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wala.core technical overview

WALA provides a framework for flow-insensitive Andersen-style pointer analysis. You can customize the pointer analysis context-sensitivity policy in various ways. We often find that for a particular client application, it is useful to customize the pointer analysis policy to focus analysis effort where it matters.

Currently all pointer analysis implementations perform on-the-fly call graph construction.

A pointer analysis context-sensitivity policy can vary in two dimensions:

  • HeapModel: how does the pointer analysis model abstract pointers and heap locations?
  • ContextSelector: how does the call graph construction clone methods based on context?

You can define your own pointer analysis policy by customizing a heap model and context selector. Also WALA provides a number of built-in policies.


Heap Model

A HeapModel tells the WALA pointer analysis how to abstract pointers and heap locations. The key classes are

  • PointerKey: a representation of an abstract pointer
  • InstanceKey: a representation of an abstract heap location.

For example, a PointerKey may represent a local variable, or a static field, or an instance field of objects from a particular allocation site, or other variants. More technically, a PointerKey is the name for an equivalence class of pointers from the concrete program, which are collected into a single representative in the abstraction.

An InstanceKey may represent all objects of a particular type, or all objects from a particular allocation site, or all objects from a particular allocation site in a particular context, or other variants.

A HeapModel provides call-backs for the pointer analysis to create PointerKeys and InstanceKeys during analysis. You can customize the policy by providing your own HeapModel.

Heap Graph

A HeapGraph provides a convenient way to navigate the results of a pointer analysis. The nodes in a HeapGraph are PointerKeys and InstanceKeys. There is an edge from a PointerKey P to an InstanceKey I if and only if the pointer analysis indicates that P may point to I. There is an edge from an InstanceKey I to a PointerKey P if and only if P represents a field of an object instance modelled by I, or P represents the array contents of array instance I.

For example, given a HeapGraph h, suppose you want to know all the PointerKeys that may alias a particular PointerKey p. You first use h.getSuccNodes(p) to find all InstanceKeys p may point to, and for each such InstanceKey i, use h.getPredNodes(i) to find other PointerKeys that may alias p.

Context Selector

Recall that each call graph node represents a method in a particular Context. The ContextSelector object controls the policy by which the call graph builds contexts.

The simplest Context is Everywhere.EVERYWHERE, which represents a single, global context for a method.

Other context-policies can represent call-string contexts, contexts naming the receiver object to implement object-sensitivity, or other variants.

You can customize a context-sensitivity policy by providing a custom ContextSelector object.


Suppose we have a public entrypoint with the following signature:

    public static void foo(Object x, Object y)

What will pointer analysis do with the parameters to this entrypoint? In particular, what InstanceKey abstractions will the pointer analysis instantiate as the initial contents of the actual parameters x and y?

WALA's pointer analysis uses the Entrypoint interface to direct this policy. The crucial method, in the Entrypoint interface, is:

   public abstract TypeReference[] getParameterTypes(int i);

getParameterTypes(i) gives a set of types which will be instantiated for the ith parameter to the entrypoint.

For example, suppose we build an Entrypoint implementation for foo where

   getParameterTypes(0) = { java.lang.Object, java.lang.String } 
   getParameterTypes(1) = { java.lang.Integer } 

Then logically, the pointer analysis models the invocation of foo as follows:

   Object o1 = new java.lang.Object();
   Object o2 = new java.lang.String();
   Object o3 = non-determinstic-choice ? o1 : o2;
   Object o4 = new java.lang.Integer();

So, the pointer analysis will create InstanceKey abstractions according to the governing HeapModel, as if the program encounters allocations of the specified types in the FakeRootMethod.

By default, most WALA pointer analysis implementation examples use the DefaultEntrypoint implementation of Entrypoint. In this implementation, getParameterTypes(i) returns an array with a single element, which is the declared type of the ith parameter. Most production-level clients of WALA provide custom implementations of Entrypoint, specialized to the types of frameworks and clients being analyzed.

Built-in policies

Let's look at a few of WALA's built-in pointer analysis policies.


The ZeroCFA policy provides a simple, cheap, context-insensitive pointer analysis. You can get a call graph builder using the ZeroCFA policy from Util.makeZeroCFABuilder()

  • The HeapModel introduces a single InstanceKey for every concrete type. That is, all objects of a particular type are represented by a single abstract object.
  • The ContextSelector uses a single global context for each method, except for some special cases dealing with reflection, described below.


The ZeroOneCFA policy provides an approximation of "standard" Andersen's pointer analysis, using allocation sites to name abstract objects. By default,

  • The HeapModel introduces a single InstanceKey for every allocation site.

However, there are variants of ZeroOneCFA, depending on some optimizations to the heap model provided by the ZeroXInstanceKeys class. See the source for more details. Briefly:

  • VanillaZeroOneCFA (see Util.makeVanillaZeroOneCFA) turns off all optimizations; each allocation is handled separately.
  • ZeroOneCFA (see Util.makeZeroOneCFABuilder) turns on the following optimizations
    • SMUSH_STRINGS: individual String or StringBuffer allocation sites are not disambiguated. A single InstanceKey represents all String objects, and a single InstanceKey represents all StringBuffer objects.
    • SMUSH_THROWABLES: individual exception objects are disambiguated by type, and not by allocation site.
    • SMUSH_PRIMITIVE_HOLDERS: if a class has no reference fields, then all objects of that type are represented by a single InstanceKey
    • SMUSH_MANY: if there are more than k (current k=25) allocation sites of a particular type in a single method, then all these sites are represented by a single InstanceKey. For example, a library class initializer method might allocate 10,000 Font objects; this optimization will not disambiguate the 10,000 separate allocation sites.

You can customize the policies in similar ways, depending on your client's needs.


The ZeroOneContainerCFA policy (see Util.makeZeroOneContainerCFABuilder) extends the ZeroOneCFA policy with unlimited object-sensitivity for collection objects. For any allocation sites in collection objects, the allocation site is named by a tuple of allocation sites extending to the outermost enclosing collection allocation. This policy can be relatively expensive, but can be effective in disambiguating contents of standard collection classes. For this to be effective, note that ZeroOneContainer modifies the ContextSelector to clone methods based on the receiver object's object-sensitive name. The ContainerContextSelector class manages this logic, and the method ContainerUtil.isContainer() determines which classes are considered containers.

ZeroOneContainer also uses one level of call-string sensitivity for certain methods that are either factories or are known to require such precision, e.g., System.arraycopy(). ContainerContextSelector.isWellKnownStaticFactory() determines which methods get this treatment.

Contexts for Reflection

To deal with reflection, WALA uses context-sensitivity policies, even if using a context-insensitive base policy like ZeroCFA.

Currently, all built-in pointer analysis policies treat calls to Object.clone() context sensitively, using the concrete type of the receiver class as the context (see CloneContextSelector). Also, clone() has a different IR in each context, to properly model the semantics of the method for the corresponding receiver type (see CloneInterpreter).

There is also significant support for other reflective constructs like Class.forName(), Class.newInstance(), Method.invoke(), etc. See ReflectionContextSelector and ReflectionContextInterpreter for the code that manages this reflection handling, and AnalysisOptions.setReflectionOptions() for tuning the handling.

Improving Scalability

Reflection usage and the size of modern libraries / frameworks make it very difficult to scale flow-insensitive points-to analysis to modern Java programs. For example, with default settings, WALA's pointer analyses cannot handle any program linked against the Java 6 standard libraries, due to extensive reflection in the libraries. To improve scalability (at the cost of some soundness in some cases), try the following:

  • Use AnalysisScope exclusions to exclude classes / packages you know are irrelevant to the application. Exclusions are specified in an exclusions file passed to the appropriate method of AnalysisScopeReader. For an example, see Java60RegressionExclusions.txt.
  • Analyze an older version of the standard libraries, e.g., from Java 1.4.
  • Reduce the context sensitivity of the pointer analysis (see above).
  • Reduce WALA's reflection handling by calling setReflectionOptions() on the AnalysisOptions object used for pointer analysis. You may have to tinker to see what setting enables scalability for your application.

Demand-Driven Pointer Analysis

As of version 1.0.04, WALA also includes a demand-driven pointer analysis. See the demand pointer analysis page for details.

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