semgrep: the future of static analysis tools

When searching for a pattern that might be present in source code contained in multiple files, what is the best tool to use?

The obvious answer is grep, and grep is great for character-based pattern searches. But patterns that are token based, or include information on language semantics, fall outside grep‘s model of pattern recognition (which does not stop people trying to cobble something together, perhaps with the help of complicated sed scripts).

Those searching source code written in C have the luxury of being able to use Coccinelle, an industrial strength C language aware pattern matching tool. It is widely used by the Linux kernel maintainers and people researching complicated source code patterns.

Over the 15+ years that Coccinelle has been available, there has been a lot of talk about supporting other languages, but nothing ever materialized.

About six months ago, I noticed semgrep and thought it interesting enough to add to my list of tool bookmarks. Then, a few days ago, I read a brief blog post that was interesting enough for me to check out other posts at that site, and this one by Yoann Padioleau really caught my attention. Yoann worked on Coccinelle, and we had an interesting email exchange some 13-years ago, when I was analyzing if-statement usage, and had subsequently worked on various static analysis tools, and was now working on semgrep. Most static analysis tools are created by somebody spending a year or so working on the implementation, making all the usual mistakes, before abandoning it to go off and do other things. High quality tools come from people with experience, who have invested lots of time learning their trade.

The documentation contains lots of examples, and working on the assumption that things would be a lot like using Coccinelle, I jumped straight in.

The pattern I choose to search for, using semgrep, involved counting the number of clauses contained in Python if-statement conditionals, e.g., the condition in: if a==1 and b==2: contains two clauses (i.e., a==1, b==2). My interest in this usage comes from ideas about if-statement nesting depth and clause complexity. The intended use case of semgrep is security researchers checking for vulnerabilities in code, but I’m sure those developing it are happy for source code researchers to use it.

As always, I first tried building the source on the Github repo, (note: the Makefile expects a git clone install, not an unzipped directory), but got fed up with having to incrementally discover and install lots of dependencies (like Coccinelle, the code is written on OCaml {93k+ lines} and Python {13k+ lines}). I joined the unwashed masses and used pip install.

The pattern rules have a yaml structure, specifying the rule name, language(s), message to output when a match is found, and the pattern to search for.

After sorting out various finger problems, writing C rather than Python, and misunderstanding the semgrep output (some of which feels like internal developer output, rather than tool user developer output), I had a set of working patterns.

The following two patterns match if-statements containing a single clause (if.subexpr-1), and two clauses (if.subexpr-2). The option commutative_boolop is set to true to allow the matching process to treat Python’s or/and as commutative, which they are not, but it reduces the number of rules that need to be written to handle all the cases when ordering of these operators is not relevant (rules+test).

rules:
- id: if.subexpr-1
  languages: [python]
  message: if-cond1
  patterns:
   - pattern: |
      if $COND1:  # we found an if statement
         $BODY
   - pattern-not: |
      if $COND2 or $COND3: # must not contain more than one condition
         $BODY
   - pattern-not: |
      if $COND2 and $COND3:
         $BODY
  severity: INFO

- id: if.subexpr-2
  languages: [python]
  options:
   commutative_boolop: true # Reduce combinatorial explosion of rules
  message: if-cond2
  pattern-either:
   - patterns:
      - pattern: |
         if $COND1 or $COND2: # if statement containing two conditions
            $BODY
      - pattern-not: |
         if $COND3 or $COND4 or $COND5: # must not contain more than two conditions
            $BODY
      - pattern-not: |
         if $COND3 or $COND4 and $COND5:
            $BODY
   - patterns:
      - pattern: |
         if $COND1 and $COND2:
            $BODY
      - pattern-not: |
         if $COND3 and $COND4 and $COND5:
            $BODY
      - pattern-not: |
         if $COND3 and $COND4 or $COND5:
            $BODY
  severity: INFO

The rules would be simpler if it were possible for a pattern to not be applied to code that earlier matched another pattern (in my example, one containing more clauses). This functionality is supported by Coccinelle, and I’m sure it will eventually appear in semgrep.

This tool has lots of rough edges, and is still rapidly evolving, I’m using version 0.82, released four days ago. What’s exciting is the support for multiple languages (ten are listed, with experimental support for twelve more, and three in beta). Roughly what happens is that source code is mapped to an abstract syntax tree that is common to all supported languages, which is then pattern matched. Supporting a new language involves writing code to perform the mapping to this common AST.

It’s not too difficult to map different languages to a common AST that contains just tokens, e.g., identifiers and their spelling, literals and their value, and keywords. Many languages use the same operator precedence and associativity as C, plus their own extras, and they tend to share the same kinds of statements; however, declarations can be very diverse, which makes life difficult for supporting a generic AST.

An awful lot of useful things can be done with a tool that is aware of expression/statement syntax and matches at the token level. More refined semantic information (e.g., a variable’s type) can be added in later versions. The extent to which an investment is made to support the various subtleties of a particular language will depend on its economic importance to those involved in supporting semgrep (Return to Corp is a VC backed company).

Outside of a few languages that have established tools doing deep semantic analysis (i.e., C and C++), semgrep has the potential to become the go-to static analysis tool for source code. It will benefit from the network effects of contributions from lots of people each working in one or more languages, taking their semgrep skills and rules from one project to another (with source code language ceasing to be a major issue). Developers using niche languages with poor or no static analysis tool support will add semgrep support for their language because it will be the lowest cost path to accessing an industrial strength tool.

How are the VC backers going to make money from funding the semgrep team? The traditional financial exit for static analysis companies is selling to a much larger company. Why would a large company buy them, when they could just fork the code (other company sales have involved closed-source tools)? Perhaps those involved think they can make money by selling services (assuming semgrep becomes the go-to tool). I have a terrible track record for making business predictions, so I will stick to the technical stuff.