obviously) equal to the sum of the n variadic arguments.

Now, in order to perform a correct call to add we must at least make sure that:

  • the number of variadic arguments that we pass to the function is not smaller than the value of the argument n passed in the same call (it is all right if more arguments are passed than consumed),
  • and that all these n arguments are of type int.

Examples of some correct calls would be:

add(3, 23, 12, 7); /* == 42 */
add(1, 42); /* == 42 */
add(3, 23, 12, 7, 'x', 13.0, "hello"); /* == 42 */
add(0); /* == 0 */
add(-42); /* == 0 */
Variadic macros and the C standard

Now, please notice the inconspicuous at least, in “we must at least make sure that”, which found its way to the previous paragraph. Well, these are by far not the only conditions necessary to call the add function correctly. In fact the section of the C11 standard concerning variadic functions and variadic macros is complex and it provides numerous ways to introduce Undefined Behavior into programs that use the stdarg.h library header.

The C11 standard section 7.16, entitled Variable arguments <stdarg.h>, defines the semantics of the four variadic macros, as well as the va_list type, and thus decides how home-brew functions with variable arguments behave, and when they may misbehave. There are many constraints concerning correct usage of these macros, some pretty straightforward and direct, some subtle. Violating most of these constraints seems completely innocuous in practice for all common compilation platforms, while breaking others causes visible problems on some or all common compilation platforms.

Correct sequence of variadic macros invocations

Several constraints concerning the variadic macros are concerned with the order in which these macros are supposed to be invoked on a va_list object. The allowed order is strictly defined by the standard. The following rules paraphrase, in a simplified and more casual way, what the standard says on this subject (note that we omit, again, the va_copy macro):

  • Each va_list object ap begins its life uninitialized.
  • If ap is not initialized it may be initialized using the va_start macro.
  • Once ap has been initialized, va_arg macro may be invoked on it at most number of times equal to the number of variadic arguments which were passed to the function.
  • If a va_list variable has been initialized, it must be deinitialized in the same function before the function returns, using the va_end macro.
  • This sequence can be repeated any number of times: after deinitializing ap with va_end we can initialize it again with va_start, and iterate on all the variadic arguments again (from the beginning) with va_arg, and then deinitialize it again with va_end.
  • If any other sequence of events happens, the behavior is undefined.

This ends up to be a simple pattern, which resembles a finite state machine that validates how va_start, va_arg, and va_end (invoked on a given va_list variable) are allowed to be interwoven in a single function. Such machine for a 3 variadic arguments passed in the call would look like this:

Finite state machine validating variadic macros invocations for 3 arguments passed in the function call

Consuming too many variadic arguments

The interesting aspect of these rules is how the impact of violating each of them is differently visible in practice. For example, if we try to consume more variadic arguments than are available in the given call we will run into trouble quite quickly. Of course what happens exactly is compiler and platform dependent, but in most cases the implementation of the underlying Undefined Behavior will result in reading some random data from memory. Let us see a simple program that simulates such a situation:

/* FILE not_enough_args.c */

#include "stdarg.h"
#include "stdio.h"

int f(int fst, ...) {
  va_list ap;
  va_start(ap, fst);
  int x = va_arg(ap, int);
  printf("%d\n", x);
  return x;

int main() {
  return 0;

In this program, the function f tries to consume one int variadic argument and in the call no argument is passed at all. On my machine compiling it with gcc and then executing ten times prints following values, which seem pretty random indeed:

The unpleasant case of va_end macro

What may be more disturbing, disobeying many of the the other mentioned constraints concerning the sequence of variadic macro invocations will usually have no visible effect during both the program’s compilation and its execution. In particular, all the rules which involve the va_end macro appear to be optional in practice. The va_end macro is translated by most compilers on most architectures to a do-nothing operation (a fact recognised directly in the C standard rationale, section : The va_end macro). As this macro is supposed to perform a clean-up after initializing and using the va_list object, and in most stdarg.h implementations there is simply nothing to clean up, thus the macro is actually not needed at all and may be just ignored. You might ask, why was it included in the standard in the first place? Following the C rationale again: those implementations that need it probably need it badly is the explanation.

The variadic arguments’ types

There are also several constraints which concern the types of the variadic arguments. Basically, the type provided when invoking the va_arg(ap, type) macro should be compatible with the actual type of the next variadic argument (with several well-defined exceptions, see the C11 standard section for details). The danger related with the underlying Undefined Behavior is quite serious in this case, and definitely of the harmless-looking, but waiting to stab you in the back one day kind. As the size of C types may vary depending on compiler, the compilation options, and the platform, it is not hard to imagine situations when a given program works perfectly well on one configuration, where the two theoretically incompatible types happen to align well (and they happen to be passed through the function call exactly in the same way), and it fails miserably on another configuration, where exactly the same two types in the same circumstances do not behave the same anymore, and thus the variadic argument is recovered incorrectly, and suddenly there we have a nice shiny bug…

Let us look at a simplistic example that showcases the problem. In the following code we call the variadic function f passing two arguments, both of type long and value 42, and then we attempt to consume one variadic argument of size long long:

/* FILE type_mismatch.c */

#include "stdarg.h"
#include "stdio.h"

void f(int hello, ...) {
  va_list ap;
  va_start(ap, hello);
  long long b = va_arg(ap, long long);
  printf("%lld\n", b);

int main(void) {
  f(0, (long) 42, (long) 42);
  return 0;

On my machine when I compile this source code with gcc using two different target options I get different results upon execution:

  • Option -m64 selects 64-bit x86-64 build. In this case the first variadic argument’s value 42 of type long is read correctly, as the sizes of the types long and long long seem to match: the program prints 42.
  • Option -m32 selects 32-bit i386 build. In this case the argument is read incorrectly: the program prints 180388626474 which is definitely not the value we expected.

This example is simplistic indeed, but it shows exactly the disturbing property that we were just talking about: on one configuration it works perfectly fine, and on another it does not. Of course here it is pretty evident that the two concerned types will not always match and that something might go wrong. However, if this kind of mismatch is well hidden in a much larger program which has many execution paths and #define directives all around the place, the existence of a potential problem will not be so obvious anymore. Furthermore, no amount of testing on a 64-bit i386 build will ever throw any doubt at the Works on My Machine certificate that we might have given this piece of code. But compiling and running on a 32-bit system tells a different story.

Support of variadic functions in TIS Interpreter

In TIS Interpreter we have recently implemented support for variadic functions written using the variadic macros from stdarg.h. TIS Interpreter, developed thanks to the funding of the CII and available as Open-Source, is an abstract interpretation tool for C programs, capable of finding and identifying a very large set of Undefined Behaviors and C standard violations. Now, with its newly gained proficiency in this particular domain, it can also discover problems concerning variable argument handling, like the ones mentioned above.

Let us see how TIS Interpreter handles the examples that we have introduced so far:

    • Interpreting the example where too many variadic arguments consumed produces the following warning:
not_enough_args.c:7:[value] warning: va_arg macro called when all the variadic arguments have been already used up; assert enough arguments
    • When we interpret the example where variadic argument types are not really matching we get:
type_mismatch.c:7:[value] warning: the actual type of the next variadic argument (long) does not match the type provided to the va_arg macro (long long); assert the type of each variadic arguments provided to a function matches the type given to the corresponding call to the va_arg macro
    • And as of the example that we did not explicitly state, with a va_end macro invocation removed from an otherwise correct program:
missing_va_end.c:13:[value] warning: local variable ap of type va_list in function add has been initialized using va_start or va_copy macro and has not been deinitialized by a matching va_end macro; assert va_list variable ap has been uninitialized using the va_end macro

All these warnings are extracted from the output of TIS Interpreter when we execute it directly on the code that we have seen here, simply like that:

$ tis-interpreter not_enough_args.c
The case of musl

Recently the support for variadic functions deemed itself very useful, as we were running musl code through TIS Interpreter. The musl library is an example of a perfect target for TIS Interpreter: it is an important and widely used Open Source component written in C, and it aims “to be correct in the sense of standards-conformance and safety”.

musl is a libc: an implementation of the standard library functionality described in the ISO C and POSIX standards. musl‘s main objectives are to be lightweight, fast, simple, free, and, as we have already emphasised, correct. It is a key component of the Alpine Linux, a security-oriented, small, simple, resource-efficient Linux distribution, very well adapted to use in software containers. The features of Alpine Linux make it a frequent choice for using in Docker containers, rumours say that it is even considered as the default platform option in the official Docker image library. And, as Docker is an extremely popular (the world’s leading according to its website) software container platform, musl happens thus to be a pretty widely deployed libc version. Hence our interest in it.

What did we find?

As musl is high-quality software written with standard-conformance in mind (POSIX standard for the interface it provides, C standard for its assumptions with respect to the compiler), we did not expect to find many issues to report. And effectively we have only managed to encounter minor transgressions of the C standard. One of these, which ultimately has been deemed important enough to be corrected, was present in the implementation of the printf and scanf variadic functions. In musl the implementation of these library functions is in fact based on the variadic macros from stdarg.h.

The issue was related to the type and value of the argument passed to the va_arg macro. Consider the program:

char dest[100];
int x = sprintf(dest, "%lld\n", -1LL);

These two lines are correct C. The type of the -1LL argument matches the format specifier %lld. Still, TIS Interpreter emits a warning when using this snippet to drive the sprintf implementation that was in musl at the time.

src/stdio/vfprintf.c:141: warning: although the type provided to the va_arg macro (unsigned long long) and the actual type of the next variadic argument (long long) are corresponding unsigned - signed variants of the same integer type, the actual value of the argument (signed) is negative thus it cannot be represented in the provided (unsigned) type

This warning refers to the Undefined Behavior that we have already come across earlier, described in C11 standard section

(…) if type is not compatible with the type of the actual next argument (as promoted according to the default argument promotions), the behavior is undefined, except for the following cases:

  • one type is a signed integer type, the other type is the corresponding unsigned integer type, and the value is representable in both types;
  • one type is pointer to void and the other is a pointer to a character type.

So what happens here exactly? The next variadic argument at this point of the execution is the -1LL constant, which is a negative value of long long type. Deep inside the sprintf implementation, the va_arg macro expects at this moment is an argument of unsigned long long type. Though these two types are not compatible, we fall into one of two exception cases: one type is a signed integer type, the other type is the corresponding unsigned integer type. But this use of a type with a different signedness is only valid if the argument’s value exists in both the signed and the unsigned type, which is not the case for -1. Consuming -1LL with va_arg(…, unsigned long long) is undefined. And that is exactly what TIS Interpreter is warning about here.

A short investigation led to the va_arg invocation that consumed this variadic argument. It was the one at line 141 of the vprintf.c file, effectively expecting unsigned long long:

break; case ULLONG: arg->i = va_arg(*ap, unsigned long long);

The cause behind the issue is optimization in the vprintf.c file. Two symbols, LONG_IS_INT and ODD_TYPES, are defined conditionally and then employed, using #ifdef directives, to fiddle with the enum type related with handling the conversion specifiers and with the switch cases which select the correct va_arg invocation in the function pop_arg. Let us see exactly how the ODD_TYPES makes us get to the switch case with the unsigned long long type:

First, the symbol ODD_TYPES is defined or not, depending on the representation of certain types on the platform:

#define ODD_TYPES

Then ODD_TYPES decides if LLONG is an actual enumeration tag or just a synonym for the ULLONG tag:

enum {
  /* ... */
  /* ... */
#ifdef ODD_TYPES
/* other #define directives here... */
  /* ... */

Finally, inside the pop_arg function’s switch statement the case corresponding to LLONG is conditionally avoided (as LLONG is in this situation just an alias for ULLONG, that would be de facto second ULLONG case in the switch):

switch (type) {
  /* ... */
  break; case ULLONG: arg->i = va_arg(*ap, unsigned long long);
  /* ... */
#ifdef ODD_TYPES
  break; case LLONG: arg->i = va_arg(*ap, long long);
  /* ... */

So what purpose did these type-related shenanigans serve? This optimization can shave off a few bytes from the compiled code by unifying certain execution paths: if these different types have the same underlying representation, they can be both treated in the same way. Unfortunately, as we have just seen, this optimization also introduces Undefined Behavior. After (see the discussion on the musl mailing list), a cleanup patch has been applied by Rich Felker, the primary author of musl, in this commit.


In an ideal world, this kind of optimization would not need to exist at the C level in the first place. If the compiler recognised what was going on in this situation, i.e. that two or more execution paths are equivalent on a given architecture, these two switch cases could be merged at compile-time. Then the programmer could just stick to the C standard, express their intentions, and get an executable as small as when applying the hack discussed above.

Luckily, in these particular circumstances, the efficiency impact of removing altogether this dubious optimization was negligible, so the choice was easy to make. In other cases though, if the difference in efficiency was more substantial, it might be less clear if sticking to the C standard is worth the price.

As a side-effect, this lead to a short discussion about compilers producing efficient code from the type-safe and correct version that musl now uses exclusively. It is a pleasant convergence that a problem uncovered in musl with TIS Interpreter revealed an instance of a compilation challenge which was being worked on at the same time.

Acknowledgments: Shafik Yaghmour provided comments on an early version of this post, and it was edited by Pascal Cuoq. Joakim Sindholt provided the cleanup patch that was merged into the musl tree by Rich Felker.

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