Google Research

Snowboard: Finding Kernel Concurrency Bugs through Systematic Inter-thread Communication Analysis

Proceedings of the 28th ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (2021) (to appear)


Kernel concurrency bugs are challenging to find because they depend on very specific thread interleavings and test inputs. While separately exploring kernel thread interleavings or test inputs has been closely examined, jointly exploring interleavings and test inputs has received little attention, in part due to the resulting vast search space. Using precious, limited testing resources to explore this search space and execute just the right concurrent tests in the proper order is critical.

This paper proposes Snowboard a testing framework that generates and executes concurrent tests by intelligently exploring thread interleavings and test inputs jointly. The design of Snowboard is based on a concept called potential memory communication (PMC), a guess about pairs of tests that, when executed concurrently, are likely to perform memory accesses to shared addresses, which in turn may trigger concurrency bugs. To identify PMCs, Snowboard runs tests sequentially from a fixed initial kernel state, collecting their memory accesses. It then pairs up tests that write and read the same region into candidate concurrent tests. It executes those tests using the associated PMC as a scheduling hint to focus interleaving search only on those schedules that directly affect the relevant memory accesses. By clustering candidate tests on various features of their PMCs, Snowboard avoids testing similar behaviors, which would be inefficient. Finally, by executing tests from small clusters first, it prioritizes uncommon suspicious behaviors that may have received less scrutiny.

Snowboard discovered 14 new concurrency bugs in Linux kernels 5.3.10 and 5.12-rc3, of which 12 have been confirmed by developers. Six of these bugs cause kernel panics and filesystem errors, and at least two have existed in the kernel for many years, showing that this approach can uncover hard-to-find, critical bugs. Furthermore, we show that covering as many distinct pairs of uncommon read/write instructions as possible is the test-prioritization strategy with the highest bug yield for a given test-time budget.

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