Introduction to mCRL2

mCRL2 stands for micro Common Representation Language 2. It is a specification language that can be used to specify and analyse the behaviour of distributed systems and protocols and is the successor to µCRL. Extensive theory is available for verifying processes manually. A major part of this theory has been implemented in the accompanying toolset, allowing automatic analysis and verification of systems.


mCRL2 is based on the Algebra of Communicating Processes (ACP) which is extended to include data and time. Like in every process algebra, a fundamental concept in mCRL2 is the process. Processes can perform actions and can be composed to form new processes using algebraic operators. A system usually consists of several processes (or components) in parallel.

A process can carry data as its parameters. The state of a process is a specific combination of parameter values. This state may influence the possible actions that the process can perform. In turn, the execution of an action may result in a state change. Every process has a corresponding state space or Labelled Transition System (LTS) which contains all states that the process can reach, along with the possible transitions between those states.

Using the algebraic operators, very complex processes can be constructed containing, for example, lots of parallelism. A central notion in mCRL2 is the linear process. This is a process from which all parallelism has been removed to produce a series of condition - action - effect rules. Complex systems, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of processes, can be translated to a single linear process. Even for systems with an infinite state space, the linear process (being an abstract representation of that state space) is finite and can often be obtained very easily. Therefore, most tools in the mCRL2 toolset operate on linear processes rather than on state spaces.

Model checking is provided using Parameterised Boolean Equation Systems (PBES). Given a linear process and a formula that expresses some desired behaviour of the process, a PBES can be generated. The solution to this PBES indicates whether the formula holds on the process or not. An attempt can be made to remove data from a PBES in order to obtain a BES, which is often easier to solve.


Around 1980 many process algebras were designed to model behaviour. Most notably were CCS (Calculus of Communicating Systems, Milner), ACP (Algebra of Communicating Processes, Bergstra and Klop) and CSP (Communicating Sequential Processes, Hoare). These process algebras were mainly used as an object of study, mainly due to their lack of proper data types.

In order to use these languages for actual modelling of behaviour a number of process algebraic specifiation languages have been designed, which invariably were extended with equational datatypes. The most well known is LOTOS (Language of Temporal Ordering Specifications , Brinksma), but others are PSF (Process Specification Formalism, Mauw and Veltink) and µCRL (micro Common Representation Language, Groote and Ponse).

Unfortunately, the use of abstract data types made these languages unpleasant when it came to the specification of complex behaviour. Therefore, we designed the language mCRL2 (the successor of µCRL) to contain exactly those data types that one would expect when writing specifications, namely Bool, Pos, Nat, Int, Real, lists, sets, bags, functions and functional data types. These data types are machine independent. For instance there is no upperbound on natural numbers, sets are not necessarily finite, quantification can be used within boolean terms and lambda abstraction is part of the language. Furthermore, the language features time and multi-actions, which were not present in most of the process specification languages of the previous generation.

Note that mCRL2 is extremely rich and it is easy to express non-computable behavioural specifications in it. Typically, for those specifications, tool supported analysis will not be very fruitful. The advanced use of mCRL2 requires a good understanding of the language, the underlying notions and even of the implementation of the analysis tools. For more straightforward use this is not needed. An effective rule of thumb is that everything that could be done using languages such as LOTOS, PSF and µCRL, can be done without a problem using mCRL2.

Toolset overview

An overview of the mCRL2 toolset is given in the picture below. It shows the main concepts that play a role (in blue) and the operations that can be performed on these concepts (in red). In the toolset, a file format is associated with every concept and operations are implemented in tools. In order to get a feeling for the relevant concepts and tools, we describe the workflow of a typical analysis using mCRL2 below.

All tools can be accessed via a command-line interface. Another possibility is to use the mcrl2-gui tool which provides access to the tools via a GUI.


The rest of this section describes the different categories of tools that are part of mCRL2.

mCRL2 specification and linearisation

Every analysis starts off by specifying the behaviour of the system being studied. This can be any kind of system, though the main application of mCRL2 is in distributed software systems. The specification can be seen as a model of the real system: it is a simplified, or abstracted version of reality. Obtaining a specification that is faithful to the real system is far from trivial and beyond the scope of this overview.

An mCRL2 specification is a plain-text file containing a model in the mCRL2 language. It can be created using any text editor. For a description of the mCRL2 language we refer to the Language reference.

Typically, the specification of a distributed system contains several processes that run in parallel. The first step in the mCRL2 analysis process is to linearise this specification to obtain a Linear Process Specification (LPS). This is an mCRL2 specification from which all parallelism has been removed. All that remains is a series of condition – action – effect rules that specify how the system as a whole reacts to certain stimuli given its current state. Because of its much simpler form, the LPS is much more suitable for automated analysis than an mCRL2 specification. Therefore, most tools in the mCRL2 toolset operate on LPSs.

The main tool for linearisation is mcrl22lps. Given an mCRL2 specification, it produces an equivalent LPS on which other tools can be run. We investigate these tools below.

LPS tools

An LPS is stored in a binary file format for efficiency. After having obtained an LPS, a very useful analysis method is by simulating the model. Starting from the initial state, sequences of actions can be performed which can quickly reveal unexpected or erroneous behaviour. It is also a good way of getting acquainted with the modelled behaviour.

The mCRL2 toolset contains two tools for simulation of an LPS: lpssim (command-line interface) and xsim (graphical user interface).

Some statistical information about an LPS can be collected using the lpsinfo tool. The LPS itself can also be printed in a pretty, human-readable format. The tool for this task is lpspp.

In essence, the LPS is a symbolic (or implicit) representation of the state space or labelled transition system (LTS) that describes the behaviour of the system explicitly. This LTS can be constructed from the LPS using a state space generator. In mCRL2 the tool that performs this task is lps2lts.

As state space generation can take a lot of time, it is often beneficial to reduce the LPS or make it more suitable for state space generation. Several tools are available for this, of which we mention a few here: lpssumelm, lpssuminst, lpsparelm, lpsconstelm and lpsrewr.

LTS tools

Once an LTS has been generated from an LPS, it can be visualised in several ways using interactive GUI tools. The most straightforward way of visualising an LTS is by showing it as a node-link diagram or graph. The ltsgraph tool performs this task. It can reorganise the produced image using a force-directed algorithm.

The picture produced by ltsgraph can become very cluttered for larger LTSs. Another LTS visualisation tool is ltsview which employs a clustering technique to reduce the complexity of the image. It produces a 3D visualisation of the LTS and aims to show symmetry in the behaviour of the system.

The tool diagraphica also clusters states to reduce complexity, producing a 2D image. It clusters states based on state parameter values, instead of on structural properties like ltsview.

Apart from these visualisation tools, a powerful tool is ltsconvert which can reduce an LTS modulo various equivalences. This often produces an LTS that is dramatically smaller than the original LTS, while important properties are maintained. The tool can also convert between the various LTS file formats (.aut, .lts and .fsm). The .aut and .fsm formats are human readable, but do not contain the data and action declarations from the mcrl2 specificaton. The .fsm format extends the .aut format in that it contains state labels. The .lts format contains all the declarations from the mcrl2 file, and by default all state labels. The tool ltspbisim can reduce probabilistic state spaces modulo strong bisimulation.

An equally powerful tool is ltscompare which can check whether two LTSs are behaviourally equivalent or similar using various notions of equivalence/similarity.

The tool lts2lps can transform an LTS into an LPS, such that symbolic computation can be continued, e.g. after minimisation.

Model checking using PBESs

The aforementioned tools aid in getting more insight into the behaviour specified by an mCRL2 specification. However, a system’s analysis often involves showing that the modelled system exhibits certain desired properties (or does not exhibit undesired ones). This can be done using model-checking techniques, which are very powerful verification methods.

In mCRL2, model checking is provided using parameterised boolean equation systems (PBESs). As mentioned before, the central notion in mCRL2 is the LPS. Not surprisingly, model checking also starts off with an LPS, which contains a symbolic specification of the system’s behaviour.

The other input needed for model checking, is a formula expressing a desired property that the system should not violate (or satisfy). Such formulas are expressed in the regular modal μ-calculus (extended with data) and can be entered into a plain-text file using any text editor. The syntax of these formulas is described in the Language reference.

Given an LPS and a formula, the tool lps2pbes produces a PBES in which the model checking question of “does the formula hold for this LPS?” is encoded. The PBES is stored in a binary file format. By solving the PBES, an answer to this question can be found. The main tool for trying to solve a PBES is pbes2bool. It attempts to solve a given PBES and (if successful) returns either true or false.

Note that solving PBESs is generally undecidable, so the attempt may fail. In this case, more in-depth analysis of the PBES may be required. The tool pbespp is provided to pretty print a PBES in a human-readable format. Statistical information can be obtained using pbesinfo and the PBES can be simplified using pbesrewr. Furthermore some tools for simplifying the PBES are available, such as pbesparelm and pbesconstelm.

Integration with other tools

The mCRL2 can be used as a language front-end for the LTSmin toolset. Furthermore, a number of textual file formats are available, that facilitate easy integration with other tools. Examples are the The aut format for labelled transition systems, that is, e.g., supported by CADP. The CWI format for Boolean equation systems, and finally, the GM file format, which is supported by the PGSolver tools.

Finally, some tools may profit from the use of an external SMT solver. For this purpose, mCRL2 can use the CVC3 automatic theorem prover for SMT problems.