The MISRA C Coding Standard and its Role in the Development and Analysis of Safety- and Security-Critical Embedded Software

09/04/2018 ∙ by Roberto Bagnara, et al. ∙ 0

The MISRA project started in 1990 with the mission of providing world-leading best practice guidelines for the safe and secure application of both embedded control systems and standalone software. MISRA C is a coding standard defining a subset of the C language, initially targeted at the automotive sector, but now adopted across all industry sectors that develop C software in safety- and/or security-critical contexts. In this paper, we introduce MISRA C, its role in the development of critical software, especially in embedded systems, its relevance to industry safety standards, as well as the challenges of working with a general-purpose programming language standard that is written in natural language with a slow evolution over the last 40+ years. We also outline the role of static analysis in the automatic checking of compliance with respect to MISRA C, and the role of the MISRA C language subset in enabling a wider application of formal methods to industrial software written in C.



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1 Introduction

In September 1994, the “First International Static Analysis Symposium” took place in Namur, Belgium [22]. The Call for Papers contained the following:

Static Analysis is increasingly recognized as a fundamental tool for high performance implementations and verification systems of high-level programming languages. The last two decades have witnessed substantial developments in this area, ranging from the theoretical frameworks to the design and implementation of analysers and their applications in optimizing compilers.

In November 1994, MISRA111Originally, an acronym for Motor Industry Software Reliability Association. published its “Development Guidelines For Vehicle Based Software” [40]. These listed static analysis as the first automatic methodology to verify software and contained the following paragraphs:

Consideration should be given to using a restricted subset of a programming language to aid clarity, assist verification and facilitate static analysis where appropriate.

Static analysis is effective in demonstrating that a program is well structured with respect to its control, data and information flow. It can also assist in assessing its functional consistency with its specification.

Paragraph led to the definition of the subset of the C programming language that will later be called MISRA C.

While the quoted texts show the passage of time (today we would express things differently), they witness the fact that static analysis was recognized as an established research field at about the same time that it gathered enough industrial recognition to be explicitly recommended by an influential set of guidelines for the automotive industry, one of the most important economic sectors by revenue. The connection between static analysis research and the industrial world —which now encompasses all industry sectors— that recognizes MISRA C as the basis for the development of safe and secure applications in C has been basically unidirectional and mediated by the tool providers. These tool providers are interested in all advances in static analysis research in order to improve the applicability and usefulness of their tools and hence simplify the task of verifying compliance with respect to the MISRA C guidelines. It must be admitted that the static analysis research community has seen the (very pragmatic) industry movement behind MISRA C with a somewhat snobbish and often not well informed attitude.222The authors of this paper are not an exception to this statement, at least not until 2010. For instance, [7, Section 3] suggests that MISRA C concerns coding style and that semantic-based static analysis is not needed to check its guidelines. In reality, while MISRA C encourages the adoption of a consistent programming style, it has always left this matter to individual organizations: “In addition to adopting the subset, an organisation should also have an in-house style guide. […] However the enforcement of the style guide is outside the scope of this document” [24, Section 4.2.2] (see also [25, Section 5.2.2]). Moreover, as we will see, semantic-based static analysis is required to check many MISRA C guidelines without constraining too much the way the code is written.

In this paper we try to clear up such misconceptions and to properly introduce MISRA C to the static analysis community. Our ultimate aim is to foster collaboration between the communities, one which we believe could be very fruitful: the wide adoption of MISRA C in industry constitutes an avenue for a wider introduction of formal methods and a good opportunity to channel some applied static analysis research to the most important subset of the C programming language.

The plan of the paper is the following: Section 2 introduces the C language explaining why it is so widely adopted, why it is (not completely) defined as it is, why it is not going to change substantially any time soon, and why subsetting it is required; Section 3 introduces the MISRA project and MISRA C focusing on its last edition, MISRA C:2012, with its amendments and addenda; Section 4 highlights the links between MISRA C and static analysis; Section 5 discusses some trends and opportunities; Section 6 concludes.

2 The C Language

The development of the C programming language started in 1969 at Bell Labs, almost 50 years ago, and the language was used for the development of the Unix operating system [37]. Despite frequent criticism, C is still one of the most used programming languages overall333Source: TIOBE Index for June 2018, see and the most used one for the development of embedded systems [4, 42]. There are several reasons why C has been and is so successful:

  • C compilers exist for almost any processor, from tiny DSPs used in hearing aids to supercomputers.

  • C compiled code can be very efficient and without hidden costs, i.e., programmers can roughly predict running times even before testing and before using tools for worst-case execution time approximation.444This is still true for implementations running on simple processors, with a limited degree of caching and internal parallelism. Prediction of maximum running time without tools becomes outright impossible for current multi-core designs such as Kalray MPPA, Freescale P4080, or ARM Cortex-A57 equivalents (see, e.g., [32, 33, 34]).

  • C allows writing compact code: it is characterized by the availability of many built-in operators, limited verbosity, …

  • C is defined by international standards: it was first standardized in 1989 by the American National Standards Institute (this version of the language is known as ANSI C) and then by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) [14, 15, 16, 17, 18].

  • C, possibly with extensions, allows easy access to the hardware and this is a must for the development of embedded software.

  • C has a long history of usage in all kinds of systems including safety-, security-, mission- and business-critical systems.

  • C is widely supported by all sorts of tools.

Claims that C would eventually be superseded by C++ do not seem very plausible, at least as far as the embedded software industry is concerned. In addition to the already-stated motives, there is language size and stability: C++ has become a huge, very complex language; moreover it is evolving at a pace that is in sharp contrast with industrial best practices. The trend whereby C++ rapid evolution clashes with the industry requirements for stability and backward compatibility has been put black-on-white at a recent WG21 meeting,555WG21 is a common shorthand for ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21, a.k.a. the C++ Standardization Working Group. The cited meeting took place in Jacksonville, FL, USA, March 12–17, 2018. where the following statement was agreed upon [46]: “The Committee should be willing to consider the design / quality of proposals even if they may cause a change in behavior or failure to compile for existing code.”

A good portion of the criticism of C comes from the notion of behavior, defined as external appearance or action [17, Par. 3.4] and the so-called as-if rule, whereby the compiler is allowed to do any transformation that ensures that the “observable behavior” of the program is the one described by the standard [17, Par].666In this paper, we refer to the C99 language standard [16] because this is the most recent version of the language that is targeted by the current version of MISRA C [25]. All what is said about the C language itself applies equally, with only minor variations, to all the published versions of the C standard. While all compiled languages have a sort of as-if rule that allows optimized compilation, one peculiarity of C is that it is not fully defined. There are four classes of not fully defined behaviors (in the sequel, collectively referred to as “non-definite behaviors”):

implementation-defined behavior:

unspecified behavior where each implementation documents how the choice is made [17, Par. 3.4.1]; e.g., the sizes and precise representations of the standard integer types;

locale-specific behavior:

behavior that depends on local conventions of nationality, culture, and language that each implementation documents [17, Par. 3.4.2]; e.g., character sets and how characters are displayed;

undefined behavior:

behavior, upon use of a non-portable or erroneous program construct or of erroneous data, for which this International Standard imposes no requirements [17, Par. 3.4.3]; e.g., attempting to write a string literal constant or shifting an expression by a negative number or by an amount greater than or equal to the width of the promoted expression;

unspecified behavior:

use of an unspecified value, or other behavior where this International Standard provides two or more possibilities and imposes no further requirements on which is chosen in any instance [17, Par. 3.4.4]; e.g., the order in which sub-expressions are evaluated.

Setting aside locale-specific behavior, whose aim is to avoid some nontechnical obstacles to adoption, it is important to understand the connection between non-definite behavior and the relative ease with which optimizing compilers can be written. In particular, C data types and operations can be directly mapped to data types and operations of the target machine. This is the reason why the sizes and precise representations of the standard integer types are implementation-defined: the implementation will define them in the most efficient way depending on properties of the target CPU registers, ALUs and memory hierarchy. Attempting to write on string literal constants is undefined behavior because they may reside in read-only memory and/or may be merged and shared: for example, a program containing "String" and "OtherString" may only store the latter and use a suffix of that representation to represent the former. The reason why shifting an expression by a negative number or by an amount greater than or equal to the width of the promoted expression is undefined behavior is less obvious. What sensible semantics can be assigned to shifting by a negative number of bit positions? Shifting in the opposite direction is a possible answer, but this is usually not supported in hardware, so it would require a test, a jump and a negation. It is a bit more subtle to understand why the following is undefined behavior:

  uint32_t i = 1;
  i = i << 32;  /* Undefined behavior. */

One would think that pushing or more zeroes to the right of i would give zero. However, this does not correspond to how some architectures implement shift instructions. IA-32, for instance [12, section on “IA-32 Architecture Compatibility”]:

The 8086 does not mask the shift count. However, all other IA-32 processors (starting with the Intel 286 processor) do mask the shift count to 5 bits, resulting in a maximum count of 31. This masking is done in all operating modes (including the virtual-8086 mode) to reduce the maximum execution time of the instructions.

This means that, on all IA-32 processors starting with the Intel 286, a direct mapping of C’s right shift to the corresponding machine instruction will give:

  i = i << 32;           /* This is equivalent to... */
  i = i << (32 & 0x1F);  /* ... this, i.e., ...      */
  i = i << 0;            /* this, which is a no-op.  */

So also for this case, for speed and ease of implementation, C leaves the behavior undefined.

The recurring request to WG14777Short for ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG14, a.k.a. the C Standardization Working Group. to “fix the language” is off the mark. In fact, weakness of the C language comes from its strength:

  • Non-definite behavior is the consequence of two factors:

    1. the ease of writing efficient compilers for almost any architecture;

    2. the existence of many compilers by different vendors and the fact that the language is standardized.

    Concerning the second point, it should be considered that, in general, ISO standardizes existing practice taking into account the opinions of the vendors that participate in the standardization process, and with great attention to backward compatibility: so, when diverging implementations exist, non-definite behavior might be the only way forward.

  • The objective of easily obtaining efficient code with no hidden costs is the reason why, in C, there is no run-time error checking.

  • Easy access to the hardware entails the facility with which the program state can be corrupted.

  • Code compactness is one of the reasons why the language can easily be misunderstood and misused.

Summarizing, the C language can be expected to remain faithful to its original spirit and to be around for the foreseeable future, at least for the development of embedded systems. However, it is true that several features of C do conflict with both safety and security requirements. For this reason, language subsetting is crucial for critical applications. This was recognized early in [11] and is now mandated or recommended by all safety- and security-related industrial standards, such as IEC 61508 (industrial), ISO 26262 (automotive), CENELEC EN 50128 (railways), RTCA DO-178B/C (aerospace) and FDA’s General Principles of Software Validation [41]. Today, the most authoritative language subset for the C programming language is MISRA C, which is the subject of the next section.

3 Misra C

The MISRA project started in 1990 with the mission of providing world-leading best practice guidelines for the safe and secure application of both embedded control systems and standalone software. The original project was part of the UK Government’s “SafeIT” programme but it later became self-supporting, with MIRA Ltd, now HORIBA MIRA Ltd, providing the project management support. Among the activities of MISRA is the development of guidance in specific technical areas, such as the C and C++ programming languages, model-based development and automatic code generation, software readiness for production, safety analysis, safety cases and so on. In November 1994, MISRA published its “Development guidelines for vehicle based software”, a.k.a. “The MISRA Guidelines” [40]: this is the first automotive publication concerning functional safety, more than 10 years before work started on ISO 26262 [13].

The MISRA guidelines [40] prescribed the use of “a restricted subset of a standardized structured language.” In response to that, the MISRA consortium began work on the MISRA C guidelines: at that time Ford and Land Rover were independently developing in-house rules for vehicle-based C software and it was recognized that a common activity would be more beneficial to industry. The first version of the MISRA C guidelines was published in 1998 [23] and received significant industrial attention.

In 2004, following the many comments received from its users —many of which, beyond expectation, were in non-automotive industries— MISRA published an improved version of the C guidelines [24]. In MISRA C:2004 the intended audience explicitly became constituted by all industries that develop C software for use in high-integrity/critical systems. Due to the success of MISRA C and the fact that C++ is also used in critical contexts, in 2008 MISRA published a similar set of MISRA C++ guidelines [31].

Figure 1: Origin and history of MISRA C

Both MISRA C:1998 and MISRA C:2004 target the 1990 version of the C Standard [14]. In 2013, the revised set of guidelines known as MISRA C:2012 was published [25]. In this version there is support both for C99 [16] as well as C90 (in its amended and corrected form sometimes referred to as C95 [15]). With respect to previous versions, MISRA C:2012 covers more language issues and provides a more precise specification of the guidelines with improved rationales and examples. Figure 1 shows part of the relationship and influence between the MISRA C/C++ guidelines and other sets of guidelines. It can be seen that MISRA C:1998 influenced Lockheed’s “JSF Air Vehicle C++ Coding Standards for the System Development and Demonstration Program” [43], which influenced MISRA C++:2008, which, in turn, influenced MISRA C:2012. The activity that led to MISRA C++:2008 was also encouraged by the UK Ministry of Defence which, as part of its Scientific Research Program, funded a work package that resulted in the development of a “vulnerabilities document” (the equivalent of Annex J listing the various behaviors in ISO C, which is missing in ISO C++, making it hard work to identify them and to ensure they are covered by the guidelines). Moreover, MISRA C deeply influenced NASA’s “JPL Institutional Coding Standard for the C Programming Language” [44] and several other coding standards (see, e.g., [3, 6, 39]).

The MISRA C guidelines are concerned with aspects of C that impact on the safety and security of the systems, whether embedded or standalone: they define “a subset of the C language in which the opportunity to make mistakes is either removed or reduced” [25]. The guidelines ban critical non-definite behavior and constrain the use of implementation-defined behavior and compiler extensions. They also limit the use of language features that can easily be misused or misunderstood. Overall, the guidelines are designed to improve reliability, readability, portability and maintainability.

There are two kinds of MISRA C guidelines.


a guideline where the information concerning compliance is generally not fully contained in the source code: requirements, specifications, design, …  may have to be taken into account. Static analysis tools may assist in checking compliance with respect to directives if provided with extra information not derivable from the source code.


a guideline such that information concerning compliance is fully contained in the source code. Discounting undecidability, static analysis tools should, in principle, be capable of checking compliance with respect to the rule.

A crucial aspect of MISRA C is that it has been designed to be used within the framework of a documented development process where justifiable non-compliances will be authorized and recorded as deviations. To facilitate this, each MISRA C guideline has been assigned a category.


C code that complies to MISRA C must comply with every mandatory guideline; deviation is not permitted.


C code that complies to MISRA C shall comply with every required guideline; a formal deviation is required where this is not the case.


these are recommendations that should be followed as far as is reasonably practical; formal deviation is not required, but non-compliances should be documented.

Every organization or project may choose to treat any required guideline as if it were mandatory and any advisory guideline as if it were required or mandatory. The adoption of MISRA Compliance:2016 [27] allows advisory guidelines to be downgraded to “Disapplied” when a check for compliance is considered to have no value, e.g., in the case of adopted code888Such as the standard library, device drivers supplied by the compiler vendor or the hardware manufacturer, middleware components, third party libraries, automatically generated code, legacy code, … that has not been developed so as to comply with the MISRA C guidelines. Of course, the decision to disapply a guideline should not be taken lightly: [27] prescribes the compilation of a guideline recategorization plan that must contain, among other things, the rationale for any decision to disapply a guideline.

Each MISRA C rule is marked as decidable or undecidable according to whether answering the question “Does this code comply?” can be done algorithmically. Hence rules are marked ‘undecidable’ whenever violations depend on run-time (dynamic) properties such as the value contained in a modifiable object or whether control reaches a particular point. Conversely, rules are marked ‘decidable’ whenever violations depend only on compile-time (static) properties, such as the types of the objects or the names and the scopes of identifiers. Clearly, for rules marked ‘decidable’, it is theoretically possible (i.e., given adequate computational resources) for a tool to emit a message if and only if the rule is violated. However, for rules marked ‘undecidable’, any tool will have to deal with the don’t know answer in addition to yes and no at each distinct, relevant program point. In either case, if it is not practical (or even possible) for the tool to decide if the code is compliant with respect to a guideline at a particular program point, it can:

  • suppress the don’t know answer (i.e., possibly false negatives, no false positives);

  • emit the don’t know answer as a yes message (i.e., no false negatives, possibly false positives);

  • a combination of the above (i.e., both possibly false negatives and possibly false positives);

  • emit the don’t know answer as a caution message (i.e., no false negatives, confined, possibly false positives).

MISRA C rules are also classified according to the amount of code that needs to be analyzed in order to detect all violations of the rule.

Single Translation Unit:

all violations within a project can be detected by checking each translation unit independently.


identifying violations of a rule within a translation unit requires checking more than the translation unit in question, if not all the source code that constitutes the system.

MISRA C:2012 Amendment 1 [26], published in 2016, enhances MISRA C:2012 so as to extend its applicability to industries and applications where data-security is an issue. It includes new guidelines ( directive and rules) to complete the coverage of ISO/IEC TS 17961:2013 [19], a.k.a. C Secure Coding Rules, a set of rules for secure coding in C.999This technical specification has been slightly amended in 2016 [20]. Details of such complete coverage are provided in [29]. A similar document [30] shows that, with Amendment 1, coverage of CERT C Coding Standard is almost complete and that, consequently, MISRA C is today the language subset of choice for all industries developing embedded systems in C that are safety- and/or security-critical [1].

For the rest of this paper, all references to MISRA C will be for the latest published version MISRA C:2012 [25] including its Technical Corrigendum 1 [28] and Amendment 1 [26]: these will be consolidated into the forthcoming first revision of MISRA C:2012 [2]. It should be noted that both the MISRA C and MISRA C++ projects are active and constantly improving the guidelines and developing new works: for instance, the MISRA C Working Group is currently working at adding support for C11 [18] and, in response to community feedback, at further enhancing the guidance on undefined/unspecified behaviors [2].

4 Static Analysis and MISRA C

The majority of the MISRA C guidelines are decidable, and thus compliance can be checked by algorithms that:

  • do not need nontrivial approximations of the value of program objects;

  • do not need nontrivial control-flow information.

Of course, these algorithms can still be very complex. For instance, the nature of the translation process of the C language, which includes a preprocessing phase, is a source of complications: the preprocessing phase must be tracked precisely, and compliance may depend on the source code before preprocessing, on the source code after preprocessing, or on the relationship between the source code before and after preprocessing.

The rest of this section focuses on those guidelines whose check for compliance requires or significantly benefits from semantic-based analysis. Obviously every undecidable rule has decidable approximations, but these are necessarily characterized by a significant number of false positives unless rigid programming schemes are adopted. For example, Rule 17.2, which disallows recursion, admits a decidable approximation that requires finding cycles in the call graph and flagging, as potentially non-compliant, all function calls via pointers. If function calls via pointers are not used (i.e., the program is written in a smaller subset of C than that strictly mandated by the rule) then there will be no false positives.

Guideline Rough one-line summary
D4.1 Avoid run-time failures
D4.11 Check the validity of values passed to library functions
D4.13 Resource-handling functions should be called in an appropriate sequence
D4.14 Do not trust values received from external sources
R1.3 No undefined or critical unspecified behavior
R2.1 No unreachable code
R2.2 No dead code
R8.13 Point to const-qualified type if possible
R9.1 Do not read uninitialized automatic storage
R12.2 Right-hand operand of a shift operator must be in range
R13.1 No side effects in initializers
R13.2 Do not depend on unspecified evaluation order of expressions
R13.5 No side effects in right-hand operand of && or ||
R14.1 No floating-point loop counters
R14.2 Restricted form of for loops
R14.3 No invariant controlling expressions
R17.2 No direct or indirect recursion
R17.5 Actual parameters for arrays must have an appropriate size
R17.8 Do not modify function parameters
R18.1 Pointer arithmetic must not exceed array limits
R18.2 Do not subtract pointers not pointing to the same array
R18.3 Do not compare pointers not pointing to the same object
R18.6 Pointer object must not live longer than corresponding pointees
R19.1 Objects must not be assigned or copied to overlapping objects
R21.13 Functions in <ctype.h> must not be passed out-of-spec values
R21.14 Do not use memcmp to compare null-terminated strings
R21.17 Use of functions from <string.h> must not result in buffer overflow
R21.18 size_t argument of functions from <string.h> must be in range
R21.19 Do not modify objects through pointers returned by localeconv, …
R21.20 Pointers returned by asctime, ctime, … must not be reused
R22.1 All dynamically-obtained resources must be explicitly released
R22.2 Do not free memory that was not dynamically allocated
R22.3 Do not open files for read and write at the same time on different streams
R22.4 Do not attempt to write to a read-only stream
R22.5 Do not directly access the content of a FILE object
R22.6 Do not use the value of pointer to a FILE after the stream is closed
R22.7 Macro EOF must only be compared to values returned by some functions
R22.8 Reset errno before calling an errno-setting-function
R22.9 Test errno after calling an errno-setting-function
R22.10 Test errno only after calling an errno-setting-function
Table 1: MISRA C guidelines whose checking requires/benefits from semantic analysis
Guideline control-flow data-flow
points-to arithmetic
R9.1 1 1
  • See Section 5.2 for an alternative view on how to check compliance with respect to this rule.

Table 2: MISRA C guidelines and main static analysis properties

The guidelines are listed in Table 1. Note that the text provided for each guideline is just, as indicated, a rough, very rough one-line summary, whereas the proper description can span multiple pages. The reader is referred to [25, 26, 28] for the full details. Note that the list of guidelines in Table 1 begins with four directives: even though checking compliance with respect to them requires information that may not be present in the code, they involve undecidable program properties.

Table 2 classifies the guidelines of Table 1 according to attributes of an approximate representation of the program semantics; an approximation built by a static analysis algorithm to check compliance for the given guideline with adequate precision, that is, no false negatives and relatively few false positives. The attributes are the following:


detecting all potential violations with a low rate of false positives requires computing an approximation that allows observing control-flow within the program with relatively high precision;


detecting all potential violations with a low rate of false positives requires computing an approximation that allows observing the possible values of objects with relatively high precision; this is further refined with two sub-attributes:


observing the values of pointer objects is important;


observing the values of other (i.e., non-pointer) objects (including pointer offsets) is important.

Of course, it is well known that control-flow information depends on data-flow information and the other way around, exactly as points-to information depends on arithmetic values and the other way around: here we only characterize the approximation that is available at the end of the static analysis, without reference to how it has been obtained.

Table 2 shows that semantic-based static analysis potentially plays an important role in the checking of compliance with respect to MISRA C. The actual situation, however, is not as clear cut: this brings us to the next section.

5 Discussion

We have seen that  MISRA C guidelines out of  depend on semantic properties of the program. This implies that research in semantic static analysis is very relevant to the MISRA C ecosystem, provided that a few important points are taken into due consideration. These are discussed in Sections 5.1, 5.2, and 5.3. A further opportunity for cooperation is outlined in Section 5.4.

5.1 MISRA C: Error Prevention, Not Bug Finding

As said earlier, MISRA C cannot be separated from the process of documented software development it is part of. In particular, the use of MISRA C in its proper context is part of an error prevention strategy which has little in common with bug finding, i.e., the application of automatic techniques for the detection of instances of some software errors. This point is so rarely understood that it deserves proper explanation.

To start with, the violation of a guideline is not necessarily a software error. For instance, let us consider Rule 11.4, which advises against converting integers to object pointers and vice-versa. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about converting an integer constant to a pointer when it is necessary to address memory mapped registers or other hardware features. However, such conversions are implementation-defined and have undefined behaviors (due to possible truncation and the formation of invalid and/or misaligned pointers), so that they are best avoided everywhere apart from the very specific instances where they are both required and safe. This is why the deviation process is an essential part of MISRA C: the point of a guideline is not “You should not do that” but “This is dangerous: you may only do that if (1) it is needed, (2) it is safe, and (3) a peer can easily and quickly be convinced of both (1) and (2).” One useful way to think about MISRA C and the processes around it is to consider them as an effective way of conducting a guided peer review to rule out most C language traps and pitfalls.101010We are indebted to Clayton Weimer for this observation.

The attitude with respect to incompleteness is entirely different between the typical audience of bug finders and the typical audience of MISRA C. Bug finders are usually tolerant about false negatives and intolerant about false positives: for instance, by following the development of Clang Static Analyzer111111, last accessed on July 5th, 2018. it can be seen that all is done to avoid false positives with little or no regard to false negatives. This is not the right mindset for checking compliance with respect to MISRA C: false positives are a nuisance and should be reduced and/or confined as much a possible, but using algorithms with false negatives implies that those in charge of ensuring compliance will have to use other methods. So, compliance to MISRA C is not bug finding and, of course, finding some, many or even all causes of run-time errors does not imply compliance to MISRA C.

5.2 MISRA C: Readability, Explainability, Code Reviews

Another aspect that places MISRA C in a different camp from bug finding has to do with the importance MISRA C assigns to reviews: code reviews, reviews of the code against design documents, reviews of the latter against requirements. Concerning design documents and requirements this is captured by Directive 3.1. More generally, the need for code readability and explainability is clearly expressed in the rationale of many MISRA C guidelines.

This fact has some counterintuitive consequences on the use of static analysis, which is of course crucial both for bug finding and for the (partial) automation of MISRA C compliance checking. Consider Rule 9.1, whereby the value of an automatic object must not be read before it has been set, since otherwise we have undefined behavior. For bug finding, the smarter the static analysis algorithm the better. Use of the same smart algorithm for ensuring compliance with respect to Rule 9.1 risks obeying the letter of MISRA C but not its spirit.121212There are many ways to do that. Suppose on the specific program our smart algorithm ensures Rule 9.1 is never violated: we have thus ruled out one source of undefined behavior, which is good. However, the programmer, other programmers, code reviewers, quality assurance people, one month from now or six months from now may have to:

  1. ensure that the automatic objects that are the subject of the rule are indeed initialized with the correct value;

  2. confirm that the outcome of the tool is indeed correct.

If this takes more than 30 seconds or a minute per object, this is not good: the smart static analysis algorithm can track initializations and uses even when they are scattered across, say, switch cases nested into complex loops; a human cannot. So, ensuring compliance with respect to Rule 9.1 with deep semantic analysis is counterproductive to the final goal of the process of which MISRA C is part. For that purpose it is much better to use a decidable approximation of Rule 9.1 such as a suitable generalization of the Definite Assignment algorithm employed by Java compilers [10, Chapter 16].

5.3 Analysis of Code Meant To Comply with MISRA C

As was already recognized in [7], despite the mentioned misunderstanding about the nature of MISRA C, the restriction to a language subset where non-definite behavior and many problematic features are banned or severely regulated “can considerably help the efficiency and precision of the static analysis.” This can simplify and guide the design of static analyzers: for example, features of C that are deprecated by MISRA C need not be handled precisely and efficiently when the intended application domain follows MISRA C. It is not a coincidence that such features (e.g., unions, unrestricted pointer casts, backward gotos) pose significant problems to the designers of static analyses tools.

5.4 Annotations

Another area where there is significant potential for collaboration between the static analysis community and the MISRA C ecosystem concerns program annotations. During the last 20 years there have been a number of proposals for annotation languages allowing programmers to provide partial specifications of program components. These languages are usually tied to one specific tool, e.g.: the annotation language of the Frege Program Prover [45]; the annotation language of eCv (Escher C Verifier) [8], the annotation language of Frama-C, ACSL (ANSI/ISO C Specification Language) [5], and its executable variant E-ACSL [38]; the annotation language of VCC [9]; the annotation language of VeriFast [21, 35]. A comparison of these tools, with particular regard to annotation languages and the potential for application in industry, is available in [36].

The MISRA C Working Group is working, among other things, on a tool-agnostic annotation language for C. The main objectives of this endeavor are:

  1. to improve the quality (precision) of static analysis by allowing the provision of information regarding the developer’s intent, the required state in function preconditions and so on;

  2. to make it easier to work with adopted code (legacy code, library code) that has not been written to comply with MISRA C [27];

  3. to do this in a way that will be accessible to the majority of C/C++ programmers in a form that is easy to read and understand.

6 Conclusion

In this paper, having explained some of the advantages and disadvantages of using the C language for embedded systems and how the uncontrolled use of C conflicts with both safety and security requirements, we described the background, motivation and history of the MISRA project. We have explained how the MISRA C guidelines define a standardized structured subset of the C language; making it easier, for code that follows these guidelines (possibly with well-documented deviations), to verify that important and necessary safety and security properties hold.

We have looked at the different kinds of the MISRA C guidelines, distinguishing between those that can be automatically verified from the code syntax, those that need information beyond that contained in the source code, and those for which the question as to whether the code is compliant is algorithmically undecidable. We have noted also that, for all guidelines, due to the size and complexity of modern software, automatic tools perform an essential function in the checking or partial checking of compliance. We have highlighted the fundamental differences between so-called bug finding and the application of MISRA C in the context of the error prevention strategy it is part of.

In this paper we have outlined both the role of static analysis in the automatic checking of compliance with respect to MISRA C, and the role of the MISRA C language subset in enabling a wider application of formal methods to industrial software. It is hoped that this will contribute to improved collaboration between the two communities, so that static analysis will be able to play a fuller part in the software development of critical systems leading to improved safety and security.


For the notes on the history of MISRA and MISRA C we are indebted to Andrew Banks (LDRA, current Chairman of the MISRA C Working Group) and David Ward (HORIBA MIRA, current Chairman of the MISRA Project). For the information on the ongoing work on annotations, we thank Chris Tapp (LDRA, Keylevel Consultants, MISRA C Working Group, current Chairman of the MISRA C++ Working Group). We are grateful to the following people who helped in proofreading the paper and provided useful comments and advice: Fulvio Baccaglini (PRQA — a Perforce Company, MISRA C Working Group), Dave Banham (Rolls-Royce plc, MISRA C Working Group), Daniel Kästner (AbsInt, MISRA C Working Group), Thomas Schunior Plum (Plum Hall, WG14), Chris Tapp (ditto), David Ward (ditto). We are also grateful to the following BUGSENG collaborators: Paolo Bolzoni, for some example ideas; Anna Camerini for the composition of Figure 1.


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