RFC-0143: Userspace Top-Byte-Ignore

RFC-0143: Userspace Top-Byte-Ignore
  • Kernel

Changes the kernel ABI to support tagged userspace pointers.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2021-11-30
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-11-30


This document proposes changes to the kernel ABI to support tagged userspace pointers.


Top-Byte-Ignore (TBI) is a feature on all ARMv8.0 CPUs that causes the top byte of virtual addresses to be ignored on loads and stores. Instead, bit 55 is extended over bits 56-63 before address translation. This feature allows use of the (ignored) top byte as a tag or for other in-band metadata. One of the immediate uses of TBI is enabling Hardware-assisted AddressSanitizer (HWASan) in userspace, where tags are stored in the top byte for memory tracking.

This document describes how the kernel should handle tagged user pointers.

While TBI and HWASan are the most relevant use cases of tagged pointers, this design is not meant to solely cover them. There are other platforms with their own hardware features similar that support tagged pointers, and other userspace programs that can use these tag bits for their own specific use cases. This design should be generic enough to support other implementations of tagged pointers without any specific focus on one user application.


These are some terms that will be used frequently in this proposal. There are addresses and there are pointers. These are similar concepts but treated very differently. Semantically, some syscalls operate on addresses while others operate on pointers.


An address is a 64-bit integer that represents a location within the bounds of a user address space. An address is never tagged. Syscalls that manipulate an address space operate on addresses. The value of an address is always constrained within the range of an address space (indicated by ZX_INFO_VMAR).


A pointer is a programming language-specific concept that generally indicates a location of dereferenceable memory. Each language defines the implementation of a pointer and its translation into hardware. For C/C++, in the context of HWASan, a pointer is a 64-bit integer that consists of tag bits and address bits. Pointers can either be tagged (indicating non-zero tag bits) or untagged (indicating tag bits of zero). Syscalls that access user memory generally operate on pointers.


A tag refers to the upper bits of a pointer, generally used for metadata. On ARM with TBI enabled, a tag is 8 bits wide consisting of bits 56-63.

TBI (Top-Bits-Ignore)

Other prospective hardware features such as ARM MTE or Intel LAM also support a way of "ignoring" some portion of the upper bits of a pointer. Unless specified, the term "TBI" used in this doc represents any generic hardware feature that supports ignoring tags rather than exclusively ARM TBI.


Kernel code should replicate the behavior of the hardware. Tags should be handled such that kernel behavior makes sense to users.

These are some examples of how the system should behave when TBI is enabled:

  1. zx_channel_write can accept tagged pointers, and the call will behave the same as if the pointers were untagged.

  2. When a process takes a page fault on a tagged user pointer, the page fault will be resolved as if the fault occurred on the same untagged pointer, with one exception. If the fault generates a Zircon exception, the exception report's fault pointer will contain the original tagged pointer to the degree that the hardware preserves it.

  3. For the purpose of a futex wake/wait resolution, any tag on the supplied pointers will be ignored. In other words, waking a pointer that only differs by the tag will still wake any waiters waiting on that pointer, regardless of any tag they may have specified.

  4. When reading memory from a process (like with zx_process_read_memory), the kernel will accept an address as the argument for the location of the block of memory being read. In conjunction to software debugging, debuggers will need to explicitly translate debuggee pointer values to addresses to read via kernel APIs.

Tagged Pointer ABI: Tag-Insensitive, but Tag-Preserving

The following will hold when TBI is enabled:

  1. The kernel will ignore tags on user pointers received from syscalls. For example, a zx_channel_read call with a buffer pointer containing a tag would behave exactly the same as if the buffer pointer were untagged.

  2. It is an error to pass a tagged pointer on syscalls that accept addresses (ie. zx_vaddr_t). For example, a virtual address passed to zx_process_read_memory cannot be tagged. Using a tagged pointer where an address is required will be treated like any other invalid address.

  3. When the kernel accepts a tagged pointer, whether through syscall or fault, it will try to preserve the tag to the degree that user code may later observe it. For example, if a user program faults on a tagged user pointer, then the resulting Zircon exception report will include the tag if the hardware can preserve it. The tag will be stripped if the hardware does not guarantee the tag can be preserved. If there is no mechanism by which userspace may observe the tag, the kernel is free to strip it provided it does not alter system behavior. If the hardware only guarantees partial preservation of a tag, then the kernel may only strip bits not guaranteed to be preserved.

  4. The kernel itself will never generate tagged pointers. For example, when mapping a VMO (via zx_vmar_map), the resulting value selected by the kernel will be a pure address with no tag.

  5. When comparing userspace pointers, the kernel will ignore any tags that may be present. For example if a thread is waiting (via zx_futex_wait) on a pointer with tag A, and another thread is waking (via zx_futex_wake) on a pointer with the same address bits but tag B, then the waiter will be woken.

ARM64 TBI enabled for Everything

TBI will be controlled by a kernel boot-option. When enabled, TBI will be on for all userspace processes.

Debugging Software

Debuggers will need to be TBI-aware. ARM TBI does not allow setting a tag on debug registers. Debuggers will need to explicitly sign-extend the most significant VA bit before setting debug registers.


A boot-option will control whether user address spaces have ARM TBI enabled. ARM TBI can be enabled by setting the TBI0 and TBI1 bits in the translation control register (EL1).

In addition to enabling/disabling TBI, we'll need to make sure existing syscalls correctly handle pointers/addresses. There are only a few places where the kernel handles user pointers (e.g. user_ptr) so the changes required to implement this proposal are relatively small.

We can indicate to userspace the type of TBI running through new system features. We can introduce a new feature kind ZX_FEATURE_KIND_ADDRESS_TAGGING and this kind can support new feature bits indicating the address tagging, like ZX_ARM64_FEATURE_ADDRESS_TAGGING_TBI for ARM TBI.


Performance impact should be negligible and existing microbenchmarks will be used to verify.


We will need to test for:

  1. Checking syscalls that use pointers with different tags, and those tags are effectively ignored.

  2. Waking on a tagged vs untagged pointer (tag-insensitive behavior).

  3. Faulting on a tagged pointer preserves the tag in the exception (tag-preserving behavior).

  4. Any behavior to make kernel TBI known to userspace, such as the presence of a system feature or a query that returns the number of top bits ignored.

  5. Verifying tagged pointers are rejected by syscalls that expect addresses.

These tests need to be skipped if TBI is not supported.


All documentation for the Tagged Pointer ABI is documented in this RFC. Once this has been implemented, we may need to update some Zircon documentation to specify which arguments for which syscalls cannot accept tags.

Syscalls that guarantee some degree of tag preservation will need to be documented to specify which bits are preserved and which can be stripped.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

TBI Toggle Granularity

We have two levels at which we can control the scope of TBI: globally and per-process. A per-process approach would involve some mechanism that allows toggling TBI at either process creation time or start time. This would require either a new syscall, argument, or bitflag that would need more testing and potentially introduce new bugs or security issues that will take time to discover. Having a process toggle could be expensive.

A global switch is less complex, and helps avoid many of the "unknown unknowns" with having to implement a runtime switch. It will also likely be safer if all applications for the system were either TBI-aware or non-TBI-aware rather than having a mixture of both.

Stripping Tags in Usermode

This would involve stripping all tags in the syscall layer before they made it into the kernel. This way, no kernel changes would be needed, and the kernel could remain agnostic to tags. One issue with this involves fault handling on userspace pointers. If a fault is generated on a tagged pointer, then it will be up to each userspace handler to strip the tag.

Support for Other Addressing Modes

This proposal should be flexible enough to account for other hardware features that involve "ignoring" top bits. We don't plan to support these in the near future, but we should be in a state where turning one on would require minimal changes.

ARM Memory Tagging Extension (MTE)

MTE is a feature that works on top of TBI for finding bad memory accesses. Memory tagging works by associating each allocation and pointer with a specific tag value. A pointer with a tag different from the allocation it's trying to access indicates a bad memory access because of a tag mismatch. With MTE, this tag is a 4-bit value stored in the top byte of the pointer.

Under this ABI, should MTE be enabled, the tag would refer to the top 8-bits of a pointer, but only bits 56-59 would be preserved of faults since the hardware only guarantees preservation of those 4 bits.

Intel Linear Address Masking (LAM)

LAM is an upcoming feature for x86 where either the top 7 or 16 bits in a pointer are masked out on loads/stores. This is controlled globally by altering the CR3 register. Unlike TBI, LAM will not preserve any of the tag bits on a page fault.

Prior art and references

Tagged virtual addresses in AArch64 Linux

Much of the design for this proposal was inspired from the Tagged Address ABI from Linux, namely most kernel behavior should remain unaffected when accepting tagged pointers. One major differences is that Linux supports toggling the ABI per-thread whereas this proposal aims to toggle the ABI globally at build/boot time. Additionally, ARM TBI is enabled all the time on Linux whereas ARM TBI is also controlled by the same build option.