Dynamic Symbolic Execution

Dynamic symbolic execution is a hybrid approach to software analysis, combining dynamic and static analysis. While dynamic symbolic execution can produce false negatives, it does not produce false positives - all of its assertions are real. Dynamic symbolic execution provides guided inputs to a program in an attempt to uncover all inputs to traverse all paths of execution.


The motivation behind dynamic symbolic execution is as follows:

  • Provide automated test generation
  • Generate a regression test suite
  • Execute all reachable statements
  • Catch any assertion violations


Dynamic symbolic execution's approach to software analysis is as follows:

  • Stores program state concretely and symbolically
  • Solves constraints to guide execution at branch points
  • Explores all execution paths of the unit tested

Execution paths of a program

We can envision the execution paths of a program as a binary tree with possibly infinite depth - a computation tree. Each node of the computation tree represents the execution of a conditional statement, and each edge represents the execution of a sequence of non-conditional statements.

Each path in the tree represents an equivalence class of inputs. The point of dynamic symbolic execution is to discover non-equivalent inputs to uncover new tree branches and paths.

Symbolic execution

Given a series of branches and their condition statements, instead of brute-forcing the correct value to satisfy a condition statement to take a branch, symbolic execution leverages theorem provers to determine values that satisfy symbolic constraints.

With this, we avoid using concrete values for inputs, opting for symbols, and we execute the program symbolically to resolve input values for program paths. One problem exists, however. Due to the number of possible branch conditions within a program, symbolic execution is susceptible to path explosion.

Combined approach

Dynamic symbolic execution or concolic execution is our hybrid approach because it leverages concrete values during its analysis, while also conducting symbolic analysis of a specific program under test. Concolic exeuction starts with random input values, keeping track of both concrete values and symbolic constraints. To assist in proving that a branch can be taken symbolically, a dynamic symbolic execution engine will proceed to simplify its symbolic constraints with concrete values. This helps to avoid issues like path explosion, however, this also requires the engine to use an incomplete theorem prover.

Characteristics of DSE

The following are characteristics of dynamic symbolic execution:

  • Automated, white-box
  • Systematic input searching
  • Path-sensitive
  • Non-sampled instrumentation