Inter-procedural Control Flow Graphs (ICFGs)

When possible, eliminating a bug category with a pattern is ideal for static assurance. We saw this when exploring stack safety and MISRA C 17.21 ("no recursion") in Chapter 4, Section 2.

What impact does recursion have on the more general case, arbitrary static analysis and/or verification tooling?

Technically, it depends. Realistically, many useful tools need to build a static Inter-procedural Control Flow Graph (ICFG). Because it's a "backbone" common analysis algorithms run on. And because understanding all possible call sequences often enables judgments about all possible executions.

We're going to consider 3 ICFGs of increasing complexity. First, our MISRA C 17.2-compatible, iterative program from Chapter 4.2:

Iterative program ICFG - a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG)

  • This is a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG). For analysis authors, this graph enables certain algorithms or possibilities.

    • Example: topological sort2, which can be used to represent a valid sequence of tasks, requires a DAG.

Next, our initial, recursive version (also from 4.2):

Recursive program ICFG - a Directed Graph (DG)

  • This is a Directed Graph (DG). For some analysis authors, a problem just got harder. They may be forced to over-approximate (allow false positives) or relax guarantees (weaker analysis).

    • Example: static calculation of a program's worst case stack utilization.

There's also mutual recursion, where two or more functions call each other. Let's just consider it an even less desirable variation of the prior recursive version:

Mutually recursive program ICFG - a Directed Graph (DG) variation.

A DAG vs DG comparison is intentionally vague, we can't really make any claims about static analyzers as a whole - there probably exist thousands of static analyzers serving hundreds of use cases. But it helps build an intuition. Imagine writing logic to traverse these graphs - a DAG avoids edge cases.


Recursion isn't only a problem for runtime memory exhaustion. It impacts a program's Inter-procedural Control Flow Graph (ICFG), generally hindering static analysis.


MISRA C: 2012 Guidelines for the use of the C language in critical systems (3rd edition). MISRA (2019).


Topological sorting. Wikipedia (Accessed 2023).