Pulse Basics

A Pulse program is embedded in an F* program, where the Pulse parts are delimited by a syntax extension marker “```pulse … ```”, as shown in the program below.

let fstar_five : int = 5

fn five ()
  requires emp
  returns n:int
  ensures pure (n == 5)

let pulse_five_in_fstar = five ()

This program starts with a bit of regular F* defining fstar_five followed by an a Pulse function five that references that F* definition and proves that it always returns the constant 5. Finally, we have a bit of regular F* referencing the five defined in Pulse. This is a really simple program, but it already illustrates how Pulse and F* interact in both directions.

In what follows, unless we really want to emphasize that a fragment of code is Pulse embedded in a larger F* context, when showing Pulse code, we’ll just show the Pulse part, omitting the “```pulse … ```” delimiters.

A Separation Logic Primer

Separation Logic was invented by John Reynolds, Peter O’Hearn, and others in the late 1990s as a way to reason about imperative programs that use shared, mutable data structures, e.g., linked lists and graphs—see this paper for an introduction to separation logic. In the subsequent decades, several innovations were added to separation logic by many people, generalizing it beyond just sequential heap-manipulating programs to distributed programs, concurrent programs, asynchronous programs, etc. that manipulate abstract resources of various kinds, including time and space, messages sent over communication channels, etc.

Much like other Hoare Logics, which we reviewed in an earlier section, separation logic comes in two parts.

Separation Logic Propositions First, we have a language of propositions that describe properties about program resources, e.g., the heap. These propositions have the type vprop in Pulse, 1 and, under the covers in the SteelCore semantics of Pulse, a vprop = state -> prop, where state represents the state of a program, e.g., the contents of memory. It is useful (at least at first) to think of a vprop as a memory property, though we will eventually treat it more abstractly and use it to model many other kinds of resources.

Separation Logic Hoare Triples To connect vprop’s to programs, separation logics use Hoare triples to describe the action of a program on its state. For example, the Hoare triple { p } c { n. q } describes a program c which when run in an initial state s0 satisfying p s0 (i.e., p is a precondition); c returns a value n while transforming the state to s1 satisfying q n s1 (i.e., q is a postcondition). Pulse’s program logic is a partial-correctness logic, meaning that c may also loop forever, deadlock with other threads, etc.

Some simple vprops and triples: Here are two of the simplest

vprops (defined in Pulse.Lib.Pervasives):

  • emp, the trivial proposition (equivalent to fun s -> True).

  • pure p, heap-independent predicate fun s -> p. emp is equivalent to pure True.

The type of the program five illustrates how these vprop’s are used in program specifications:

  • It is a function with a single unit argument—Pulse functions use the keyword fn.

  • The precondition is just emp, the trivial assertion in separation logic, i.e., five can be called in any initial state.

  • The return value is an integer n:int

  • The postcondition may refer to the name of the return value (n in this case) and here claims that the final state satisfies the pure proposition, n == 5.

In other words, the type signature in Pulse is a convenient way to write the Hoare triple { emp } five () { n:int. pure (n == 5) }.

Ownership At this point you may wonder if the postcondition of five is actually strong enough. We’ve only said that the return value n == 5 but have not said anything about the state that results from calling five (). Perhaps this specification allows five to arbitrarily change any memory location in the state, since pure (5 == 5) is true of any state. 2 If you’re familiar with Low*, Dafny, or other languages based on Hoare logic for heaps, you may be wondering about how come we haven’t specified a modifies-clause, describing exactly which part of the state a function may have changed. The nice thing in separation logic is that there is no need to describe what parts of the state you may have modified. This is because a central idea in logic is the concept of ownership. To a first approximation, a computation can only access those resources that it is explicitly granted access to in its precondition or those that it creates itself. 3 In this case, with a precondition of emp, the function five does not have permission to access any resources, and so five simply cannot modify the state in any observable way.

Separating Conjunction and the Frame Rule Let’s go back to incr and par_incr that we saw in the previous section and look at their types closely. We’ll need to introduce two more common vprop’s, starting with the “points-to” predicate:

  • pts_to x v asserts that the reference x points to a cell in the current state that holds the value v.

vprop’s can also be combined in various ways, the most common one being the “separating conjunction”, written ** in Pulse. 4

  • p ** q, means that the state can be split into two disjoint fragments satisfying p and q, respectively. Alternatively, one could read p ** q as meaning that one holds the permissions associated with both p and q separately in a given state. The ** operator satisfies the following laws:

    • Commutativity: p ** q is equivalent to q ** p

    • Associativity: p ** (q ** r) is equivalent to (p ** q) ** r

    • Left and right unit: p ** emp is equivalent to p. Since ** is commutative, this also means that emp ** p is equivalent to p

Now, perhaps the defining characteristic of separation logic is how the ** operator works in the program logic, via a key rule known as the frame rule. The rule says that if you can prove the Hoare triple { p } c { n. q }, then, for any other f : vprop, you can also prove { p ** f } c { n. q ** f }f is often called the “frame”. It might take some time to appreciate, but the frame rule captures the essence of local, modular reasoning. Roughly, it states that if a program is correct when it only has permission p on the input state, then it remains correct when run in a larger state and is guaranteed to preserve any property (f) on the part of the state that it doesn’t touch.

With this in mind, let’s look again at the type of incr, which requires permission only to x and increments it:

fn incr (x:ref int)
requires pts_to x 'i
ensures pts_to x ('i + 1)
    let v = !x;
    x := v + 1;

Because of the frame rule, we can also call incr in a context like incr_frame below, and we can prove without any additional work that y is unchanged.

fn incr_frame (x y:ref int)
requires pts_to x 'i ** pts_to y 'j
ensures pts_to x ('i + 1) ** pts_to y 'j
   incr x;

In fact, Pulse lets us use the frame rule with any f:vprop, and we get, for free, that incr x does not disturb f.

fn incr_frame_any (x:ref int) (f:vprop)
requires pts_to x 'i ** f
ensures pts_to x ('i + 1) ** f
   incr x;

A point about the notation: The variable 'i is an implicitly bound logical variable, representing the value held in the ref-cell x in the initial state. In this case, 'i has type FStar.Ghost.erased int—we learned about erased types in a previous section. One can also bind logical variables explicitly, e.g., this is equivalent:

fn incr_explicit_i (x:ref int) (i:erased int)
requires pts_to x i
ensures pts_to x (i + 1)
    let v = !x;
    x := v + 1;

Other vprop connectives In addition the separating conjunction, Pulse, like other separation logics, provides other ways to combine vprops. We’ll look at these in detail in the subsequent chapters, but we list the most common other connectives below just to give you a taste of the logic.

  • exists* (x1:t1) ... (xn:tn). p: Existential quantification is used extensively in the Pulse libraries, and the language provides many tools to make existentials convenient to use. exists x. p is valid in a state s if there is a witness w such that p [w/x] is valid in s. For experts, existential quantification is impredicative, in the sense that one can quantify over vprops themselves, i.e., exists* (p:vprop). q is allowed.

  • forall* (x1:t1) ... (xn:tn). p: Universal quantification is also supported, though less commonly used. forall (x:t). p is valid in s if p[w/x] is valid for all values w:t. Like existential quantification, it is also impredicative.

  • p @==> q is a form of separating implication similar to an operator called a magic wand or a view shift in other separation logics.

Pulse does not yet provide libraries for conjunction or disjunction. However, since Pulse is embedded in F*, new vprops can also be defined by the user and it is common to do so, e.g., recursively defined predicates, or variants of the connectives described above.


They are called vprop for mostly historical reasons. A version of the Steel separation logic on which Pulse is based allows associating a value with a separation logic proposition, so these came to be known as “value” propositions. However, Pulse does not make use of this feature—perhaps a better name in Pulse would be slprop, for separation logic proposition.


For experts, Pulse’s separation logic is affine.


When we get to things like invariants and locks, we’ll see how permissions can be acquired by other means.


In the separation logic literature, separating conjunction is written p * q, with just a single star. We use two stars ** to avoid a clash with multiplication.