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smtlib-backends: faster SMT-LIB-based Haskell interface to SMT solvers

14 February 2023 — by Quentin Aristote

SMT solvers are tools for solving satisfiability problems over logical formulae involving data types such as real numbers, arrays or strings. They use various heuristics in an attempt to assess whether the free variables of a given formula may be assigned some values such that the formula holds.

SMT solvers are particularly good at what they do, and are thus often used as dependencies in proof assistants and similar tools: Liquid Haskell, which provides formal verification of Haskell programs1, is one such example. As a means of interaction, these components often rely on SMT-LIB, a language that allows the expression of the basic operations supported by SMT solvers. The available solvers are multitudinous, but most of them understand this language, which is thus particularly convenient as it provides a single, common interface to them.

In this post I’ll share some of the outcomes of my internship at Tweag2, during which I worked on optimizing Pirouette (a Haskell tool for finding counterexamples to properties specified about programs3) and its SMT-LIB-based interaction with SMT solvers. Pirouette was unfortunately not fast enough to be used on advanced examples and, while this limitation still remains, my work has contributed to improve the runtime performance significantly.

The main improvement was to evaluate SMT-LIB commands through the solver’s bindings instead of calling it through an external process, which halved the time spent interacting with Z3 in our measurements. This led to the creation of smtlib-backends, a library exposing these optimizations, which, after speeding-up Pirouette, was also integrated into Liquid Haskell.

I’ll review the pros and cons of different methods for interacting with SMT solvers, before introducing smtlib-backends and showing how it can improve these interactions for Haskell programmers.

SMT-LIB-based interaction with SMT solvers through external processes

The most generic way to interact with an SMT solver is to use the SMT-LIB language. For instance, we may tell the solver to define a boolean variable p with the command (declare-const p Bool), assert that p and its negation hold simultaneously with (assert (and p (not p))), and check whether this is consistent with (check-sat).

This interaction is usually done by running an SMT solver as an external process, writing SMT-LIB commands on the process’ input channel and reading the solver’s response on its output channel. When using the Z3 SMT solver as an external process in Haskell’s GHCi, this looks like:

> import System.Process
> import System.IO
> (hIn, hOut, _, _) <- runInteractiveCommand "z3 -in -smt2"
> hPutStrLn hIn "(declare-const p Bool)"
> hPutStrLn hIn "(assert (and p (not p)))"
> hPutStrLn hIn "(check-sat)"
> hFlush hIn
> hGetLine hOut

Using SMT-LIB is convenient because it is a universal language and thus isn’t tied to a specific solver: it is common to want to use several solvers in the same project, as different solvers have different strengths. For instance, a solver may fare particularly well on existential formulae yet be worse than average on less complex problems. Another upside of this method is that co-opting the input and output channels of the solver make for a very informative debug log that’s also trivial to implement.

However convenient this method is, it still has drawbacks. The main one is that it is especially slow: running solvers as external processes forces the operating system to constantly switch contexts when running your code.

Interaction with SMT solvers through their bindings

When the speed of interacting with the SMT solver is a concern, the alternative method is to use it as a library, through its bindings. For instance, Z3 provides a C library that is also exposed in several other languages. Using the (unofficial) Haskell bindings in GHCi, our previous example becomes:

> :set +m
> import Z3.Monad
> evalZ3 $ do
|   p <- mkFreshBoolVar "p"
|   notP <- mkNot p
|   assert =<< mkAnd [ p, notP ]
|   solverCheck

The upsides and downsides of this method are dual to those of the previous one: you won’t get anything faster than this (as the solver’s library is directly linked inside your compiled code), but it’s not as nice debugging-wise, and switching to another solver’s API is very tedious.

The best of both worlds: SMT-LIB-based interaction with SMT solvers through their bindings

As Pirouette used SMT-LIB-based interaction through external processes, there was scope for runtime improvement. We didn’t want to use interaction through bindings because we liked the upsides of SMT-LIB-based interaction and didn’t deem the time investment of rewriting the whole interface with bindings worth our while.

Instead, a good compromise was to use bindings to evaluate the SMT-LIB commands: instead of running the solver as an external process and writing the commands on its input channel, we settled on feeding the SMT-LIB commands to Z3’s Z3_eval_smtlib2_string C function which then directly outputs the solver’s response. This ended up being almost twice as fast as using external processes.

Unfortunately, this solution isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, as it seems SMT solvers aren’t designed to be used in such a way. At the time of writing, the CVC5 SMT solver’s library simply does not provide a binding for evaluating SMT-LIB commands and yet the CVC5 executable understands SMT-LIB. Similarly, Z3 does provide the binding above, but this binding comes with a constant overhead (that we reduced in a subsequent pull request to Z3): it was only designed to be called once on the concatenated string of SMT-LIB commands, instead of once for every command. A change that helped mitigate this overhead was to send commands in batches, as oftentimes the solver’s response isn’t immediately needed (e.g. when sending assertions or declarations).

Introducing smtlib-backends

Since having one well-optimized and safe library is more efficient than having the same code be spread out between different projects, we set out on developing and maintaining smtlib-backends, a new minimal library for SMT-LIB-based interaction with SMT solvers that implements the optimizations described above.

Using smtlib-backends-0.3 inside GHCi, our previous example now unfolds as follows:

> -- enable OverloadedStrings to write literal ByteStrings
> :set -XOverloadedStrings
> import SMT-LIB.Backends
> import SMT-LIB.Backends.Process as Process
> let cfg = Process.defaultConfig { Process.exe = "z3", Process.args = [ "-in", "-smt2" ] }
> backend <- Process.toBackend <$> cfg
> -- 'Queuing' enables sending commands to the SMT solver in batches
> solver <- initSolver Queuing backend
> command_ solver "(declare-const p Bool)"
> command_ solver "(assert (and p (not p)))"
> command  solver "(check-sat)"

smtlib-backends is designed to provide a generic interface to different backends, i.e. the different SMT-LIB-based ways to interact with an SMT solver we’ve looked at before. We first instantiate the backend and only then create the solver wrapper which provides the interface to the backend. In the above example we use the backend that runs solvers as external processes), but evaluating SMT-LIB commands through Z3’s bindings instead is now as simple as switching to the corresponding backend:

> import SMT-LIB.Backends.Z3 as Z3
> backend <- Z3.toBackend <$> Z3.defaultConfig
> ...

smtlib-backends has already been plugged to Pirouette, simplifying the codebase and improving the runtime performance by 12% (on our biggest test file). It was then integrated in Liquid Fixpoint, Liquid Haskell’s constraint solver. No significant speed-up was observed, but this integration simplified the interface to the solvers and could start making a difference when other parts of the codebase are optimized and become less dominant.


There are two main ways to interact with an SMT solver: running it as an external process and sending it SMT-LIB commands through its input channel, or directly using the solver’s bindings when they are provided. Both these methods have pros and cons, but a good compromise can be reached by evaluating the SMT-LIB commands using the solver’s bindings.

smtlib-backends is a new Haskell library that offers an SMT-LIB-based interface to SMT solvers, yet doesn’t force the user to have them run as external processes. It is well-documented, and the interface is reasonably universal and abstract. We hope this library will help many projects replace redundant code: it has already done so for Pirouette and Liquid Haskell!

  1. See also why Liquid Haskell matters
  2. Special thanks to Facundo Dominguez and the High Assurance Team for mentoring me during these great 6 months :)
  3. Read more about Pirouette here
If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in joining the Tweag team.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


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