Using design by contract and TDD to enforce security: the coat project

A small recap

In my latest post I introduced my summer project, the coat programming language.

The idea was to merge concepts from design by contract and BDD or TDD to build a descriptive language to tell the world the constraint your code will fullfill.

Coat will be used to write ruby class skeleton with method pre and post conditions, builtin data type checks, documentation and test cases.

Building a compiler is fascinating and a very self learning task but it’s not that easy.

The foundation

A couple of years ago I purchased Marc-André online book about creating your programming language from scratch.

I was working hard on the Owasp Orizon project and I was frustrated about the parser I was building. It doesn’t work at all (I used the present tense since I never solved that issue, in fact that project is almost orphaned).

I purchased a copy of the dragon book but my work didn’t start.

So I purchased Mark’s book that it seemed to be more focused on practical examples on building a compiler.

I never applied all that stuff to Orizon, but I did some days ago when I started coat.

First task: create an hello world program

Created the repository the first task was to create an “Hello world” program.

Coat is not a programming language designed to be translated in assembly and then in an executable form, so I don’t care about print something on standard output. “hello_world.coat” will describe a ruby class that puts “Hello world” and it will create a test case ensuring that class methods will do an “Hello world” message.

Maybe this is not the most representative example of a class that needs security enforcements, however we need to start from something simpler to introduce coat grammar elements.

No words, just the code. Here is your “hello_world.coat”.

contract HelloWorld:
    write "Hello world" to stdout
    def say_hello:
        "Hello world"

coat basics

Some language highlights before going deeper into details:

  1. like python, coat relies on indentation level, there is no end keyword that says a block of instructions is over
  2. instructions are divided by newline
  3. the ‘:’ character makes a block of instruction to begin

A coat program is a contract between a class (a yet to be written HelloWorld ruby class in this case) and the world. This contract says:

  1. what the HelloWorld class does
  2. the public api the HelloWorld class will expose

I’m not interested in creating a language to tell programmers how to implement an algorithm. coat is about description and behavior, that’s why HelloWorld class can have hundreds of private methods or it can implement say_hello method in multiple ways.

The important bit is that it must print “Hello world” to standard output using the say_hello public api.

coat program starts with the contract name, that is a required information. This name must follow the ruby convention about camelcase formatting between class and file names. So, the filename must be “hello_world.coat” and the files the compiler will create will be named: “hello_world.rb” and “hello_world_spec.rb”

A contract can have class based pre and post conditions. Think at this scenario. You’re building a proxy using WEBRick framework and you want to honor the http_proxy environment variable. If you translate this in coat, reading that variable from environment will be your class pre-condition.

This way the HelloWorld class post condition is that in anycase, no matter if in private methods the class will compute pi up to 10 digits, or it make some password cracking using rainbow tables, as output you will have “Hello world” wrote to standard output.

Please note that write, to stdout are both keywords saying that there’is an expected output on screen. When files will be supported too, you will find something like “write something to filename

Your class public API exposed

After class pre and post conditions there is the block where all the magic happens: the public API declaration.

Here you must declare all your public methods with their own pre and post conditions. Please bear in mind that you’re the boss, so if you want to add other public methods to your class invalidating the contract you can. coat won’t introduce runtime checks, we’re in a free world so you may decide later to write a different code than the one the compiler mocked up or even leave BDD and TDD for your code.

The method declaration is very rubish and it follows the same scheme applied to contract. One or more pre-conditions saying which constraints your method parameters have and one or more post-conditions saying the expected values or actions.

def say_hello:
    "Hello world"

coat would produce a method skeleton like:

def say_hello
  ret= "" 
  # put your code here

  post(ret, "Hello world")

pre and post will be class extensions I will add extending Class and they would make some rspec like checks.

A more complex example can be something like:

def read_value_from_form:
    param name must be a String
    param zip must be an Integer and a zip_code
    write User to table Accounts
    write "success" to stdout

In this scenario you’re describing a public read_value_from_form accepting 2 value as parameters: a string (name) and a zip code (zip). The idea is to apply Owasp Esapi for Ruby encoders to params

coat would translate this contract definition this way.

def read_value_from_form(name, zip)
  pre(name, String.class)
  pre(zip, Integer.class)
  pre(zip, Owasp::Esapi::ZipCode.validate)

  ret = ""
  ret_save = false

  # put your code here

  ret_save =
  post(ret, "success")
  post(ret_save, true)

State of art: what coat is able to do, today?

I started the project a week ago and there is no ruby code generation at the moment. So no ruby class nor test case are generated so far.

At the moment, “hello_world.coat” passes both the lexer than parser tests and this is fine for the first post about coat.

Next actions must be of course ruby skeleton generation and implementing pre and post Class extensions.

coat grammar is very unstable so you may expect some changes will happen almost every day.

If you want to join the project, you can fork the archive or if you want to read about it don’t miss the posts I’m writing about coat.

Enjoy it!

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