Skip to content
Failed to load latest commit information. Refactored code. May 9, 2014

Refined types: a better type system for more secure software

This is another type systems experiment that combines Hindley–Milner type inference with static type-checking of a limited version of dependent types called refined types. Although the type-checker only allows refined types on function parameters and return types (i.e. function contracts), it can prove the absence of some of the most common software bugs.

For a simple example, let's consider integer division: we know that the denominator cannot be zero. Thus, if we define division as / : (int, i : int if i != 0) → int, the refined type-checker can tell us during compilation that 1/0 will result in an error, as would 1/(2 * 3 - 6) and 1/(4 % 2). The system can also deduce that the program 10 / (random1toN(10) - 5) is potentially unsafe, where random1toN is a non-deterministic function whose type is (N : int if N ≥ 1) → (i : int if 1 ≤ i and i ≤ N).

Refined type checking can also be used to verify that arrays are not accessed out of bounds, and using appropriate contracts on functions alloc and memcpy, software bugs such as Heartbleed could be prevented.

alloc : (i : int) -> (a : array[byte] if length(a) == i)
memcpy : (dst : array[byte], src : array[byte],
          num : int if num <= length(dst) and num <= length(src)) -> unit

function heartbleed_bug(payload : array[byte], payload_length : int) {
  let response = alloc(payload_length)
  memcpy(response, payload, payload_length)    // ERROR!
  return response

function heartbleed_fix(payload : array[byte],
                        payload_length : int if length(payload) == payload_length) {
  let response = alloc(payload_length)
  memcpy(response, payload, payload_length)
  return response

The implementation of a refined type-checker is actually very straightforward and turned out to be much simpler than I expected. Essentially, program expressions and contracts on function parameters and return types are converted into a series of mathematical formulas and logical statements, the validity of which is then assessed using an external automated theorem prover Z3. The details of the implementation, including the tricks that allow functions to be handled as first-class values, are explained below.

Note about syntax: These examples use a syntax similar to JavaScript or TypeScript that should be familiar to most programmers, which is different from the ML-like syntax that the type-checker and its test cases use.


Dependent types, i.e. types that depend on values, are often presented as the holy grail of secure static type systems, yet despite intensive research they remain complex and impractical and are only used in research languages and mathematical proof assistants. Refined types or contracts are a restricted form of dependent types that combine base datatypes with logical predicates; for example, the type of natural numbers could be written x : int if x ≥ 0 (the notation most commonly used in academic literature is {ν : int | ν ≥ 0}).

Refined types have been a topic of a lot of research and experimentation in the past decade. Hybrid type checking [1] combines static and dynamic type-checking by verifying the contracts statically when possible and deferring the checks until runtime when necessary (implemented in programming language Sage [2]). Limited automatic inference of function contracts was developed which can reduce the amount of type annotations necessary to prove software safety (e.g. Liquid Types [3] and [4]). Refined types have also been used in some experimental programming languages and verifying compilers, such as the VCC, a verifier for concurrent C, F7, which implements refined types for F# (since superseded by F*), and the Whiley programming language.

This experiment, inspired primarily by Sage and Liquid Types, is an implementation of refined type-checking for a simple functional language. Refined types are only allowed on function parameters and return types; nevertheless, a variety of static program properties can be verified. The type-checker first strips all refined type annotations and uses Hindley–Milner type inference to infer base types of functions and variables. Then it translates the program into SMT-LIB, a language understood by automated theorem provers called SMT solvers. SMT solvers understand how integers and booleans work, so simple expressions such as 1 + a can be translated directly. Translation of functions is more complicated, as SMT solvers use first-order logic and cannot handle functions as first-class values, so the contracts on their parameters and return types are translated instead. The resulting SMT-LIB formulas are run through a SMT solver (this implementation uses Z3) to verify that none of the translated contracts are broken.

This design allows the refined type-checker to handle a variety of programming constructs, such as multiple variable definitions, nested function calls, and if statements. It can also track abstract properties such as array length or integer ranges, and handle function subtyping. The following examples demonstrate these features:

function cannot_get_first(arr : array[int]) {
  return get(arr, 0)    // ERROR!

function maybe_get_first(arr : array[int]) {
  if not is_empty(arr) {
    return get(arr, 0)
  } else {
    return -1

function get_2dimensional(n : int if n >= 0, m : int if m >= 0,
                          i : int if 0 <= i and i < m, j : int if 0 <= j and j < n,
                          arr : array[int] if length(arr) == m * n) {
  return get(arr, i * n + j)

function max_typo(x, y) : (z : int if z >= x and z >= y) {
  if x <= y {     // Oops, should be `x >= y`!
    return x      // ERROR: `z` can be less than `y`
  } else {
    return y

function test(x : int if abs(x) <= 10) {
  let z =
    if max(square(x), 25) == 25 {
      3 * x + 7 * random1toN(10)
    } else if x == 11 {     // cannot happen
    } else {
  return 100 / z

/* function subtyping */
min : (i : int if i > 0, j : int if j < 0) -> (k : int if k < 0)
make_const(1) : int -> (a : int if a == 1)

The get_2dimensional function is particularly interesting; it uses non-linear integer arithmetic, which is incomplete and undecidable. Although Z3 can prove simple non-linear statements about integers, such as x² ≥ 0, it cannot prove that the array is accessed within bound in the function get_2dimensional. Instead, it has to convert the formula to real arithmetic and use the NLSat solver [5]. Even though non-linear real arithmetic is complete and decidable, this approach only works for certain kinds of problems; for example, it cannot disprove equalities that have real solutions but no integer ones, such as x³ + y³ == z³ where x, y and z are positive.


Type inference

After lexing and parsing, a slightly modified algorithm-w is used to perform standard Hindley-Milner unification-based type inference on the AST. The main difference is that instead of merely inferring the type of the input expression, the algorithm also transforms the AST into a typed expression tree that will be used later by the refined type-checker. The predicate expressions in refined function types have their types inferred as well and unified with bool. To prevent unification from unexpectedly propagating refined types, predicates are stripped from function types before calling unify and before adding the types to the typing context.

For example, the function cast

f : (x : int if x + 1 >= 0) -> int

is translated by the type inference algorithm roughly into the following representation, where {e; τ} denotes a typed tree node with expression e and type τ:

    {f; int -> int} : (x : int if {{{x; int} + {1; int}; int} >= {0; int}; bool}) -> int;
    int -> int

Refined type-checking

The goal of refined type-checking is proving that none of the function contracts can be broken at runtime. To do this, expressions of the source program must be translated into SMT-LIB formulas, so they can be reasoned about in proofs by the SMT solver. Some expressions, such as integer constants and applications of built-in operators (e.g. +, %, >=, == and or), have precise values or interpretations in SMT theories and can be translated literally. Others, such as function parameters and the return value of a random1toN(10) call, don't have specific values and we can only make certain more-or-less precise assertions about them.

We can use the SMT-LIB representation of an expression to check if a contract is satisfied. For a simple example, let's examine the SMT-LIB script generated during refined type-checking of the function test:

function test(x : int if x > 3) : (z : int if z > 0) {
    return x - 2

We first declare a new SMT-LIB variable for the parameter x. Its value is unknown and the most we can say about it is that x > 3.

(declare-const x Int)                   ; declare `x : int`
(assert (>= (- x 1) 3))                 ; equivalent to `x > 3`
(push)                                  ; enter new stack frame
(assert (not (>= (- (- x 2) 1) 0)))     ; equivalent to `not (z > 0)` where `z == x - 2`
(check-sat)                             ; check satisfiability
(pop)                                   ; exit last stack frame

To prove that a contract is satisfied, we need to prove the validity of the logical implication where all previous formulas and assertions are premises and the contract is the conclusion. In the above example, the required implication is x > 3 ⇒ x - 2 > 0. However, SMT solvers can only prove that a formula is satisfiable (there exists an assignment of values to the variables that makes the formula true), not that it is valid (it is true for every assignment of values). Fortunately, we can determine if the implication is valid by negating the condition of the contract and checking whether the negation of the implication is satisfiable. If the SMT solver produces a model showing that it is, indeed, satisfiable, we have a counterexample of values that break the contract. If the SMT solver proves that the negated implication is not satisfiable, we conclude that the implication itself is valid, and that the contract cannot be broken. If the solver can neither show that the negated implication is satisfiable nor prove that it is not, its satisfiability is checked again in the theory of non-linear real arithmetic by the NLSat solver. (Z3 incorrectly translates strict inequalities when translating between the theories of integer and real arithmetic, which is why >= and <= are used instead of > and <.)

Some expressions, such as integers, booleans and variables that do not have function types, can be trivially translated into SMT-LIB representation, but the translation of other kinds of expressions can be tricky. When translating an if expression, the boolean condition has to be added to the premises when checking contracts in the then branch, while its negation has to be added to the premises when checking the else branch. Another non-trivial case is checking function calls, where each argument expression is translated and the contract on the corresponding parameter must be checked. As contracts on function parameters can refer to earlier parameters, the representations of argument expressions corresponding to named parameters are added to the function's local environment. In the example above, the local environment when checking the refined return type is {z ↦ "(- x 2)"}, so that the variable z in the contract expression is translated correctly.

The results of some function calls are represented directly, specifically the results of calls of built-in operators, which have standard interpretations in SMT theories, and uninterpreted functions such as length, which are used to represent abstract properties and whose values can be tracked and reasoned about by SMT solvers. The results of other function calls are represented by fresh SMT variables, which are constrained by the contract on the functions return type. For example, the result of the function application x + 6 is represented by "(+ x 6)", while the result of the call random1toN(10) is translated as

(declare-const _i0 Int)
(assert (and (<= 1 _i0) (<= _i0 10)))

In contrast to other values, functions are not translated into SMT-LIB representation, but are instead stored in a function environment. If a function is the result of an application of a higher-order function, its local environment is stored along with its refined type. Take, for example, the function make_const : (x : int) → int → (z : int if z == x). The result of the call make_const(1 + 2) is the pair ({x ↦ "(+ 1 2)"}, int → (z : int if z == x)). That way, when the resulting function is called, its return type contract can be translated correctly.

Function casts must establish a subtype relationship between two refined function types, e.g. that a₁ → b₁ <: a₂ → b₂. Assuming that the base types of a₁ and a₂ and of b₁ and b₂ are equal, we must prove that the contract of a₂ implies the contract of a₁ (as parameter types are contravariant), and that the contract of a₂ and the contract of b₁ imply the contract of b₂ (since return types are covariant). If there are multiple parameters, the contracts of all earlier parameters of the supertype must be used as premises when checking the implication of contracts for each parameter and for the return type. For example, to prove that the type (x : int, y : int if y > 0) → (z : int if z == x + y) is a subtype of (x : int if x > 0, y : int if y > x) → (z : int if z > 0), we must prove 1) x > 0 ⇒ true, 2) x > 0 ∧ y > x ⇒ y > 0, and 3) x > 0 ∧ y > x ∧ z == x + y ⇒ z > 0.

Possible extensions

This experimental implementation demonstrates a refined type-checking algorithm that can check many software safety properties. However, it is far from complete, and could be improved in many different ways.

A simple addition would be implementing HM type inference and refined type checking for recursive functions, which are equivalent to loops and would make the language Turing complete. Another idea is to allow type aliases for refined types (e.g. type nat = i : int if i ≥ 0), and to perform a simple form of dead code elimination by proving when if branches cannot be taken. Furthermore, we could use the model generated by the SMT solver the negated implication is satisfiable to extract a set of values that break the contract.

Handling of first-class functions needs to be improved. We would need to include functions in local environment as well, and then use the function subtype-checking algorithm to check refined function types of parameters and return types. We would need to transform some second-order contracts into equivalent refined function types, for example f : int → int if f(0) == 1 is equivalent to f : (x : int) → (y : int if (if x == 0 then y == 1 else true)), while f : array[int] → int if f == length is equivalent to f : (a : array[int]) → (i : int if i == length(a)). Finally, it would be useful to alert the user when there can be no functions inhabiting a given function type, such as (x : int if x > 0) → (y : int if y > x and y < 0).

More substantial extensions would be adding a function effect system, which would prohibit the use of functions with side-effects (such as non-determinism or I/O) in refined types, and including built-in operations for additional datatypes, such as arrays, modular integers and bitvectors, which can also be reasoned about by some SMT solvers. To make the language practical, it would also need to support imperative features such as loops and mutable local variables and data structures.

A very useful extension would be to allow refined types within algebraic datatypes, for example array[i : int if i ≥ 0]. This would require the ability to instantiate polymorphic types with refined base types, so that we could use get : forall[a] (array[a], i : int) → a to extract a non-negative value from this array. A related idea is predicate polymorphism [6]: we want to support types such as array_max : forall[p : int → bool] array[i : int if p(i)] → (k : int if p(k)).

Ideally, refined type-checking could be used without having the programmer explicitly annotate all parameters and return types. However, refined type inference is complicated, as it is hard to say what is the "best" refined type for a given expression. For example, the exact refined type of square(random1toN(5)) is the existential type exists[i : int if 1 ≤ i ≤ 5] i * i, but in many situations i : int if 1 ≤ i ≤ 25 is precise enough while being much clearer. The Liquid Types [3] type inference system attempts to solve this by inferring refined types made only of programmer-specified qualifiers, such as 0 ≤ _ and _ < length(_). The system presented in [4] instead uses weakest precondition generation to propagate the conditions of a contract that might be broken backwards to the function parameters.


[1] K Knowles, C Flanagan. Hybrid Type Checking. 2006/2010

[2] K Knowles, A Tomb, J Gronski, S N Freund, C Flanagan. Sage: Unified Hybrid Checking for First-Class Types, General Refinement Types, and Dynamic. 2006

[3] P M Rondon, M Kawaguchi, R Jhala. Liquid Types. 2008

[4] H Zhu, S Jagannathan. Compositional and Lightweight Dependent Type Inference for ML. 2013

[5] D Jovanović, L de Moura. Solving Non-Linear Arithmetic. 2012

[6] N Vazou, P M Rondon, R Jhala. Abstract Refinement Types. 2013

Something went wrong with that request. Please try again.