Fuzzing Zig Code Using AFL++

- Programming - Zig - Fuzzing

After using code coverage information and real-world files to improve an audio metadata parser I am writing in Zig, the next step was to fuzz test it in order to ensure that crashes, memory leaks, etc were ironed out as much as possible.

The problem was that I had no idea how to fuzz Zig code. While Zig uses LLVM and therefore in theory has access to libFuzzer, the necessary integration with SanitizerCoverage has yet to be implemented (see also this comment on a closed PR), so I figured I would try to to find another avenue in the meantime.

Treating zig code as a black box

I thought I’d look into trying afl++ which has support for fuzzing ‘black box’ binaries, meaning it has modes that are intended to allow fuzzing binaries for which no source code is available. This wouldn’t be ideal, but it’d at least be a start. To try this, I wrote a fuzz.zig and compiled it as an executable with libc linked (linking libc seemed to be necessary for this to work):

const std = @import("std");
const audiometa = @import("audiometa");

pub fn main() !void {
    // Setup an allocator that will detect leaks/use-after-free/etc
    var gpa = std.heap.GeneralPurposeAllocator(.{}){};
    // this will check for leaks and crash the program if it finds any
    defer std.debug.assert(gpa.deinit() == false);
    const allocator = &gpa.allocator;

    // Read the data from stdin
    const stdin =;
    const data = try stdin.readToEndAlloc(allocator, std.math.maxInt(usize));
    var stream_source ={ .buffer = };

    // Try to parse the data
    var metadata = try audiometa.metadata.readAll(allocator, &stream_source);
    defer metadata.deinit();

With this, I tried a few of the black-box options that afl++ has:

And with that, I was off to the races. There was a heavy runtime penalty to running in this mode, but it was able to catch many problems that were subsequently solved:

Despite the success, I felt that things could be improved.

Treating zig code as a static library

Normally, afl++ relies on compiling source code with its own patched compilers in order to instrument the fuzzed binary. This approach wouldn’t work for Zig code, but I noticed that afl++ has a ‘LTO (link time optimization) mode’ that instruments the binary at link-time rather than compile-time (with the caveat that the objects must be compiled with LTO enabled). Fortunately, Zig has support for compiling with LTO enabled via the -flto flag.

So, my idea was to compile the Zig code as a static library with LTO enabled, and then use the afl-clang-lto compiler to compile a normal C program that calls the Zig library. This ended up looking like:

const std = @import("std");
const audiometa = @import("audiometa");

// export the zig function so that it can be called from C
export fn fuzz_zig_main() void {
    // code omitted--it's the same as the previous example,
    // but with the try's swapped out for catch unreachable's
// fuzz_lib.h
void fuzz_zig_main();
// fuzz.c
#include "fuzz_lib.h"

int main() {
    return 0;

I was then able to compile the Zig portion as a static library:

and then compile the C portion via afl-clang-lto and link in the Zig portion:

$ afl-clang-lto -o fuzz.o -c fuzz.c
$ afl-clang-lto -o fuzz fuzz.o -Lzig-out/lib -laudiometa-fuzz
afl-llvm-lto++3.15a by Marc "vanHauser" Heuse <>
AUTODICTIONARY: 10 strings found
[+] Instrumented 3426 locations with no collisions (on average 88 collisions would be in afl-gcc/vanilla AFL) (non-hardened mode).

This resulting binary could then be fuzzed as normal:

$ afl-fuzz -i path/to/inputs -o path/to/outputs -- ./fuzz

This hugely improved execution speed–it went from around 500/sec to around 9000/sec. This seemed great, but I still thought there were some unnecessary steps involved.

Skipping the C code

Instead of linking the Zig code with C code, I wondered if it was possible to compile only the Zig code and then use afl-clang-lto to transform the compiled Zig into an executable, thereby getting the instrumentation without having to compile any C code. It turns out this is very possible if you:

Here’s an example with some contrived and intentionally buggy code:

const std = @import("std");

fn cMain() callconv(.C) void {
    main() catch unreachable;

comptime {
    @export(cMain, .{ .name = "main", .linkage = .Strong });

pub fn main() !void {
    var gpa = std.heap.GeneralPurposeAllocator(.{}){};
    // this will check for leaks and crash the program if it finds any
    defer std.debug.assert(gpa.deinit() == false);
    const allocator = &gpa.allocator;

    const stdin =;
    const data = try stdin.readToEndAlloc(allocator, std.math.maxInt(usize));

    if (data.len == 0) return;

    switch (data[0]) {
        0 => {
            // alloc without free
            _ = try allocator.alloc(u8, 10);
        1 => {
            // returning an error
            return error.BadInput;
        else => {},

To build:

$ zig build-lib -static -fcompiler-rt -flto fuzz.zig
$ afl-clang-lto -o fuzz libfuzz.a

And then run the fuzzer:

$ afl-fuzz -i input -o output -- ./fuzz
total execs : 113k │ total crashes : 13.5k (2 unique)

We can also verify that the resulting crash files trigger the buggy code as expected:

$ ./fuzz < 'output/default/crashes/id:000000,sig:06,src:000000,time:2,op:havoc,rep:4'
error(gpa): memory address 0x7ffff7ffb000 leaked: 
$ ./fuzz < 'output/default/crashes/id:000001,sig:06,src:000000,time:8,op:havoc,rep:8'
thread 2903735 panic: attempt to unwrap error: BadInput

Integrating with build.zig

There are probably better ways to do this, but here’s what I was able to come up with:

const std = @import("std");

pub fn build(b: * !void {
    // The library
    const fuzz_lib = b.addStaticLibrary("fuzz-lib", "fuzz.zig");
    fuzz_lib.want_lto = true;
    fuzz_lib.bundle_compiler_rt = true;

    // Setup the output name
    const fuzz_executable_name = "fuzz";
    const fuzz_exe_path = try std.fs.path.join(b.allocator, &.{ b.cache_root, fuzz_executable_name });

    // We want `afl-clang-lto -o path/to/output path/to/library`
    const fuzz_compile = b.addSystemCommand(&.{ "afl-clang-lto", "-o", fuzz_exe_path });
    // Add the path to the library file to afl-clang-lto's args

    // Install the cached output to the install 'bin' path
    const fuzz_install = b.addInstallBinFile(.{ .path = fuzz_exe_path }, fuzz_executable_name);

    // Add a top-level step that compiles and installs the fuzz executable
    const fuzz_compile_run = b.step("fuzz", "Build executable for fuzz testing using afl-clang-lto");

With this, running

zig build fuzz

Would build an executable named fuzz and put it into the ‘bin’ install path (zig-out/bin by default) that can then be used with afl-fuzz (note that the compile step requires afl-clang-lto to be installed on the system).

It’s also possible with this setup to easily build a second Zig executable (with the same code) for debugging the crashes as mentioned above. To do this, you could add the following to the build.zig:

// Compile a companion exe for debugging crashes
const fuzz_debug_exe = b.addExecutable("fuzz-debug", "fuzz.zig");

// Only install fuzz-debug when the fuzz step is run
const install_fuzz_debug_exe = b.addInstallArtifact(fuzz_debug_exe);

This will build a fuzz-debug executable and install it next to the fuzz executable. When the fuzzer detects a bug, you can then get a proper stack trace by running the offending input through fuzz-debug:

$ ./zig-out/bin/fuzz-debug < 'output/default/crashes/id:000000,sig:06,src:000000,time:2,op:havoc,rep:4'
error(gpa): memory address 0x7ffff7ff8000 leaked: 
/home/ryan/Programming/zig/tmp/fuzz/fuzz.zig:25:36: 0x205ec3 in main (fuzz-debug)
            _ = try allocator.alloc(u8, 10);
/home/ryan/Programming/zig/zig/build/lib/zig/std/start.zig:510:37: 0x229a3a in std.start.callMain (fuzz-debug)
            const result = root.main() catch |err| {

A complete example can be found here:

And an example that fuzz tests parts of the Zig standard library can be found here:

Wrapping up

Hopefully the methods detailed here can serve as a stop-gap until Zig gets more fuzzing capabilities built-in. Funnily enough, the slower FRIDA mode I used initially may have caught all of the bugs in my audio metadata parsing library (or at least all of the low-hanging ones), as after the speedups from the static library/object file methods I haven’t been able to trigger any more crashes.