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Open-source release for MemSentry (EuroSys'17)
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The MemSentry pass and runtime of the EuroSys'17 publication "No Need to Hide: Protecting Safe Regions on Commodity Hardware".

Allows for deterministic isolation of safe regions (part of many systems security defenses), instead of relying on probabilistic information hiding (ASLR). MemSentry can be used to enhance existing defenses, and to serve as a testbed for different (hardware-assisted) protection features.

Currently MemSentry supports:

  • Address-based:
    • SFI: Software fault isolation, mask every pointer so it cannot point to safe region.
    • MPX: Intel Memory Protection Extensions: verify every pointer.
  • Domain-based:
    • VMFUNC: Intel VT-x VM-Functions: map/unmap pages in the EPT (requires modified hypervisor such as our patched Dune).
    • AES-NI: Intel AES instructions: encrypt safe region.
    • MPK: Intel Memory Protection Keys: upcoming feature to change page permissions, for benchmarking purposes only.

MemSentry consists of a number of LLVM passes (developed on LLVM 3.8), a static library consisting of the core runtime, and additional runtime code/tools depending on the used feature. For instance, VMFUNC requires a compatible hypervisor, and the address-based approaches require a certain address-space layout.


To apply the isolation of MemSentry to a defense, it should provide:

  • Safe regions: what information to protect
  • Whitelisted/safe code: what code should be allowed access to the safe region
  • Protection method: how to protect the safe region

Allocating safe regions

The first thing a defense should indicate is what its safe region is, and thus what data should be protected by MemSentry. This is done by allocating the safe region using a special MemSentry function, as follows:

#include "memsentry-runtime.h"


    char *saferegion = saferegion_alloc(size);

The current code assumes such allocations are rare and long-lived, and thus there is currently no way of freeing this region for example. The defense itself should take care that the attacker cannot corrupt a pointer to the safe region.

Allowing access to the safe region

Next, the MemSentry pass needs to know which code is allowed to access the safe region. The defense should pass this information on to MemSentry, and can do so in two ways: by calling memsentry_saferegion_access(ins) in its own pass (running before MemSentry), or by placing all code accessing the safe region in a special section. See the compilation flags for how to pass the name of the section to MemSentry. A combination of these approaches can be used at the same time.

Compilation and protection method

Finally, when applying the defense to a program, MemSentry should be added to the compilation process: its pass should run (with the appropriate parameters), and the runtime should be linked in. MemSentry can run either via opt, or during LTO via MemSentry benefits most from running after optimizations, as this will eliminate a large number of memory accesses.

An example of how to run MemSentry is as follows:

opt ...
    -defense-passes ...                        # Run defense normally
    -memsentry-prot-method=mpx                 # Protect safe region using MPX
    -memsentry-rw=w                            # Instrument only writes
    -memsentry-whitelist-section=my-functions  # See above

See opt -memsentry -help | grep memsentry for a full list of options.


MemSentry can also benchmark different approaches by switching domains at predetermined points in the application. The frequency of the switches are a major factor for the performance. For this, the MemSentryBenchDomain pass can used as follows:

opt ...
    -memsentry-benchdomain-points=[call-ret,icall,libfunc]  # Benchmark options
    -memsentry-prot-method=.. -memsenty-max-region-size=..  # MemSentry options
    -memsentry-benchdomain -memsentry -memsentry-benchdomain-post ...

Example: SafeStack

SafeStack is a production-ready defense, part of Clang/LLVM. It splits up the stack into a safe stack (the normal stack) and the unsafe stack. All allocations for which it cannot statically prove they are only used in a safe way are moved to the unsafe stack. SafeStack consist of a compiler pass (SafeStack.cpp) and a runtime (compiler-rt/lib/safestack).

To protect SafeStack with MemSentry, we need to pick an address-based or domain-based protection method, separate the safe stack from the rest of the address space and mark all instructions that use the safe stack. Since the safestack is accessed very frequently, and accessed implicitly by instructions such as calls and returns, an address-based method makes most sense. To ensure the correct layout for this, the run-time can be modified to reserve the required portion of the address-space with a (non-reserved) memory mapping in its __safestack_init function (part of the program's .preinit_array). Finally, to mark which instructions can access this safe region, we can go over all the uses of safe allocations in the LLVM pass, and mark them safe for MemSentry.

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