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Object Capabilities

Pony’s capabilities-secure type system is based on the object-capability model. That sounds complicated, but really it’s elegant and simple. The core idea is this:

A capability is an unforgeable token that (a) designates an object and (b) gives the program the authority to perform a specific set of actions on that object.

So what’s that token? It’s an address. A pointer. A reference. It’s just… an object.

How is that unforgeable?

Since Pony has no pointer arithmetic and is both type-safe and memory-safe, object references can’t be “invented” (i.e. forged) by the program. You can only get one by constructing an object or being passed an object.

What about the C-FFI? Using the C-FFI can break this guarantee. We’ll talk about the C-FFI trust boundary later, and how to control it.

What about global variables?

They’re bad! Because you can get them without either constructing them or being passed them.

Global variables are a form of what is called ambient authority. Another form of ambient authority is unfettered access to the file system.

Pony has no global variables and no global functions. That doesn’t mean all ambient authority is magically gone - we still need to be careful about the file system, for example. Having no global variables is necessary, but not sufficient, to eliminate ambient authority.

How does this help?

Instead of having permissions lists, access control lists, or other forms of security, the object-capabilities model means that if you have a reference to an object, you can do things with that object. Simple and effective.

There’s a great paper on how the object-capability model works, and it’s pretty easy reading:

Capability Myths Demolished

Capabilities and concurrency

The object-capability model on its own does not address concurrency. It makes clear what will happen if there is simultaneous access to an object, but it does not prescribe a single method of controlling this.

Combining capabilities with the actor-model is a good start, and has been done before in languages such as E and Joule.

Pony does this and also uses a system of reference capabilities in the type system.