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On the construction of reliable device drivers


Leonid Ryzhyk

School of Computer Science and Engineering



This dissertation is dedicated to the problem of device driver reliability. Software defects in device drivers constitute the biggest source of failure in operating systems, causing significant damage through downtime and data loss. Previous research on driver reliability has concentrated on detecting and mitigating defects in existing drivers using static analysis or runtime isolation. In contrast, this dissertation presents an approach to reducing the number of defects through an improved device driver architecture and development process.

In analysing factors that contribute to driver complexity and induce errors, I show that a large proportion of errors are due to two key shortcomings in the device-driver architecture enforced by current operating systems: poorly-defined communication protocols between drivers and the operating system, which confuse developers and lead to protocol violations, and a multithreaded model of computation, which leads to numerous race conditions and deadlocks. To address the first shortcoming, I propose to describe driver protocols using a formal, state-machine based, language, which avoids confusion and ambiguity and helps driver writers implement correct behaviour. The second issue is addressed by abandoning multithreading in drivers in favour of a more disciplined event-driven model of computation, which eliminates most concurrency-related faults. These improvements reduce the number of defects without radically changing the way drivers are developed.

In order to further reduce the impact of human error on driver reliability, I propose to automate the driver development process by synthesising the implementation of a driver from the combination of three formal specifications: a device-class specification that describes common properties of a class of similar devices, a device specification that describes a concrete representative of the class, and an operating system interface specification that describes the communication protocol between the driver and the operating system. This approach allows those with the most appropriate skills and knowledge to develop specifications: device specifications are developed by device manufacturers, operating system specifications by the operating system designers. The device-class specification is the only one that requires understanding of both hardware and software-related issues. However writing such a specification is a one-off task that only needs to be completed once for a class of devices.

This approach also facilitates the reuse of specifications: a single operating-system specification can be combined with many device specifications to synthesise drivers for multiple devices. Likewise, since device specifications are independent of any operating system, drivers for different systems can be synthesised from a single device specification. As a result, the likelihood of errors due to incorrect specifications is reduced because these specifications are shared by many drivers.

I demonstrate that the proposed techniques can be incorporated into existing operating systems without sacrificing performance or functionality by presenting their implementation in Linux. This implementation allows drivers developed using these techniques to coexist with conventional Linux drivers, providing a gradual migration path to more reliable drivers.

BibTeX Entry

    school           = {UNSW},
    author           = {Leonid Ryzhyk},
    month            = {jan},
    note             = {Available from publications page at \url{}},
    year             = {2010},
    title            = {On the Construction of Reliable Device Drivers},
    address          = {Sydney, Australia}