Tierless Programming for SDNs: Differential Analysis

Tags: Flowlog, Programming Languages, Software-Defined Networking, Verification

Posted on 02 June 2015.

This post is part of our series about tierless network programming with Flowlog:
Part 1: Tierless Programming
Part 2: Interfacing with External Events
Part 3: Optimality
Part 4: Verification
Part 5: Differential Analysis

Verification is a powerful way to make sure a program meets expectations, but what if those expectations aren't written down, or the user lacks the expertise to write formal properties? Flowlog supports a powerful form of property-free analysis: program differencing.

When we make a program change, usually we're starting from a version that "works". We'd like to transfer what confidence we had in the original version to the new version, plus confirm our intuition about the changes. In other words, even if the original program had bugs, we'd like to at least confirm that the edit doesn't introduce any new ones.

Of course, taking the syntactic difference of two programs is easy — just use diff! — but usually that's not good enough. What we want is the behavioral, or semantic difference. Flowlog provides semantic differencing via Alloy, similarly to how it does property checking. We call Flowlog's differencing engine Chimp (short for Change-impact).

Differences in Output and State Transitions

Chimp translates both the old (prog1) and new (prog2) versions to Alloy, then supports asking questions like: Will the two versions ever handle packets differently? More generally, we can ask Chimp whether the program's output behavior ever differs: does there exist some program state and input event such that, in that state, the two programs will disagree on output?

pred changePolicyOut[st: State, ev: Event] {
  some out: Event |
    prog1/outpolicy[st,ev,out] && not prog2/outpolicy[st,ev,out] ||
    prog2/outpolicy[st,ev,out] && not prog1/outpolicy[st,ev,out]
Any time one program issues an output event that the other doesn't, Chimp displays an Alloy scenario.

We might also ask: When can the programs change state differently? Similarly to changePolicyOut above, Chimp defines changeStateTransition[st: State, ev: Event] as matching any of the following for each table T in the program:

some x0, ..., xn: univ | 
  prog1/afterEvent_T[prestate, ev, x0, ..., xn] && 
    not prog2/afterEvent_T[prestate, ev, x0, ..., xn] ||
  prog2/afterEvent_T[prestate, ev, x0, ..., xn] && 
    not prog1/afterEvent_T[prestate, ev, x0, ..., xn]

Recall that afterEvent_T keeps track of when each tuple is in the table T after an event is processed.

Refining Differential Analysis

The two predicates above are both built into Chimp. Using them as a starting point, users can ask pointed questions about the effects of the change. For instance, will any TCP packets be handled differently? Just search for a pre-state and a TCP packet that the programs disagree on:

some prestate: State, p: EVtcp_acket |
  changePolicyOut[prestate, p]
This lets users explore the consequences of their change without any formal guidance except their intuition about what the change should do.


So far, these queries show scenarios where the programs differ, taking into consideration all potential inputs and starting states; this includes potentially unreachable starting states. We could, for instance, have two programs that behave differently if a table is populated (resulting in a non-empty semantic diff!) yet never actually insert rows into that table. Chimp provides optional reachability-checking to counter this, although users must cap the length of system traces being searched.

Schema Clashes

Suppose that we want to modify the original source-tracking example to keep track of flows by source and destination, rather than just source addresses. Now instead of one column:

TABLE seen(macaddr);
the seen table has two columns:
TABLE seen(macaddr, macaddr);

This poses a challenge for Chimp; what shape should the seen table be? If Chimp finds a scenario, should it show a seen table with one or two columns? We call this situation a schema clash, and Chimp addresses it by creating two separate tables in the prestate: one with one column (used by the first program) and another with two columns (used by the second program).

Doing this causes a new issue: Chimp searches for arbitrary states that satisfy the change-impact predicates. Since there is no constraint between the values of the two tables, Chimp might return a scenario where (say) the first seen table is empty, but the second contains tuples!

This doesn't match our intuition for the change: we expect that for every source in the first table, there is a source-destination pair in the second table, and vice versa. We can add this constraint to Chimp and filter the scenarios it shows us, but first, we should ask whether that constraint actually reflects the behavior of the two programs.

Differential Properties

Since it's based on Flowlog's verification framework, Chimp allows us to check properties stated over multiple programs. Our expecation above, stated in Alloy for an arbitrary state s, is:

all src: Macaddr | 
  src in s.seen1 
  some dst: Macaddr | src->dst in s.seen2

Let's check that this condition holds for all reachable states. We'll proceed inductively. The condition holds trivially at the starting (empty) state; so we only need to show that it is preserved as the program transitions. We search for a counterexample:

some prestate: State, ev: Event | {
  // prestate satisfies the condition
  all src: Macaddr | src in prestate.seen_1 iff 
    some dst: Macaddr | src->dst in prestate.seen_2
  // poststate does not
  some src: Macaddr | 
    (prog1/afterEvent_seen_1[prestate,ev,src] and 
     all dst: Macaddr | not prog2/afterEvent_seen_2[prestate,ev,src,dst])
    (not prog1/afterEvent_seen_1[prestate,ev,src] and 
     some dst: Macaddr | prog2/afterEvent_seen_2[prestate,ev,src,dst])

Chimp finds no counterexample. Unfortunately, Chimp can't guarantee that this isn't a false negative; the query falls outside the class where Chimp can guarantee a complete search. Nevertheless, the lack of counterexample serves to increase our confidence that the change respects our intent.

After adding the constraint that, for every source in the first table, there is a source-destination pair in the second table, Chimp shows us that the new program will change the state (to add a new destination) even if the source is already in seen.

Further Reading

Chimp supports more features than discussed here; for instance, Chimp can compare the behavior of any number of program versions, but a two-program comparison is the most common. You can read more about Chimp in our paper.