Native Client‎ > ‎

Native Client Coding Style Guidelines

The purpose of this document is to codify our existing coding style guidelines for new Native Client project members, including external committers.  Some of the recommendations address security concerns, e.g., making the code easier to audit.  A core principle is that our coding style should encourage writing correct code.  Moreover, it should encourage writing obviously correct, easily audited code.

Generally, we follow the published Google Coding Style guidelines.  However, those guidelines were written primarily for C++ and python code, and a portion of NaCl code is in C (esp kernel-like code); furthermore, we use scons/gyp/subversion rather than gconfig/perforce, so build system issues are also addressed.  Additionally, we incorporate/use bodies of third party code or their interfaces, most obvious of which is NPAPI, and stylistic differences occur, especially among major modules.  In such cases, it is generally a good idea to adhere to the existing style -- for example, the Google Coding Style expressly does not endorse one position of the space in declarations such as char *p; versus char* p; over another -- and in such cases maintaining consistency with the prevalent style in the module would enhance readability.

The Google C++ coding style guide can be found here:; the python version can be found here:

C/C++/Build Style Rules
  • In a file that implements an interface declared in a header file, always include that header file.  Rationale: this prevents interface / implementation mismatches, since C does not do C++ style name mangling to encode the parameter types in the linker-level name.  Even in C++, since the return type is not part of the type signature, return type mismatches would not get detected as a side-effect of name mangling.
  • Header files have guards against multiple inclusion.  Rationale: unlike traditional Unix system header file style, the user of a header file is not responsible for knowing what type declarations etc that the header file may transitively require and to put include directives for transitively dependent header files in the C/C++ file ahead of the desired header file.  Instead, the Google style is that if a header file A depends on something in header file B, then A should include B.  If a source file also needs something from B, it will explicitly include B again.  Do not depend on knowledge about A's implementation -- i.e., that it would include B -- in the source file, since that's an implementation detail that may change.  Always directly include all header files that are needed by a file, but do not "look inside" files that you include: do not depend on transitive inclusions.
  • At the same time try to reduce the number of other header files your header depends on. If you only use a class/struct via pointers/references a simple forward declaration will  do. Similarly you may want think twice before making a class contain another class as a member. Often using a pointer/reference will provide better information hiding at the price of an extra indirection (along with memory allocation and associated error handling).
  • Don't turn off compiler warning flags.  If you have to, e.g., because we absolutely have to include a third party file, clone the scons build environment and remove the compiler warning flag only for that cloned environment, and use that cloned environment only for those files that includes the third party header file.  Be judicious and limit the amount of taint as much as possible.
  • When importing third party code, rather than turning off warnings broadly (e.g., removing -pedantic or -Wall), try to turn off only the warning that the third party code triggers, e.g., -Wno-long-long.  Limit the scope.
  • Do not declare function prototypes in .c or .cc files -- include the corresponding header file.
C Style Rules
  • We implement objects in C via explicit ctor and virtual function tables.  Unlike C++, the ctor function returns an int -- conceptually a bool -- indicating success with a non-zero value.  In C++ this would be split into a simple ctor that fills in fields with default values so dtor cleanup can happen, and an explicit Init function that handles the more complex initialization that may return an error.
  • In ctors, we always start by setting the vtbl pointer to NULL.  This is a defense-in-depth mechanism.  Only when the ctor is about to return success is the vtbl pointer set to point at a valid virtual function table.  This means that should the caller forget to check the return value of the ctor, the next use of a virtual function will cause the program to abort due to the NULL pointer de-reference.  In C++ code this would have to be emulated with a boolean flag that is set only when the Init member function returns success, and where every virtual function explicitly checks the flag upon entry. We generally use placement-new style ctors, where the caller allocates the memory (either stack or heap) and pass the memory to the ctor.  Note that in ctors of derived classes, we may have to explicitly reset vtbl pointers if the ctor of the base class succeeds but later initialization of (new) members fail -- in order for the derived class ctor to fail cleanly, it should destroy any already initialized new members, then call the base class dtor -- which should reset the vtbl pointer anyway -- as the last operation before returning failure (0).
  • In base class dtors, we always end with setting the vtbl pointer to NULL.  It doesn't hurt to also explicitly set them to NULL as the last operation in derived class dtors either; depending on the frequency of object construction/destruction, it may even make sense to explicitly clear the entire object's memory.  Rationale: this prevents uses -- via virtual functions -- of objects that have been deleted (object reuse).
  • Use standard safety idioms.  The principle here is that it should be obvious that the code is correct.  A code auditor/reviewer should not have to hunt far away for type declarations or for constants to determine the correctness of the code.  Sometimes it's better to have redundant checks, i.e., integer overflow checks just above the allocation, even though the value was checked earlier against another value so that the earlier check's post-condition would entail that the overflow check is unnecessary.
    • Integer overflow checks:  use SIZE_T_MAX, which is (~((size_t) 0)), to verify that allocating several objects will not cause an overflow:
/* num_elt is untrusted */
if (num_elt > SIZE_T_MAX / sizeof *ptr) {
  /* error handling / abort */
ptr = malloc(num_elt * sizeof *ptr);
if (NULL == ptr) {
  /* error handling */
similarly, even assignments can cause problems:
int32_t len = strlen(some_c_str);  /* on 64-bit systems, a problem also with int64_t */
here, since strlen returns a value of type size_t, it may be a value that cannot be represented as an int32_t -- according to the C (and C++) standard, when such an assignment occurs and the expression value is not representable in the destination type, the result is implementation dependent.  And when this occurs, compilers are free to generate code that delete all of the users' files (though we know of no such compiler!).  Instead, check:
size_t len_sz = strlen(some_c_str);
if (len_sz > INT32_MAX) {  /* from stdint.h */
  /* error handling */
len = (int32_t) len_sz;  /* len_sz unused henceforth, so this is just renaming a register / memory location */
to ensure that overflows won't cause problems.  Similarly, even additions can overflow:
int32_t foo;
int32_t bar;
foo = bar + 1;
should be
int32_t foo;
int32_t bar;
if (bar > INT32_MAX - 1) {
  /* error handling */
foo = bar + 1;
    • See the malloc idiom above.  The amount of memory to be allocated should always use a dereference of the left-hand-side of the assignment, since the lhs must be of the right type.  Rationale: if for some reason we later change the type of a variable, there is no need to track down occurrences of sizeof(Typename) elsewhere, since the use of the lhs in the sizeof will make it automatically correct.
Comparisons involving a constant should keep the constant on the lhs of the comparison operator.  This avoids accidents like
if (ptr = NULL) {
  /* oops */
where a comparison gets turned into an assignment (followed by implicit comparison to 0) due to a typographical error, changing the meaning of the code.  Instead, use the idom from the larger code snippet above.  Since the lhs is not an lvalue, this cannot be accidentally turned into an assignment.  While not a strict requirement, constants should be used on the lhs even for inequality tests, since in the future somebody else might change things around and turn it (or via cut-n-paste) into an intended equality test.

Once we have a test to ensure that we do not accidentally turn off compiler-specific flags that warn when constructs like if (lvalue = expression) is used in code, we can relax this rule.
    • Rather than refering to a distantly defined value/variable such as a constant defined in a header or the top of the file
#define BUFFER_SIZE 1000
/* ... */
char buffer[BUFFER_SIZE];
/* ... */
memset(buffer, 0, BUFFER_SIZE);  /* bad */

instead, do
memset(buffer, 0, sizeof buffer);  /* better (Yes, the parentheses are not required around buffer here.  It surprised cbiffle and sehr too.) */
The latter is more obviously correct.  (But not if buffer is actually a char * to malloc'd memory, so auditors still have to do some looking around.)
    • add more lines...
  • add more lines...

C++ Style Rules

  • We generally match the Google style rules.  Differences are generally due to our code not being standard Google C++ code and not running in the production environment found in Google datacenters.
  • Exceptions:
    • Note that Chromium's default gyp file setup compiles with -fno-exceptions so catch statements have no effect -- the catch block is just dead code, and the C++ runtime provided top-level exception handler will be the only exception handler that's active. 
    • If for some reason we must use exceptions or deal with exceptions (e.g., because we are building a library/module that will be generally useful and is not NaCl specific or must use an underlying library that throws exceptions as part of its API), do not throw exceptions across API boundaries (except for fatal errors).  The library/module must be compiled with exceptions enabled, but the relying code might not, and we should not, in general, force relying code to enable exceptions.  This usually means that the library must catch all (non-fatal) exceptions at API boundaries and convert them into error codes.  Use idioms that encourage exception safety, particularly when interacting with STL.  See Effective C++ item #29.
    • Remember that new can throw.  You must either (1) assume that an exception can cause a jump at any invocation of new -- and cause the application to abort -- or (2) use new(std::nothrow) and check its result!  Unlike production code where failing fast is generally a good idea to either failover to another machine or to restart the local server process, this is sometimes not appropriate in client-side code.
      • Note that neither of these is inherently safer than the other.  While nothrow may seem safer because of the lack of surprise control flow, at least an exception causes destructors in the current scope to be run, while failing to check for a null pointer will simply segfault down the line (at best).
      • When allocating a series of objects in the heap, use scoped_ptr or auto_ptr to cleanly deallocate them if one new or constructor throws.  This is also good RAII practice.
  • If a data structure's size may be determined by a malicious author — say, a set describing all the validation errors encountered in a NaCl module — expect exceptions like bad_alloc that indicate you are being DoS'd.  To avoid having to reason about exception safety and failure modes in these cases, consider capping the size of such structures.
  • Beware of integral type conversions, especially when dealing with inputs from external sources that might be under an attacker's control.  Use assert_cast<T>(expr) and saturate_cast<T>(expr) from native_client/src/include/check_cast.h when appropriate.  For example:
bool SanityCheckerApi(SomeType obj, char* data, int32_t nbytes);

bool SomeClass::SomeMethod(std::string s) {
  if (SanityCheckerApi(obj_, s.c_str(), static_cast<int32_t>(s.size()))) {
     // Compilers correctly warn that precision is lost without a cast,
     // since std::string::size() is size_t, and on a 64-bit machine is
     // large than int32_t.  However, just using a static_cast<int32_t> to
     // get rid of the compiler warning messages is wrong.
     return false;  // error
  /* Use all of s */
  return true;

can cause a security problem: if the caller-supplied data s is under the adversary's control and could be more than 4GB in size, then SanityCheckerApi will only check the first s.size() mod 2**32 bytes of data, and the use of s after the check will (presumably) consume all of s and do the wrong thing.
  • add more here...