Runtime Alias Detection

Published on 2021, Apr 17

My bitvec project is composed of a very small handful of core engineering components without which the project fundamentally cannot exist. This article addresses the most theoretically important: pointer-value alias analysis.


bitvec exists to translate user-code expressions directly into memory-access and shift/mask instructions. However, it is itself a Rust library, rather than an assembler macro system, so it cannot emit processor instructions. Instead, it must emit Rust HIR expressions that satisfy the abstract rulesets of both the Rust Abstract Machine and the LLVM Memory Model, as implemented in rustc and miri.

Neither Rust nor LLVM have sufficient precision to understand and permit bitvec’s operations. Similar endeavours in other libraries or languages result in failures in safety, performance, or both; these failures are unacceptable to all Rust projects and to me in particular.

You may find this report on data races in Firefox interesting. One section in particular, Beware Bitfields, is relevant. I won’t repeat their investigation here, but I will make two extraördinary claims that I’ll back up over the course of this article. Specifically, bitvec:

  1. expresses the functionality they want without permitting the bug they found,
  2. and expresses that functionality without demanding the solution they used.

Let’s dive in.

Memory Aliasing

Miri and LLVM have strict interpretations of memory safety, and have liberty to either reject or miscompile programs whose source code violates their rules. bitvec exists solely and specifically to violate the spirit of those rules without ever violating the letter.

The memory model that bitvec targets operates in terms of three main concepts: regions, which are sequences of zero or more elements in an abstract memory space; elements, which are indivisible (but perhaps decomposable) typed blocks of memory.; and borrows, which describe relationships from observers to regions and elements and determine what actions may be applied to them.

Ground Rules

Miri (roughly) observes program state as a time-series of transformations applied to a set of region spaces, and the program transitions through these states by creating element values in those spaces and by applying borrows to them.

Miri has a small set of rules for what borrows are valid to do. I’m not going to dive deeply into them here; the short version is:

  • borrows to a region can be monotonically narrowed, but cannot re-widen
  • borrows to a region or to an element can be split, producing new, narrower, child borrows
  • borrows marked as &mut can never overlap in space with any other borrow that overlaps with them in time
  • borrows may be granted write permission by their source, and they may later drop that write permission to read-only, but they may never gain write permission from read-only. This is unrelated to &mut

Memory is said to be aliased when there exist two or more borrows to any element or region that overlap in space and time, and one or more of thoses borrows has write permissions. Alias conditions are not themselves illegal in Miri or LLVM. However, there are only two ways to introduce them.

The UnsafeCell language item is the sole source of & shared borrows with write permissions. If you create values of this type, you can freely create overlapping references in space (slice regions or structural field projection) or time (multiple sequence points in program code) that have write permission to a particular location.

How you deal with that is your problem. The Rust language will help you out by forbidding you from moving any of those & references to other threads of execution, but this is subversible.

Illegal Aliasing

Aliasing, Mutation, and Exclusion

The only difference between ownership and exclusive access is permission to destroy the value or the storage slot. bitvec doesn’t have destructable values so this is not interesting to us.

We’re talking about the BitSlice region here, not owning handles, which do have destructors but don’t get aliased.

Miri has two rules that in combination allow bitvec a great deal of freedom to operate:

  1. Any &mut borrow can give up its exclusion and degrade to &. & is freely duplicable.
  2. Any write-capable borrow can retain its write permission while changing type.

All &mut exclusive references have write permissions; thus, the name. Also, any &UnsafeCell references have write permissions. This means that the transmutation sequence &'a mut T&'b mut UnsafeCell<T>&'c UnsafeCell<T> preserves its write permission while dropping its exclusion requirement, allowing alias conditions for the lifetime 'c.

This is how bitvec implements write capabilities. All mutation is done through aliased references to alias-safe types (some wrapper over UnsafeCell), and write methods are only available on BitSlice references which received a write permission from their creator.

Sub-Element Splits

As stated earlier, Miri doesn’t have the precision to understand sub-element borrows. While bitvec logically implements the &mut exclusion ruleset on individual bits, and permits the following code to be sound:

use bitvec::prelude::*;

let mut ax = 0u8;
let bits: &mut BitSlice<_, _>
  = ax.view_bits_mut::<Lsb0>();
let (al, ah): (
  &mut BitSlice<_, _>,
  &mut BitSlice<_, _>,
) = bits.split_at_mut(4);

It has to do some trickery in order to keep Miri satisfied. You can read more about how &/mut BitSlice works in The Ad-Dressing of Bits; that’s not really relevant here.

Let’s fill in the types that occur in that snippet somewhat:

let bits: &mut BitSlice<Lsb0, u8>
  = ax.view_bits_mut::<Lsb0>();

Here, ax is mut u8, which gets borrowed as &mut u8. Because we receive an exclusive reference from ordinary Rust, we know that Rust guarantees exclusion and we can use ordinary accesses without concern.

This stays true even if we narrow the borrow: bits[1 .. 7].set_all(true) knows that for the duration of its call, bits 0 and 7 are not observable by any borrow, so indexing does not need to produce an alias condition.

Now let’s look at that call to .split_at_mut().

let (al, ah): (
  &mut BitSlice<Lsb0, <u8 as BitStore>::Alias>,
  &mut BitSlice<Lsb0, <u8 as BitStore>::Alias>,
) = bits.split_at_mut(4);

You may be familiar with the type signature of [T]::split_at_mut, which is (&mut [T], usize) -> (&mut [T], &mut [T]) and doesn’t have any extra markers.

But because .split_at_mut receives an exclusive region borrow and transforms it into two coëqual subregion borrows, it has to mark them as potentially colliding on the underlying elements that Miri can see, even though the bitvec library knows that they do not collide on the individual bits that only it can see.

This <T as BitStore> -> <T as BitStore>::Alias transformation occurs in all the APIs that may potentially introduce Miri-level aliasing. Let’s go look at what the consequences of this marker are.

Finite Typestate Machines

The .split_at_mut function describes one transition along a sequence graph. Let’s take a look at the graph itself:

//  bitvec:src/

pub trait BitStore {
  type Mem: BitStore<Mem = Self::Mem>
    + BitRegister;
  type Access: BitStore<Mem = Self::Mem>
    + BitAccess<Item = Self::Mem>;
  type Alias: BitStore<Mem = Self::Mem>;
  type Unalias: BitStore<Mem = Self::Mem>;

  //  some methods and secret constants

These four associated types represent neighbors in the typestate graph, and certain transitions between them are defined. Each of them is defined to also be a BitStore implementor with the same Mem type as the starting implementor; this requirement is what enables safe movement along the graph.

The BitRegister trait is implemented on the unsigned integers (u8, u16, u32, usize, and u64 on ABIs with 8-byte alignment), and represents the width of the bus instruction used to access memory.

The BitAccess type tracks the current synchronization instruction used to access memory. It is either Cell<Self::Mem> or AtomicMem, depending on crate build configuration, target capability, implementor, etc. As a rule, Cells and atomics use themselves, and the ordinary integers use Cells.

Because Cells and atomics are always aliased by borrows outside bitvec’s knowledge, they also Alias and Unalias to themselves. They are pinned on the typestate graph, and no amount of manipulation can have an effect.

Remember from above that an exclusive reference to an unsynchronized integer region can narrow without introducing aliasing; only splitting introduces aliases. As such, while the T: BitStore parameter in a BitSlice is an ordinary integer, it can safely use Cell to access memory: no other handle exists with write permissions, so reading does not require any synchrony or concurrency restrictions.

The Alias associated type for ordinary integers can’t be either its Cell wrapper or its atomic equivalent, because those types can never leave. Instead, it uses a newtype that uses crate configuration (feature = "atomic") and target atomic support to be either atomic or Celled internally and, most importantly, require proof of exclusion in order to write to memory. This ensures that it is never possible to erroneously write to memory with a borrow ultimately derived from &u8.

For Every Cost, Provide a Rebate

The above work describes how bitvec is able to safely and correctly manage write permissions that alias according to Miri. However, it is applied at the type level, and not at the value level. This means that code such as the following has to pay the cost of alias permissions, even though it does not produce alias conditions in Miri:

let mut data = [0u8; 2];
let bits = data.view_bits_mut::<Lsb0>();
let (lo, hi) = bits.split_at_mut(8);

The lo and hi bindings here are typed as <u8 as BitStore>::Alias, even though they …don’t alias. The end result is equivalent to this code:

let mut data = [0u8; 2];
let (lo, hi) = data.split_at_mut(1);
let (l_bits, h_bits) = (

The Miri-observable region borrows in these two code samples are identical, yet the first version is required to either add atomic locking costs or remove multithreading capability, while the second is not.

We know that the underlying memory is not aliased by inspecting the values of the BitSlice region pointers as well as their storage type parameters. This value inspection takes place in the domain module, whose types allow taking any given bit-slice and removing the ::Alias marking from as much of it as is safe, restoring the original, unrestricted, memory access behavior.

Preëminent Domains

Consider any region of memory elements. I am going to use eight bits for the diagram, because I have finite drawing space. When viewing that region as individual bits, any arbitrary bit-slice breaks down to one primary question and two subsquent questions:

  • does the slice touch the edge bit (0 or n-1 in an n-bit element)?
  • if yes, does it:
    • touch bit 0?
    • touch bit n-1?

Any bit-slice that does not touch either edge bit in a single element is by definition irreducible. Any bit-slice that does touch an edge bit can be subdivided into two bit-slices, one on each side of the edge bit. In this diagram I have listed the nine general cases:

│        │        │        │ 1
│        ╞════╡   │        │ 2
│        │ ╞════╡ │        │ 3
│        │   ╞════╡        │ 4
│    ╞═══╪════╡   │        │ 5
│    ╞═══╪════════╡        │ 6
│        ╞════════╪═══╡    │ 7
│    ╞═══╪════════╪═══╡    │ 8
╞════════╪════════╪════════╡ 9
  1. This is the empty slice; as it touches no bits at all, it by definition cannot alias any elements.
  2. This slice touches bit 0 in an element, but does not touch bit n-1.
  3. This slice does touch memory, but does not touch either edge bit in its element. As such, it is either the result of narrowing a borrow (as all borrows begin spanning the entire element) or splitting a borrow, introducing alias conditions. It can’t change, and is uninteresting.
  4. Like 2, this touches bit n-1, but not bit 0.
  5. This is the first bit-slice that spans multiple elements. It can be split into two subslices: 3:0 in element 0, and 7:3 in element 1. Each subslice touches only one edge bit in its respective element.
  6. Like 5, this can be split into two subslices at the element 0/element 1 boundary. It is the first bit-slice where part of it touches both edges (of element 1).
  7. This is equivalent to 6.
  8. This bit-slice spans two elements, and splits into three subslices. It is a union of lines 6 and 7.
  9. Lastly, this line spans the region in its entirety, excluding any other bit-slice.

The questions and table examples are encoded in the four enums provided in the domain module; all have the general shape shown here:

pub enum Domain<O, T> {
  Enclave {
    addr: *const T,
    head: Head<T>,
    tail: Tail<T>,
  Region {
    head: Option<(*const T, Head<T>)>,
    body: *const [T::Unalias],
    tail: Option<(*const T, Tail<T>)>,

Each case above can be broken down into either an Enclave (line 2), or some combination of the three fields in a Region. Subslices that touch bit 0 but not n-1 are Some(tail); subslices that touch n-1 but not 0 are Some(head), and any/all fully-spanned elements comprise the body.

The &mut exclusion rule means that bitvec can guarantee that the bits covered by an &mut BitSlice are wholly inaccessible by any other BitSlice handle, and therefore any elements that the bit-slice completely spans are safe to access without alias markings.

This property is also upheld by shared &BitSlice references, as their existence means that other handles may view but may not modify the elements.

Partial-use elements at the edges must still retain their original marking state, because the handle that produced the domain has no way of knowing whether those elements are subject to other views or not. They do not have to be affirmatively marked, as all splitting methods already do that before the reference is created.


I have not yet produced benchmarks that show a significant, affirmative, difference in timing when accessing BitSlices through aliased and unaliased memory. I do not know whether splitting a bit-slice with .bit_domain() or .bit_domain_mut() has a performance benefit. But the option is there if you want to make use of it.

I do, however, have benchmarks that show using .domain() and .domain_mut() to temporarily drop the bit-precision view and create a correct, legal, Miri-compliant, alias-aware view of the underlying memory region enables bitvec to have internal algorithms that are expressive, concise, and fast.

I use it to drive formatting, copying, testing, and most importantly, the BitField trait that powers bitfield pseudolocation behavior.

Constructing a Domain view has a high overhead cost, and one of my lingering goals is to figure out how to reduce the cost of repeated computation. I don’t think I’ll be able to, unfortunately.


I have strong reason to believe that the domain-splitting algorithm described here and implemented in bitvec::domain is correct. I’ve gone over the math and checked it in theory and in a comprehensive test suite. I have used Miri to detect memory permission errors in a test case, then introduced the domain logic to resolve them.

This code has been published and widely used for two years without causing runtime errors.

If you believe you have found a defect, in practice or in theory, please contact me. This is a critical component in bitvec and an area of ongoing research in Miri, and I do not expect to be able to presume that it is settled yet.

This analysis is a natural consequence of Rust’s existing borrow rules, and would not be safely expressible without them. It has enabled bitvec to neatly and precisely implement single-bit addressing in complex usage environments without introducing data-race bugs and allowing users to remove cautionary markings to the maximum extent possible without violating the rules of the underlying logic engines or hardware.