Resolving and Exploiting the k-CFA Paradox.
Matthew Might, Yannis Smaragdakis, and David Van Horn.
The ACM SIGPLAN 2010 Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation (PLDI'10), Toronto, Canada, June 2010.


Low-level program analysis is a fundamental problem, taking the shape of "flow analysis" in functional languages and "points-to" analysis in imperative and object-oriented languages. Despite the similarities, the vocabulary and results in the two communities remain largely distinct, with limited cross-understanding. One of the few links is Shivers's k-CFA work, which has advanced the concept of "context-sensitive analysis" and is widely known in both communities.

Recent results indicate that the relationship between the functional and object-oriented incarnations of k-CFA is not as well understood as thought. Van Horn and Mairson proved k-CFA for k ≥ 1 to be EXPTIME-complete; hence, no polynomial-time algorithm can exist. Yet, there are several polynomial-time formulations of context-sensitive points-to analyses in object-oriented languages. Thus, it seems that functional k-CFA may actually be a profoundly different analysis from object-oriented k-CFA. We resolve this paradox by showing that the exact same specification of k-CFA is polynomial-time for object-oriented languages yet exponential-time for functional ones: objects and closures are subtly different, in a way that interacts crucially with context-sensitivity and complexity. This illumination leads to an immediate payoff: by projecting the object-oriented treatment of objects onto closures, we derive a polynomial-time hierarchy of context-sensitive CFAs for functional programs.