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14 October 2022 — by Carl Hammann
Testing stateful systems, part two: Linear Temporal Logic

On a previous post, we explained how to write tests for stateful systems using traces — sequences of stateful actions — that can be combined and modified to write complex test cases easily and transparently. This post elaborates on the combinators used to generate new traces from previously existing traces.

Writing generators for property-based tests is an art, and there’s often a trade-off between how many test cases are generated and how meaningful each of them is. When considering stateful systems, this problem is exacerbated, because any action taken now may constrain the available actions for the future. This means that the test generator will already need to track how the state evolves from each step to the next in order to generate valid inputs. We think that this is problematic because it means that the test case generator will likely end up duplicating much of the work (and many of the mistakes) of the program being tested.

So, ideally, we’d like to be able to use the program we’re testing to keep track of the state, but still apply state-dependent modifications at each time step. Succinctly, we propose the following approach to make this possible:

  • Generate test cases as variations of example traces. This guides the exploration of the space of possible tests in a very transparent way: There are many test cases being generated, but each one is a precisely understood variation of a known scenario.

  • Use a language derived from linear temporal logic (LTL) to describe where single-step modifications should be applied. In order to allow for single-step modifications to depend on the state of the computation, we evaluate the modified traces while also interpreting the LTL formula describing the composite modification from step to step.

An example to motivate LTL test cases

Here’s a pattern we frequently encounter in our audits of smart contracts: Say we’re testing a protocol that involves two transactions, txA and txB. Also assume that a potential vulnerability comes from malicious txBs, which are only possible if preceded by a suitably modified txA.

Now, you will often have a collection of valid traces for the protocol, which will feature txAs and txBs in various contexts. Wouldn’t it be nice to use all these different scenarios as a “backdrop” for your test, by modifying txAs and txBs in them? That is, we want to apply a coordinated modification of two transactions: In order to witness the vulnerability, one has to modify a pair of transactions, which occur at unknown positions in the trace although the order in which they appear is known.

The property we’d like to test here is “at some point in time, we can modify a txA so that later on, there’ll be a txB we can also modify”. If that property holds, the protocol is broken. But really, we do not merely want to test a property, we want to execute the trace — and modify it while we go — to witness the attack.

This is where linear temporal logic (LTL) comes to the scene.

LTL primer

Linear Temporal Logic is a temporal logic in the sense that, in addition to propositional variables and the connectives of propositional logic, also features some connectives pertaining to the order of events in time. It is linear in the sense that its temporal connectives can only specify properties of a single time line.

Our idea is to think of propositional variables as single-step modifications that apply to time steps within a timeline — in the preceding example, the time steps are transactions like txA and txB, the modifications described by propositional variables apply to single transactions, and timelines are transaction sequences. Our method aims to be applicable generally, and therefore we define the type of LTL formulas with single-step modifications of any type a:

data Ltl a
  = LtlTruth
  | LtlFalsity
  | LtlAtom a
  | LtlOr (Ltl a) (Ltl a)
  | LtlAnd (Ltl a) (Ltl a)
  | LtlNext (Ltl a)
  | LtlUntil (Ltl a) (Ltl a)
  | LtlRelease (Ltl a) (Ltl a)

Now, we think of an element of type Ltl a not as a formula that describes a property to be checked, but as a composite modification to be applied to a trace. From this perspective, we can give a meaning to the constructors above. Let’s start with the first three.

  • LtlTruth is the “do nothing” modification that can be applied anytime and leaves everything unchanged.

  • LtlFalsity is the modification that never applies and always leads to failure. In other words, LtlFalsity terminates the current timeline, which means that the whole modified computation is disregarded.

  • The formula LtlAtom x means “at the current time step, apply x“.

The next two constructors look innocuous enough, but still need some explanation.

  • The modification x `LtlOr` y should be understood as “timeline branching”: It splits the trace we’re modifying into two traces, one modified with x and the other modified with y.

  • Conjunction is slightly more subtle: The modification x `LtlAnd` y applies both x and y to the same trace (no time branching here!). Our current implementation applies y first, so that LtlAnd is not necessarily commutative. It will however be commutative whenever the order in which single-step modifications are applied does not matter.

The last three constructors are what really turns LTL into a temporal logic.

  • The formula LtlNext x is the modification that applies x at the next time step, or fails if there is no such time step.

  • The formula x `LtlUntil` y applies x at every time step, until y becomes applicable (and is applied) at some time step, which must happen eventually.

  • The formula x `LtlRelease` y is dual to x `LtlUntil` y. It applies y at every time step, up to and including the first time step when x becomes applicable (and is applied); should x never become applicable, then y will be applied forever.

The absence of negation and implication from our presentation stems from the our point of view that LTL formulas are composite modifications. For now, we have not settled on one obviously correct meaning for the negation (if there is one): Should it mean to check for applicability of the modification, failing if it is applicable, and leaving everything unchanged otherwise? Should it somehow mean to branch into the infinitude of all other possible modifications (using some kind of mask)…? Likewise, implication is problematic: What should the meaning of LtlNext x `LtlImplies` y be? — Assume x is applicable at the next time step, then we would have to apply y now. However, applying y now might change the state, and that might make x non-applicable at the next time step. In that sense, this formula would describe a modification that violates causality. All of this is not intended to mean that negation and implication are impossible for fundamental reasons, but that there is no clear path to handle them at the moment.

Applying LTL in the example scenario

Assume that we interact with our protocol through a monad Protocol that uses two transactions txA :: Protocol () and txB :: Protocol (), and say that one of our simple traces looks like this:

aabab :: Protocol ()
aabab = txA >> txA >> txB >> txA >> txB

As a warm-up, let’s generate all possibilities to modify exactly one txA with some single-transaction modification modifyA, and let’s denote the modified transactions by txA'. Since there are three txAs, there should be three modified traces (in pseudo-Haskell):

{ txA' >> txA  >> txB >> txA  >> txB
, txA  >> txA' >> txB >> txA  >> txB
, txA  >> txA  >> txB >> txA' >> txB

Generalising the atomic modification, we can describe the “at some point in time” part with the following LTL formula:

eventually :: a -> Ltl a
eventually x = LtlTruth `LtlUntil` LtlAtom x

This means that eventually x is successfully applied either if we can apply x right now, or if we can recursively apply eventually x from the next transaction onward.

So, eventually modifyA is the modification we want to apply. To do so, we use the type class

class Monad m => MonadModal m where
  type Modification m :: Type
  modifyLtl :: Ltl (Modification m) -> m a -> m a

which allows us to apply the composite modification described by an LTL formula to some monadic computation, returning a computation of the same type. In all of the examples we have encountered so far, the monad under consideration will have an obvious branching structure like MonadPlus, so that we can think of modifyLtl as the function that returns all “timelines” that can be obtained by applying the given modification.

So, modifyLtl (eventually modifyA), applied to aabab, should describe the three traces above.

Now for the grand finale: In the original discussion of the example, we wanted to apply a coordinated modification to all pairs of a txA and a later txB. The formula that interests us is therefore

andLater :: a -> a -> Ltl a
x `andLater` y = eventually $ LtlAtom x `LtlAnd` LtlNext (eventually y)

It describes the composite modification that somewhere applies x and then at some later step applies y. This should then yield, again in pseudo-Haskell, the following five modified traces:

modifyLtl (modifyA `andLater` modifyB) aabab ==
  { txA' >> txA  >> txB' >> txA  >> txB
  , txA  >> txA' >> txB' >> txA  >> txB
  , txA' >> txA  >> txB  >> txA  >> txB'
  , txA  >> txA' >> txB  >> txA  >> txB'
  , txA  >> txA  >> txB  >> txA' >> txB'

That is, each pair of a txA followed at some point by a txB receives modifications.

A rough idea of the implementation

The main difficulty in interpreting LTL formulas as state-aware modifications lies in the fact that the parameters of single-transaction modifications might depend on parts of the state that are only known once we run the actual trace. In the example, modifyA and modifyB might behave differently depending on the state. For example, consider the first two of the modified traces from above.

modifyLtl (modifyA `andLater` modifyB) aabab ==
  { txA' >> txA  >> txB' >> txA  >> txB
  , txA  >> txA' >> txB' >> txA  >> txB
  , ...

The txB' from the first modified trace might be different from the txB' in the second trace, because the state after the first two transactions was different, and modifyB therefore produced a different txB'. However, since the relevant state can only be known once the first two transaction have already been modified and run, we have to run the modified trace while we apply single-step modifications.

Another way to phrase this is that we can’t first generate a list of traces and then run them in a second step; we don’t know all of the details of the computation(s) we’re running beforehand. It is this fact that makes the implementation rather involved, but also what ultimately makes our idea useful: We can modify in a state-aware way, but we don’t need to track the state ourselves.

Our mental model to get around this difficulty is the observation that every formula x :: Ltl a corresponds to a list nowLater x :: [(a, Ltl a)] of pairs of a single-step modification to apply right now and a composite modification to apply from the next time step onward. You can think of this as a normal form: Every formula is equivalent to a disjunction of formulas of the form a `LtlAnd` LtlNext x, where a is an atom, truth, or falsity.

For example, the formula x `LtlUntil` y corresponds to the list [(y, LtlTruth), (x, x `LtlUntil` y)], because there are two ways to satisfy it: Either y is already applicable at the current time step and then we need not apply any further modifications, or x is applicable now, and in that case we recursively have to apply x `LtlUntil` y from the next time step onward.

Now, our idea is to have an abstract syntax tree (AST) of the traces we’re trying to modify and then interpret that AST while also using the function nowLater to pass the relevant modifications from each time step to the next. This becomes possible with the freer monad ideas described in the previous post. Very briefly, in the setting of the example, the idea is to have a type Op to reify the methods of the monad Protocol, such that a method that returns an a is reified as an Op a. For example, txA and txB would correspond to two constructors of Op (). The AST is then constructed as the freer monad on Op, together with some operations that are hidden from the end user to allow us to thread LTL formulas through. Then, we define a function

interpretLtl ::
    -- some constraints on m
  ) =>
  AST a -> StateT (Ltl modification) m a

to interpret the AST while also passing the modifications from one step of the interpretation to the next. The conditions on m require that m has the necessary structure to interpret the operations reified by Op.

In the end, we obtain a convenient method to define instances of the “magical” type class MonadModal from the last section. (If you want to understand how it works, I recommend reading the previous post and then starting your exploration of the code with this instance declaration for MonadModal).

Closing Remarks

The preceding discussion proposes a method to turn a relatively small number of uninteresting traces into a big number of interesting tests. Also, since each of the test cases is obtained as a precisely described composite modification of an original trace, we’re running many tests, but it’s easy to keep track of what we’re actually testing. Especially in combination with a convenient way to define single-step modifications, this method allows us to quickly explore many test ideas. (For the blockchain use case, we have a growing collection of single-step modifications, which correspond to common attacks on smart contracts.)

The objective of this post is mainly to share the technique to use “LTL to modify a sequence of stateful actions, not to check some of its properties”. We imagine that this idea will prove useful in many applications, not only for testing. Our method can be applied to every monad that has some “builtin” operations that can be meaningfully modified. The idea of the MonadModal type class — and the idea to generate instances for it using a freer monad — is relevant whenever it makes sense to consider stateful computations as step-by-step modifications of one original computation.

Further work

There are now many interesting questions on the more theoretical side to investigate.

  • What’s the right set of logical connectives?

    • The problem with the “causality violating” formula LtlNext x `LtlImplies` y seems not to be implication per se, but that we can’t have LtlNext before an implication, if we want to use our ”nowLater normal form” approach.

    • Likewise, the fact that it’s not obvious what negation should be doesn’t mean that we should not consider it. What are some conditions on an operation that would make it worthy of being called “negation” in this context?

    • We’re working with a set of connectives that implicitly assumes time to be infinite, but the computations we consider all have a finite number of time steps. Is there a sensible finite-time fragment of LTL we can use? We’re investigating this question with an Agda formalisation of the ideas in this post, and the goal of this effort is to reach a complete specification and verification.

  • What is the formula that describes the modification we get by first applying the x and then y to the same trace? Our implementation just relies on the assumption that, in the relevant cases, we can use LtlAnd, but as we discussed, there are some problems around commutativity. Phrased differently, atomic modifications form a (not necessarily commutative) monoid, and our LTL modifications inherit monoid structure from them. Is there a sensible logical junctor corresponding to that monoid operation?

  • What about branching-time logic? — We already heavily use the “time branching” metaphor, so maybe it’s useful to conceptualise computations not as linear sequences of instructions, but to use the “nondeterministic computation” perspective throughout.

We expect that all of these questions can (and should) only be answered on the basis of a sound denotational semantics for the function modifyLtl. So the one question to rule them all is: What’s modifyLtl, really?

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