Frequently Asked Questions on seL4
What is seL4?
seL4 is the most advanced member of the L4 microkernel family, notable for its comprehensive formal verification, which sets it apart from any other operating system. seL4 achieves this without compromising performance.
What is a microkernel?
A microkernel is the minimal core of an operating system (OS). It presents a very small subset of what is generally considered an operating system today. The definition of what makes up a microkernel is given by Liedtke [SOSP’95]: A concept is tolerated inside the microkernel only if moving it outside the kernel, i.e., permitting competing implementations, would prevent the implementation of the system’s required functionality.
A microkernel therefore does not provide high-level abstractions over the hardware (files, processes, sockets etc) as most modern operating systems such as Linux or Windows do. Instead, it provides minimal mechanisms for controlling access to physical address space, interrupts, and processor time. Any higher-level constructs are built on top of the microkernel, using those mechanisms. Such higher-level services inevitably encapsulate policy. Policy-freedom is an important characteristic of a well-designed microkernel.
In the model used by L4 microkernels (and seL4 is no exception), an initial user-level task (the root task) is given full rights to all resources left over once the kernel has booted up (this typically includes physical memory, IO ports on x86, and interrupts). It is up to this root task to set up other tasks, and to grant rights to those other tasks in order to build a complete system. In seL4, like other third-generation microkernels, such access rights are conferred by capabilities (unforgeable tokens representing privileges) and are fully delegatable.
What is the L4 microkernel family?
L4 is a family of very small, high-performance microkernels evolved from the first L4 microkernel developed by Jochen Liedtke in the early ’90s. See the L4 microkernel family entry on Wikipedia for more details.
L4 microkernel family tree from 1993 until 2013. Black arrows indicate code, green arrows ABI inheritance. Node colours indicate author organisations. A full description of L4 variants and history can be found along this image source: "From L3 to seL4. What Have We Learnt in 20 Years of L4 Microkernels? [Elphinstone & Heiser, SOSP 2013]"
How does seL4’s performance compare to other microkernels?
Up-to-date performance figures of the seL4 head revision are listed on the seL4 Benchmarks page. To the best of our knowledge, seL4 is the world’s fastest microkernel on the supported processors, in terms of the usual ping-pong metric: the cost of a cross-address-space message-passing (IPC) operation.
In fact, we have not seen performance data from another microkernel that are within a factor of two of seL4’s, and in most cases the gap is closer to a factor of ten.
What is the size of seL4?
Obviously this depends on the processor architecture.
In terms of source-code size, the 64-bit RISC-V kernel is about 9,400 SLOC (as of Jan’20). The Arm version is similar, x64 is larger (16-18 kSLOC) due to the more complex platform, the extra code is mostly in the kernel initialisation.
In terms of executable code size, on the 64-bit RISC-V architecture, the single-core kernel compiles into about 138 KiB. Its RAM size is about 162 KiB, which includes code, static data and the stack. Meta-data for usermode processes, incl. address spaces (page tables), thread-control blocks, capability storage etc, will add to this. (But note that in seL4’s memory-management model, such dynamic memory must be supplied to the kernel by usermode code.)
On what hardware does seL4 run?
What processor architectures are supported?
Presently seL4 runs on Arm v6, v7 (32-bit) and v8 (64-bit) cores, on PC99 (x86) cores (32- and 64-bit mode), and RISC-V RV64 (64-bit) cores. See the up-to-date list of supported platforms.
Talk to us if you have funds to support a port to further architectures.
Which platform ports are verified?
We have presently the most comprehensive verification story (functional correctness to the binary, security proofs, user-level initialisation proofs) for 32-bit Arm v6 and v7 platforms. For 64-bit x86 there are functional-correctness proofs to C code, and for 64-bit RISC-V there are functional-correctness proofs to binary code as well as security proofs (but no user-level initialisation proofs yet).
Verification of the 64-bit Arm (Armv8 AArch64) is in progress.
What devices does seL4 support?
seL4, like any real microkernel, runs all device drivers in user mode, device support is therefore not the kernel’s problem. The exceptions are a timer driver, which seL4 needs to enforce time-slice preemption, and the interrupt controller access to which seL4 mediates. When compiled with debugging enabled, the kernel also contains a serial driver.
Other than that, device support is the user’s problem. seL4 provides the mechanisms for user-mode device drivers, especially the ability to map device memory to drivers and forward IRQs as (asynchronous) messages.
What about DMA?
The formal verification of seL4 on the ARM platform assumes that the MMU has complete control over memory, which means the proof assumes that DMA is off. DMA devices can in theory overwrite any memory on the machine, including kernel data and code.
You can still use DMA devices safely, but you have to separately assure that they are well-behaved, that is, that they don’t overwrite kernel code or data structures, and only write to frames allocated to them according to the system policy. In practice, this means, drivers and hardware for DMA devices need to be trusted.
The unverified x86 version of seL4 supports VT-d extensions on the experimental branch. The VT-d extensions allow the kernel to restrict DMA and thereby enable DMA devices with untrusted user-level drivers. There is unverified support for the SystemMMU on multiple ARM boards.
Does seL4 support multicore?
Multicore is presently supported on x64, ARMv7, ARMv8, and RISC-V. Verification of the multicore kernel is in progress (but presently as an unfunded background activity).
The multicore kernel uses a big-lock approach, which makes sense for tightly-coupled cores that share an L2 cache. It is not meant to scale to many cores, where instead multikernel is the right approach (running separate kernel image on each cluster of cores sharing a cache). This “clustered multikernel” configuration is presently not supported, though.
Can I run seL4 on an MMU-less microcontroller?
Using seL4 without a full memory-management unit (MMU) makes little sense, as its resource management is fundamentally based on virtual memory. For lower-end processors that only have a memory-protection unit (MPU) or no memory protection at all, you should look at NICTA’s eChronos real-time operating system (RTOS), which is designed for such processors and is also undergoing formal verification.
What are the intended applications of seL4?
seL4 is a general-purpose microkernel, so the answer is all of them. The main targets are embedded systems with security or reliability requirements, but that is not exclusive. Using a microkernel like seL4 makes sense on platforms that provide virtual memory protection and for application areas that need isolation between different parts of the software. Immediate application areas are in the financial, medical, automotive, avionics and defence sectors.
How good is seL4 at supporting virtual machines?
Can I run Linux on top of seL4?
Yes, seL4 can run Linux in a virtual machine. At present the master branch supports this on ARMv7 processors (presently A15/A7 cores). For x86 there is experimental virtualisation support (requiring Intel VT-x, ETP and a HPET that supports MSI delivery). Please see the roadmap for anticipated release of a mature version.
To support virtual machines, seL4 itself runs as a hypervisor (x86 Ring-0 root mode or ARM hyp mode) and forwards virtualisation events to a virtual machine monitor (VMM) which performs the necessary emulations. The VMM runs de-privileged (x86 Ring-3 root mode or ARM supv mode).
Does seL4 support multiple virtual machines at once?
Yes, multiple VMs are supported, including heterogeneous ones.
Can I run a real-time OS in a virtual machine on seL4?
seL4 is the world’s only hypervisor with a sound worst-case execution-time (WCET) analysis, and as such the only one that can give you actual real-time guarantees, no matter what others may be claiming. (If someone else tells you they can make such guarantees, ask them to make them in public so Gernot can call out their bullshit.)
The originally published analysis was performed on an earlier version of the kernel, and contained unverified improvements. We have recently improved our WCET analysis to make the determination of loop bounds and infeasible paths high-assurance. We now also apply it to the verified kernel, so this now also has sound execution-time bounds. Unfortunately, we can only do a sound analysis on relatively dated processor cores (ARM11, which is an ARMv6 core) as ARM no longer publishes latency bounds for instructions. We should be able to repeat this for open RISC-V processor implementations, stay tuned.
We are actually not convinced that running an RTOS in a VM is necessarily the way to go, although that somewhat depends on your circumstances. In general, you’ll better off running RT apps in a native seL4 environment.
More importantly, we have developed a new scheduling model that supports the kind of temporal isolation that is required for supporting mixed-criticality systems. This MCS model is presently in verification and is being merged into mainline as verification progresses We strongly recommend basing any new project on the MCS model, irrespective of whether it requires real-time properties.
What is formal verification?
Formal software verification is the activity of using mathematical proof to show that a piece of software satisfies specific properties. Traditionally, formal verification has been widely used to show that the design or a specification of a piece of software has certain properties, or that a design implements a specification correctly. In recent years, it has become possible to apply formal verification directly to the code that implements the software and to show that this code has specific properties.
There are two broad approaches to formal verification: fully automated methods such as model checking that work on limited systems and properties, and interactive mathematical proof which requires manual effort.
The seL4 verification uses formal mathematical proof in the theorem prover Isabelle/HOL. This theorem prover is interactive, but offers a comparatively high degree of automation. It also offers a very high degree of assurance that the resulting proof is correct.
What does seL4’s formal verification mean?
Unique about seL4 is its unprecedented degree of assurance, achieved through formal verification. Specifically, the ARM, ARM_HYP (ARM with virtualisation extensions), X64, and RISCV64 versions of seL4 comprise the first (and still only) general-purpose OS kernel with a full code-level functional correctness proof, meaning a mathematical proof that the implementation (written in C) adheres to its specification. In short, the implementation is proved to be bug-free (see below). This also implies a number of other properties, such as freedom from buffer overflows, null pointer exceptions, use-after-free, etc.
On the ARM and RISCV64 platforms, there is a further proof that the binary code which executes on the hardware is a correct translation of the C code. This means that the compiler does not have to be trusted, and extends the functional correctness property to the binary.
Furthermore, also on ARM and RISCV64, there are proofs that seL4’s specification, if used properly, will enforce integrity and confidentiality, which are core security properties. Combined with the proofs mentioned above, these properties are guaranteed to be enforced not only by a model of the kernel (the specification) but the actual binary that executes on the hardware. Therefore, seL4 is the world’s first (and still only) OS that is proved secure in a very strong sense.
Finally, seL4/ARM is the first (and still only) protected-mode OS kernel with a sound and complete timeliness analysis. Among others this means that it has provable upper bounds on interrupt latencies (as well as latencies of any other kernel operations). It is therefore the only kernel with memory protection that can give you hard real-time guarantees.
Does seL4 have zero bugs?
The functional correctness proof states that, if the proof assumptions are met, the seL4 kernel implementation has no deviations from its specification. The security proofs state that if the kernel is configured according to the proof assumptions and further hardware assumptions are met, this specification (and with it the seL4 kernel implementation) enforces a number of strong security properties: integrity, confidentiality, and availability.
There may still be unexpected features in the specification and one or more of the assumptions may not apply. The security properties may be sufficient for what your system needs, but might not. For instance, the confidentiality proof makes no guarantees about the absence of covert timing channels.
So the answer to the question depends on what you understand a bug to be. In the understanding of formal software verification (code implements specification), the answer is yes. In the understanding of a general software user, the answer is potentially, because there may still be hardware bugs or proof assumptions unmet. For high assurance systems, this is not a problem, because analysing hardware and proof assumptions is much easier than analysing a large software system, the same hardware, and test assumptions.
Is seL4 proved secure?
This depends on what you mean by secure. In the interpretation of classic operating system security, the answer is yes. In particular, seL4 has been proved to enforce specific security properties, namely integrity and confidentiality, under certain assumptions. These proofs are very strong evidence about seL4’s utility for building secure systems.
Some of the proof assumptions may appear restrictive, for instance use of DMA is excluded, or only allowed for trusted drivers that have to be formally verified by the user. While these restrictions are common for high-assurance systems, we are working to reduce them, for instance through the use of IOMMUs on x86 or System MMUs on ARM.
If I run seL4, is my system secure?
Not automatically, no. Security is a question that spans the whole system, including its human parts. An OS kernel, verified or not, does not automatically make a system secure. In fact, any system, no matter how secure, can be used in insecure ways.
However, if used correctly, seL4 provides the system architect and user with strong mechanisms to implement security policies, backed by specific security theorems.
What are the proof assumptions?
The brief version is: we assume that the few lines of in-kernel assembly code are correct, hardware behaves correctly, in-kernel hardware management (TLB and caches) is correct, and boot code is correct. The hardware model assumes DMA to be off or to be trusted. The security proofs additionally give a list of conditions how the system is configured.
For a more in-depth description, see the proof and assumptions page.
How do I leverage seL4’s formal proofs?
The seL4 proofs are just the first step in building secure systems. They provide the tools that application and system developers need for providing evidence that their systems are secure.
For instance, one can use the functional correctness proof to show that an application interfaces correctly with the kernel. One can use the integrity property to show that others can’t interfere with private data, and the confidentiality proof to show that others can’t get access to that private data. And one can tie together all of these into a proof about an entire (one-machine) system without having to verify the code of the entire system.
If you are interested in connecting to the seL4 proofs, let us know, as we may be able to offer assistance.
Have OS kernels not been verified before?
OS verification goes back at least 40 years to the mid 1970s, so there is plenty of previous work on verified OS kernels. See also a comprehensive overview paper on OS verification from 2008 as well as the related work section of the seL4 overview paper from 2014.
The new and exciting thing about seL4 is that it has a) strong properties such as functional correctness, integrity, and confidentiality, and b) has these properties formally verified directly to the code — initially to C, now also to binary. In addition, the seL4 proofs are machine-checked, not just based on pen and paper.
Previous verifications have either not completed their proofs, have targeted more shallow properties, such as the absence of undefined execution, or they have verified manually constructed models of the code instead of the code itself.
Some of these previous verifications were impressive achievements that laid much of the groundwork without which the seL4 proofs would not have been achieved. It is only since around (very roughly) the year 2005 that code verification and theorem proving technology has advanced enough to make large code-level proofs feasible.
When and how often does seL4 get updated and re-proved?
We update the seL4 proofs semi-continuously, usually whenever something is pulled into the master branch in the seL4 GitHub repository. You can see the proof updates coming through on https://github.com/seL4/l4v/commits/master and you can see the kernel revision the proof currently refers to in https://github.com/seL4/verification-manifest/blob/master/default.xml. This is usually the head of the master branch.
The rough protocol for updates in the seL4 master branch is that, together with the kernel team, the verification team picks the next feature(s), isolates them on a separate small internal feature branch, starts verifying that, and when done, merges both into the proof repository and seL4 master.
The frequency depends on what it is and who has time. Larger features take longer to write and prove, get pushed when they are done, and get selected by importance for the projects we’re running. Not many of these happen per year unless there is specific funding for a specific feature. Small updates take a day to a few weeks and we often do them on the side. There’s no specific schedule at the moment.
How do I tell which code in GitHub is covered by the proof and which isn’t?
The verification sees the entire C code for one particular combination of configuration options. See Verified Configurations for details of architecture and platform configurations which have verified properties.
Excluded from the verification of the C code is the machine interface and boot code, whose behavior is an explicit assumption to the proof.
You can further inspect the gory details by looking at the preprocessor
output in the file
kernel_all.c_pp in the proof build
kernel_all_pp.c in the kernel build) - this is what the prover, the
proof engineer, and the compiler see after configuration is done. So a
quick way of figuring out if something is in the proof input or not is
checking if the contents of that file change if you make a change to the
source you’re wondering about. You don’t need the prover for this, and
only parts of the seL4 build environment setup.
The top-level proof makes statements about the behaviour of all of the kernel entry points, which we enumerate once manually in the proof. The prover reads in these entry points, and anything that they call must either have a proof or an assumption for it to complete its proof. If anything is missing, the proof fails.
That means all of the C code that is in this
- has a proof,
- or has an explicit assumption about it,
- or is not part of the kernel (i.e. is never called)
The functions with explicit assumptions are the machine interface functions mentioned above (they’re usually inline asm) and the functions that are only called by the boot process (usually marked with the BOOT_CODE macro in the source so they’re easy to spot).
As an example, the CPU and architecture options mean that everything under src/arch/ia32 is not covered by the proof, but that the files in src/kernel/object are.
How are resources managed and protected in seL4?
The key idea in seL4 is that all resource management is done in userland. Access to and control over resources is controlled by capabilities. The kernel after boot hands control over all free resources to userland, and after that will never do any memory management itself. It has no heap, just a few global variables, a strictly bounded stack, and memory explicitly provided to it by userland.
What are capabilities?
Capabilities are an OS abstraction for managing access rights. A capability represents ‘‘prima facie’’ evidence of the right to perform a certain operation. A capability encapsulates an object reference plus access rights.
In a capability system, such as seL4, any operation is authorised by a capability. When performing an operation on an object (such as sending a message to an IPC endpoint or stopping a thread) the capability to the object is passed to the kernel, which then checks whether the capability conveys sufficient rights to perform the operation, and if yes, performs it with no further questions asked.
For security, the capabilities themselves are stored in kernel memory (in Cnodes), usermode references them via references to locations Cspace references.
See the wikipedia article on capability-based security for more details on caps.
How can usermode manage kernel memory safely?
The kernel puts userland in control of system resources by handing all free memory (called ‘‘Untyped’’) after booting to the first user process (called the ‘‘root task’’) by depositing the respective caps in the root tasks’s Cspace. The root task can then implement its resource management policies, e.g. by partitioning the system into security domains and handing each domain a disjoint subset of Untyped memory.
If a system call requires memory for the kernel’s metadata, such as the thread control block when creating a thread, userland must provide this memory explicitly to the kernel. This is done by ‘‘retyping’’ some Untyped memory into the corresponding kernel object type. Eg. for thread creation, userland must retype some Untyped into ‘‘TCB Objects’’. This memory then becomes kernel memory, in the sense that only the kernel can read or write it. Userland can still revoke it, which implicitly destroys the objects (e.g., threads) represented by the object.
The only objects directly accessible by userland are ‘‘Frame Objects’’: These can be mapped into an ‘‘Address Space Object’’ (essentially a page table), after which userland can write to the physical memory represented by the Frame Objects.
How can threads communicate?
Communication can happen via message-passing IPC or shared memory. IPC only makes sense for short messages; there is an implementation-defined, architecture-dependent limit on the message size of a few hundred bytes, but generally messages should be kept to a few dozen bytes. For longer messages, a shared buffer should be used.
Depending on the trust relationship, such a buffer may be shared directly between a pair of threads or groups of threads (some of which may only have write access, others may only have read access to the buffer). Or the buffer could be encapsulated in a shared server. Or a trusted server could be given read access to a sender’s buffer and write access to a receiver’s buffer and copies the data directly from the sender’s to the receiver’s address space.
Shared-buffer access can be synchronised via ‘‘Notifications’’.
How does message-passing work?
As is characteristic to members of the L4 microkernel family, seL4 uses ‘‘synchronous IPC’’. This means a rendez-vous communication model, where the message is exchanged when both sender and receiver are ready. If both are running on the same core, this means that one partner will block until the other invokes the IPC operation.
In seL4, IPC is via ‘‘Endpoint Objects’’. An Endpoint can be considered a mailbox through which the sender and receiver exchange the message through a handshake. Anyone holding a Send capability can send a message through an Endpoint, and anyone holding a Receive cap can receive a message. This means that there can be any number of sender and receivers for each Endpoint. In particular, a specific message is only delivered to one receiver (the first in the queue), no matter how many threads are trying to receive from the Endpoint.
Message broadcast is a higher-level abstraction that can be implemented on top of seL4’s primitive mechanisms.
Why do send-only operations not return a success indication?
The send-only IPC system calls ‘‘seL4_Send()’’ and ‘‘seL4_NBSend()’’ can be invoked with a send-only capability, enabling one-way data transfer. By definition, a send-ony cap cannot be used to receive any information. A result status, indicating whether or not the message has been delivered, would constitute a back channel: the receiver could use the result status to signal information to the sender. This would violate the seL4’s information-flow guarantees, by allowing information flow that is not explicitly authorised by a capability.
In short, it’s a feature, not a bug (painful as it may be).
But also note that, unless you’re building things like data diodes, you should use send-only and receive-only IPC only for initialisation and exception handling. The normal pattern is that of a protected procedure call (i.e. invoking a function in a different protection domain), where the caller uses ‘‘seL4_Call()’’ and the receiver uses ‘‘seL4_Reply_Wait()’’ invocations, which combine sending and receiving in a single system call.
What are Notifications?
A ‘‘Notification Object’’ is logically a small array of binary semaphores. It has the same operations: ‘‘Signal’’ and ‘‘Wait’’. Due to the binary nature, multiple Signals may be lost if they are not interleaved with Waits.
Signalling a Notification requires a Send cap on the Notification Object. The cap has a ‘‘Badge’’, which is a bit pattern set by the creator of the cap (typically the owner of the Notification Object). The Signal operation bitwise ORs the badge on the Notification’s bit array. The Wait operation blocks until the array is non-zero, and then returns the bit string and zeros out the array.
Notifications can also be ‘‘Polled’’, which is like Wait, except the operation does not block, and instead returns zero immediately, even if the Notification bit string is zero.
What is the seL4 fastpath?
The fastpath is an add-on frontend to the kernel which performs the simple cases of some common operations quickly. It is key to the high IPC performance seL4 achieves – we know of no kernel that does IPC faster.
Enabling or disabling the fastpath should not have any impact on the kernel behaviour except for performance.
There is a section on the fastpath and its verification in this article. The fastpath discussion starts on page 23.
I want to know more about seL4 functionality/design/implementation/philosophy
There are plenty of references on the documentation page.
What can I do with seL4?
You can use seL4 for research, education or commerce. Details are specified in the standard open-source licenses that come with the code. Different licenses apply to different parts of the code, but the conditions are designed to ease uptake.
What are the licensing conditions?
The seL4 kernel is released under GPL Version 2. Userland tools and libraries are mostly under BSD. See the license page for more details.
How do I contribute to seL4?
See How to Contribute.
How can I build a system with seL4?
Much more is required to build a system on seL4 compared to building on, say Linux. Having decomposed your system into modules, you will need to work out what access each module needs to hardware resources, you will need to build device drivers for the platform you are on (there are a few provided in libplatsupport for supported platforms), and you will have to integrate it into something that can be run.
There are two recommended ways to do this.
- CAmKES is the Component Architecture for Micro-Kernel-based Embedded Systems. It provides a language for describing the distribution of resources to components, and the assignment of components to address spaces.
- Build on libsel4utils, which provides useful abstractions like processes, but is generally more low-level.
For build instructions, and how to get started, see the Getting started page. Also, UNSW’s Advanced Operating Systems course has an extensive project component that builds an OS on top of seL4. If you have access to an Odroid-C2, you should be able to do the project work yourself as a way of familiarising yourself with seL4.
Where can I learn more?
- from L3 to seL4 – what have we learnt in 20 years of L4 microkernels?, a 20-year retrospective of L4 microkernels;
- the original 2009 paper describing seL4 and its formal verification;
- a much longer paper detailing the complete verification story of seL4 , including the high-level security proofs, binary verification and timeliness analysis. It also contains an analysis of the cost of verification, and how it compares to that of traditionally-engineered systems.
What’s coming up next?
We’re currently working on a number of things. As we’re in a research environment (not a product development environment) we cannot commit to dates, or the order in which any of these will be delivered (or even if they will be released at all).
That being said, we are currently working on:
- verification of the Aarch64 kernel
- verification of multicore seL4
- time protection as a principled prevention of timing channels (this one is still very much cutting-edge research)