A JIT Compiler Skirmish with SELinux

This is a debugging war story.

Once upon a time I wrote a fancy data conversion utility. The input was a complex binary format defined by a data dictionary supplied at run time by the user alongside the input data. Since the converter was typically used to process massive quantities of input, and the nature of that input wasn’t known until run time, I wrote an x86-64 JIT compiler to speed it up. The converter generated a fast, native binary parser in memory according to the data dictionary specification. Processing data now took much less time and everyone rejoiced.

Then along came SELinux, Sheriff of Pedantry. Not liking all the shenanigans with page protections, SELinux huffed and puffed and made mprotect(2) return EACCES (“Permission denied”). Believing I was following all the rules and so this would never happen, I foolishly did not check the result and the converter was now crashing for its users. What made SELinux so unhappy, and could this somehow be resolved?

Allocating memory

Before going further, let’s back up and review how this works. Suppose I want to generate code at run time and execute it. In the old days this was as simple as writing some machine code into a buffer and jumping to that buffer — e.g. by converting the buffer to a function pointer and calling it.

typedef int (*jit_func)(void);

/* NOTE: This doesn't work anymore! */
jit_compile(int retval)
    unsigned char *buf = malloc(6);
    if (buf) {
        /* mov eax, retval */
        buf[0] = 0xb8;
        buf[1] = retval >>  0;
        buf[2] = retval >>  8;
        buf[3] = retval >> 16;
        buf[4] = retval >> 24;
        /* ret */
        buf[5] = 0xc3;
    return (jit_func)buf;

    jit_func f = jit_compile(1001);
    printf("f() = %d\n", f());

This situation was far too easy for malicious actors to abuse. An attacker could supply instructions of their own choosing — i.e. shell code — as input and exploit a buffer overflow vulnerability to execute the input buffer. These exploits were trivial to craft.

Modern systems have hardware checks to prevent this from happening. Memory containing instructions must have their execute protection bit set before those instructions can be executed. This is useful both for making attackers work harder and for catching bugs in programs — no more executing data by accident.

This is further complicated by the fact that memory protections have page granularity. You can’t adjust the protections for a 6-byte buffer. You do it for the entire surrounding page — typically 4kB, but sometimes as large as 2MB. This requires replacing that malloc(3) with a more careful allocation strategy. There are a few ways to go about this.

Anonymous memory mapping

The most common and most sensible is to create an anonymous memory mapping: a file memory map that’s not actually backed by a file. The mmap(2) function has a flag specifically for this purpose: MAP_ANONYMOUS.

#include <sys/mman.h>

void *
anon_alloc(size_t len)
    int prot = PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE;
    int flags = MAP_ANONYMOUS | MAP_PRIVATE;
    void *p = mmap(0, len, prot, flags, -1, 0);
    return p != MAP_FAILED ? p : 0;

anon_free(void *p, size_t len)
    munmap(p, len);

Unfortunately, MAP_ANONYMOUS not part of POSIX. If you’re being super strict with your includes — as I tend to be — this flag won’t be defined, even on systems where it’s supported.

#define _POSIX_C_SOURCE 200112L
#include <sys/mman.h>
// MAP_ANONYMOUS undefined!

To get the flag, you must use the _BSD_SOURCE, or, more recently, the _DEFAULT_SOURCE feature test macro to explicitly enable that feature.

#define _POSIX_C_SOURCE 200112L
#include <sys/mman.h>

The POSIX way to do this is to instead map /dev/zero. So, wanting to be Mr. Portable, this is what I did in my tool. Take careful note of this.

#define _POSIX_C_SOURCE 200112L
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <sys/mman.h>

void *
anon_alloc(size_t len)
    int fd = open("/dev/zero", O_RDWR);
    if (fd == -1)
        return 0;
    int prot = PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE;
    int flags = MAP_PRIVATE;
    void *p = mmap(0, len, prot, flags, fd, 0);
    return p != MAP_FAILED ? p : 0;

Aligned allocation

Another, less common (and less portable) strategy is to lean on the existing C memory allocator, being careful to allocate on page boundaries so that the page protections don’t affect other allocations. The classic allocation functions, like malloc(3), don’t allow for this kind of control. However, there are a couple of aligned allocation alternatives.

The first is posix_memalign(3):

int posix_memalign(void **ptr, size_t alignment, size_t size);

By choosing page alignment and a size that’s a multiple of the page size, it’s guaranteed to return whole pages. When done, pages are freed with free(3). Though, unlike unmapping, the original page protections must first be restored since those pages may be reused.

#define _POSIX_C_SOURCE 200112L
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>

void *
anon_alloc(size_t len)
    void *p;
    long pagesize = sysconf(_SC_PAGE_SIZE); // TODO: cache this
    size_t roundup = (len + pagesize - 1) / pagesize * pagesize;
    return posix_memalign(&p, pagesize, roundup) ? 0 : p;

If you’re using C11, there’s also aligned_alloc(3). This is the most uncommon of all since most C programmers refuse to switch to a new standard until it’s at least old enough to drive a car.

Changing page protections

So we’ve allocated our memory, but it’s not going to start in an executable state. Why? Because a W^X (“write xor execute”) policy is becoming increasingly common. Attempting to set both write and execute protections at the same time may be denied. (In fact, there’s an SELinux policy for this.)

As a JIT compiler, we need to write to a page and execute it. Again, there are two strategies. The complicated strategy is to map the same memory at two different places, one with the execute protection, one with the write protection. This allows the page to be modified as it’s being executed without violating W^X.

The simpler and more secure strategy is to write the machine instructions, then swap the page over to executable using mprotect(2) once it’s ready. This is what I was doing in my tool.

unsigned char *buf = anon_alloc(len);
/* ... write instructions into the buffer ... */
mprotect(buf, len, PROT_EXEC);
jit_func func = (jit_func)buf;

At a high level, That’s pretty close to what I was actually doing. That includes neglecting to check the result of mprotect(2). This worked fine and dandy for several years, when suddenly (shown here in the style of strace):

mprotect(ptr, len, PROT_EXEC) = -1 EACCES (Permission denied)

Then the program would crash trying to execute the buffer. Suddenly it wasn’t allowed to make this buffer executable. My program hadn’t changed. What had changed was the SELinux security policy on this particular system.

Asking for help

The problem is that I don’t administer this (Red Hat) system. I can’t access the logs and I didn’t set the policy. I don’t have any insight on why this call was suddenly being denied. To make this more challenging, the folks that manage this system didn’t have the necessary knowledge to help with this either.

So to figure this out, I need to treat it like a black box and probe at system calls until I can figure out just what SELinux policy I’m up against. I only have practical experience administrating Debian systems (and its derivatives like Ubuntu), which means I’ve hardly ever had to deal with SELinux. I’m flying fairly blind here.

Since my real application is large and complicated, I code up a minimal example, around a dozen lines of code: allocate a single page of memory, write a single return (ret) instruction into it, set it as executable, and call it. The program checks for errors, and I can run it under strace if that’s not insightful enough. This program is also something simple I could provide to the system administrators, since they were willing to turn some of the knobs to help narrow down the problem.

However, here’s where I made a major mistake. Assuming the problem was solely in mprotect(2), and wanting to keep this as absolutely simple as possible, I used posix_memalign(3) to allocate that page. I saw the same EACCES as before, and assumed I was demonstrating the same problem. Take note of this, too.

Finding a resolution

Eventually I’d need to figure out what policy was blocking my JIT compiler, then see if there was an alternative route. The system loader still worked after all, and I could plainly see that with strace. So it wasn’t a blanket policy that completely blocked the execute protection. Perhaps the loader was given an exception?

However, the very first order of business was to actually check the result from mprotect(2) and do something more graceful rather than crash. In my case, that meant falling back to executing a byte-code virtual machine. I added the check, and now the program ran slower instead of crashing.

The program runs on both Linux and Windows, and the allocation and page protection management is abstracted. On Windows it uses VirtualAlloc() and VirtualProtect() instead of mmap(2) and mprotect(2). Neither implementation checked that the protection change succeeded, so I fixed the Windows implementation while I was at it.

Thanks to Mingw-w64, I actually do most of my Windows development on Linux. And, thanks to Wine, I mean everything, including running and debugging. Calling VirtualProtect() in Wine would ultimately call mprotect(2) in the background, which I expected would be denied. So running the Windows version with Wine under this SELinux policy would be the perfect test. Right?

Except that mprotect(2) succeeded under Wine! The Windows version of my JIT compiler was working just fine on Linux. Huh?

This system doesn’t have Wine installed. I had built and packaged it myself. This Wine build definitely has no SELinux exceptions. Not only did the Wine loader work correctly, it can change page protections in ways my own Linux programs could not. What’s different?

Debugging this with all these layers is starting to look silly, but this is exactly why doing Windows development on Linux is so useful. I run my program under Wine under strace:

$ strace wine ./mytool.exe

I study the system calls around mprotect(2). Perhaps there’s some stricter alignment issue? No. Perhaps I need to include PROT_READ? No. The only difference I can find is they’re using the MAP_ANONYMOUS flag. So, armed with this knowledge, I modify my minimal example to allocate 1024 pages instead of just one, and suddenly it works correctly. I was most of the way to figuring this all out.

Inside glibc allocation

Why did increasing the allocation size change anything? This is a typical Linux system, so my program is linked against the GNU C library, glibc. This library allocates memory from two places depending on the allocation size.

For small allocations, glibc uses brk(2) to extend the executable image — i.e. to extend the .bss section. These resources are not returned to the operating system after they’re freed with free(3). They’re reused.

For large allocations, glibc uses mmap(2) to create a new, anonymous mapping for that allocation. When freed with free(3), that memory is unmapped and its resources are returned to the operating system.

By increasing the allocation size, it became a “large” allocation and was backed by an anonymous mapping. Even though I didn’t use mmap(2), to the operating system this would be indistinguishable to what Wine was doing (and succeeding at).

Consider this little example program:

    printf("%p\n", malloc(1));
    printf("%p\n", malloc(1024 * 1024));

When not compiled as a Position Independent Executable (PIE), here’s what the output looks like. The first pointer is near where the program was loaded, low in memory. The second pointer is a randomly selected address high in memory.


And if you run it under strace, you’ll see that the first allocation comes from brk(2) and the second comes from mmap(2).

Two SELinux policies

With a little bit of research, I found the two SELinux policies at play here. In my minimal example, I was blocked by allow_execheap.


This prohibits programs from setting the execute protection on any “heap” page.

The POSIX specification does not permit it, but the Linux implementation of mprotect allows changing the access protection of memory on the heap (e.g., allocated using malloc). This error indicates that heap memory was supposed to be made executable. Doing this is really a bad idea. If anonymous, executable memory is needed it should be allocated using mmap which is the only portable mechanism.

Obviously this is pretty loose since I was still able to do it with posix_memalign(3), which, technically speaking, allocates from the heap. So this policy applies to pages mapped by brk(2).

The second policy was allow_execmod.


The program mapped from a file with mmap and the MAP_PRIVATE flag and write permission. Then the memory region has been written to, resulting in copy-on-write (COW) of the affected page(s). This memory region is then made executable […]. The mprotect call will fail with EACCES in this case.

I don’t understand what purpose this policy serves, but this is what was causing my original problem. Pages mapped to /dev/zero are not actually considered anonymous by Linux, at least as far as this policy is concerned. I think this is a mistake, and that mapping the special /dev/zero device should result in effectively anonymous pages.

From this I learned a little lesson about baking assumptions — that mprotect(2) was solely at fault — into my minimal debugging examples. And the fix was ultimately easy: I just had to suck it up and use the slightly less pure MAP_ANONYMOUS flag.

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Chris Wellons