Make sure compatible values have the same type. For example, when the return value of one function is used as an argument to another function, make sure they are the same type. Ensuring compatible values have the same type allows the return value to be passed as an argument to the related function without conversion, reducing the potential for conversion errors.

Noncompliant Code Example

A source of potential errors may be traced to POSIX's tendency to overload return codes, using −1 to indicate an error condition but 0 for success and positive values as a result indicator (see ERR02-C. Avoid in-band error indicators). A good example is the read() system call. This leads to a natural mixing of unsigned and signed quantities, potentially leading to conversion errors.

OpenSSH performs most I/O calls through a "retry on interrupt" function, atomicio(). The following is a slightly simplified version of atomicio.c, v 1.12 2003/07/31. The function f() is either read() or vwrite():

ssize_t atomicio(f, fd, _s, n)
  ssize_t (*f) (int, void *, size_t);
  int fd;
  void *_s;
  size_t n;
  char *s = _s;
  ssize_t res, pos = 0;

  while (n > pos) {
    res = (f) (fd, s + pos, n - pos);
    switch (res) {
      case -1:
         if (errno == EINTR || errno == EAGAIN)
      case 0:
        return (res);
        pos += res;
   return (pos);

This function has a large number of flaws. Pertinent to this recommendation, however, are the following:

  • The atomicio() function returns an ssize_t (which must be a signed type). The ssize_t type is a clear indication of poor interface design because a size should never be negative.
  • Both res and pos are declared as ssize_t.
  • The expression n - pos results in the conversion of pos from a signed to an unsigned type because of the usual arithmetic conversions (see INT02-C. Understand integer conversion rules).

Compliant Solution

The atomicio() function from atomicio.c, v 1.25 2007/06/25, was modified to always return an unsigned quantity and to instead report its error via errno:

size_t atomicio(ssize_t (*f) (int, void *, size_t),
                int fd, void *_s, size_t n) {
  char *s = _s;
  size_t pos = 0;
  ssize_t res;
  struct pollfd pfd;

  pfd.fd = fd; = f == read ? POLLIN : POLLOUT;
  while (n > pos) {
    res = (f) (fd, s + pos, n - pos);
    switch (res) {
      case -1:
        if (errno == EINTR)
        if (errno == EAGAIN) {
          (void)poll(&pfd, 1, -1);
        return 0;
      case 0:
        errno = EPIPE;
        return pos;
        pos += (size_t)res;
  return (pos);

Changes to this version of the atomicio() function include the following:

  • The atomicio() function now returns a value of type size_t.
  • pos is now declared as size_t.
  • The assignment pos += (size_t)res now requires an explicit cast to convert from the signed return value of f() to size_t.
  • The expression n - pos no longer requires an implicit conversion.

Reducing the need to use signed types makes it easier to enable the compiler's signed/unsigned comparison warnings and fix all of the issues it reports (see MSC00-C. Compile cleanly at high warning levels).

Risk Assessment

The risk in using in-band error indicators is difficult to quantify and is consequently given as low. However, if the use of in-band error indicators results in programmers' failing to check status codes or incorrectly checking them, the consequences can be more severe.




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Related Vulnerabilities

Search for vulnerabilities resulting from the violation of this rule on the CERT website.

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1 Comment

  1. The compliant solution creates a difficult-to-use API due to issues described in ERR30-C. A better compliant solution would explicitly set errno to 0 before returning pos.