Patrick Lam

Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Waterloo
Gastprofessor, ETH Zurich (2015-2016)
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The Hob System

"I verify, therefore I am consistent!"

hob. 1. The block in the center of a wheel, from which the spokes radiate, and through which the axle passes; -- called also hub or hob.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

Diagram Highlighting Our Approach

The goal of the Hob project is to verify sophisticated properties of programs that manipulate complex, heterogenous data structures.


The final version of my PhD thesis as submitted to MIT:

My other publications also contain information on Hob; the TSE 2006 paper is a short overview of the whole system. You may also be interested in the Jahob system, which explores a different point in the design space (more powerful but less intuitive specifications).


With my PhD advisor Martin Rinard and colleagues Viktor Kuncak, Karen Zee, and Thomas Wies, I have developed the Hob system for verifying software design properties. The Hob system enables developers to apply sophisticated static analysis techniques—even those that have traditionally been difficult to apply due to scalability issues—by structuring the verification task. The key idea is that, by using set interfaces to specify preconditions and postconditions for procedures, our analysis system can soundly apply analyses on a per-procedure basis: any individual analysis only needs to scale up to the size of a procedure, not the size of the program as a whole. Furthermore, set interfaces also enable developers to state and verify properties which span multiple modules, since all modules describe the program state using a shared abstraction language.

We have implemented our system and deployed three pluggable analyses into it: a flag analysis for modules in which abstract set membership is determined by a flag field in each object, a plugin for modules that encapsulate linked data structures such as lists and trees, and an array plugin in which abstract set membership is determined by membership in an array. Our experimental results indicate that our approach makes it possible to effectively combine multiple analyses to verify properties that involve objects shared by multiple modules, with each analysis analyzing only those modules for which it is appropriate.

We have successfully verified a number of benchmark programs with Hob. One benchmark is an implementation of a web server in the Hob language. This benchmark contains 1200 lines of implementation (including a doubly-linked list) and 400 lines of specification. We also have analyzed the popular minesweeper game, which contains 900 lines of implementation and 300 lines of specification. For the minesweeper benchmark, we used the unscalable PALE plugin and theorem proving plugins to verify 150 lines of code (the largest example distributed with the PALE tool contains 120 lines of code), and the scalable field analysis to verify the other 750 lines.


Our implementation provides an infrastructure with several general components that perform tasks required by all analyses. The implementation language component can parse and type-check implementation sections. It produces an abstract syntax tree and methods that allow analyses to conveniently access this representation. Similarly, the specification component can parse and type check specification sections and provides access to the resulting abstract syntax tree. Large parts of abstraction sections are expressed in a language that is specific to each analysis. The abstraction section component parses those parts of the abstraction section syntax that are common to all analyses and uses uninterpreted strings to pass along the analysis-specific parts. Finally, the implementation provides a driver that processes the program and invokes the appropriate analysis for each module that it encounters. Our implementation consists of approximately 10,000 lines of O'Caml code, to which the flag plugin contributes 2000 lines, the PALE plugin another 700 lines, and the array analysis plugin 1000 lines.

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