Debugging code

Janne Blomqvist


  • My code compiles, but… when I run it, it just says "Segmentation fault"
    • Help?!
  • This is about how to debug C/C++/Fortran/etc. code
    • python/R/Matlab etc. extensions have their own debuggers
      • Basic principles the same, details differ
  • Overview of available tools

A little aside…

  • Should you really be writing C/C++/Fortran, in 2016?
    • If you have to extend/maintain existing code, sure..
    • But for new code?
  • C wasn't state of the art in 1972, even less so today..
    • Lack of memory safety
    • Undefined- and implementation-defined behavior everywhere
    • Lots of gotchas, e.g. wrt. aliasing, signed overflow
      • New compiler optimizations frequently break old code that "used to work"
      • With a modern optimizing compiler, C is very far from the original portable macro-assembler.

What about C++ and Fortran? Alternatives?

  • C++ inherits the C mess
    • Though careful use of "modern C++" like smart pointers, RAII etc. helps
  • Fortran is a little better, but not much
    • Similarly, "modern Fortran" style avoids some common pitfalls of F77 style.
  • Looking for an alternative? Check out Rust
    • Rust goals: safety, speed, and concurrency


  • What can you do to help figure out the reason for the crash?
    • Compiler flags
    • Sanitizers and Valgrind
    • Using the debugger
    • A few other useful tools

Compiler debug options

  • Compilers have lots of switches to turn on warning and error messsages, use them!
  • For GCC: -O2 -g -Wall -Wextra -pedantic -Werror
  • GFortran: The above + -fcheck=all -ffpe-trap=invalid,zero,overflow. Note that -fcheck= makes the code a lot slower, so don't use it for production builds. Good for debugging, though. -ffpe-trap= might be problematic with LAPACK, otherwise useful. And it doesn't reduce performance either, so you can leave -ffpte-trap= on for production builds as well!
  • Intel compilers: See manual


  • Recent versions of GCC (and clang) support sanitizers
  • -fsanitize=xxx
    • address: Fast memory error detector, detect out-of-bounds access and use-after-free
    • thread: Data race detector
    • undefined: Catches many common cases of UB
  • Triton: Need a newer version of gcc than the default: module load GCC


  • Collection of debugging and profiling tools
  • Most common use is the memory error detector
  • Does not need any particular compile options (-g useful as always)
  • Slows down execution a lot => Make sure you have a testcase that runs quickly!
$ valgrind ./a.out

GDB tutorial

Introduction to GDB

  • GDB, the GNU debugger, is the standard debugger on Linux for C, C++, Fortran and several other languages that compile to native code
  • Continuously developed since 1986
  • LOTS of features; Here we concentrate on a VERY SMALL subset of the most common operations
  • Various graphical frontends also available. E.g. Eclipse, DDD.

Why use a debugger

  • printf() debugging: Insert print calls in your program, deduce where the bug is
    • Simple
    • …but time-consuming
  • A debugger lets you run the program, stop it where you want (breakpoints), inspect and modify the program state, etc.

Getting started

Always include -g in your compile options. This adds debug symbols to your executable.

  • Even if you're not explicitly debugging your code. Makes debugging easier if you encounter an unexpected error later.
  • Makes the executable bigger, but this is in practice never an issue in HPC
  • With higher optimization levels a lot of transformations are done on the code
  • Difficult to see how the code you're debugging corresponds to the source code. GCC 4.8+: -Og

Simple GDB example

#include <stdio.h>
int main()
        int *a = NULL;
        *a = 42;
        printf("%d\n", *a);
        return 0;
$ gcc -Og -g foo.c
$ ./a.out
Segmentation fault (core dumped)
$ gdb ./a.out
(gdb) r
Program received signal SIGSEGV, Segmentation fault.
main () at foo.c:5
5               *a = 42;


  • Try the example from the previous slide yourself.
  • Instead of GDB, try with valgrind and AddressSanitizer.
  • When would you want to use GDB, valgrind, or AddressSanitizer? Which one is "best"?

Core dumps

  • Remember the error message: Segmentation fault (core dumped)
  • A core file is a snapshot of the process memory (at the time it crashed, typically).
  • Often shell has core file limit set to 0 => No core files
    • bash: ulimit -c unlimited
  • Start GDB, load executable with associated core file:
$ gdb ./a.out core

Core dumps 2

Core dump an existing process. Afterward, the process continues:

$ gcore PID
  • Why is it called a core dump? What is core?
    • Ferrite core memory, used in early computers


  • Execute a program until it hits a breakpoint, then pause it at that point and resume the debugger.
  • Insert a breakpoint at line 5 of file foo.c, and on entry to function bar:
(gdb) break foo.c:5
(gdb) break bar

Single stepping, continuing

  • Continue executing until hitting the next breakpoint, or end of program: (gdb) continue
  • Execute next source line and pause: (gdb) step
  • Like step, but proceed through subroutine calls: (gdb) next
  • Short forms of the above: c, s, n

Program state

  • Value of a variable: (gdb) print VAR
  • Modify value of a variable: (gdb) set (VAR = VALUE)
  • Watchpoints (automatically print whenever value changes): (gdb) watch VAR

Stack frames

  • Print procedure call stack: (gdb) backtrace
    • Short form: bt
  • Jump up N stack frames: (gdb) up N

Processes and threads

  • Attach debugger to a running process: $ gdb -p PID
    • Or inside gdb: (gdb) attach PID
    • Note that this pauses the process!
  • List current threads of process: (gdb) info threads
  • Switch to another thread: (gdb) thread N

Debugging multi-process applications

  • While GDB supports multi-threaded applications, there's no built-in support for multi-process applications
  • MPI debugging with GDB:
    • Launch MPI application
    • For each MPI rank, start a terminal, start gdb attaching to the MPI process
    • Debug!
  • If you have a CSC account, you can use TotalView (MPI debugger) which is less cumbersome than the above..

GDB References

GDB Exercise 2

  • Take a look at /scratch/scip/debug/boom.c
  • Using what you have learned about GDB and debugging, try to find what's wrong

Other debugging tools

  • strace: Prints system calls by application
  • ltrace: Like strace but (dynamic) library calls
  • ldd: List dynamic libraries used by executable/.so
  • readelf, nm: Tools to inspect object files

The dynamic linker (

  • Dynamic linking: Use libraries stored separately in the filesystem instead of copying library code into application binary
    • Security updates
    • Save disk and page cache space
  • Library search path: Where to search for libraries
    • ldconfig -p to print current list of system libraries
    • LD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variable
  • See man page


  • Alternative to LD_LIBRARY_PATH: Set LD_RUN_PATH when compiling => paths will be stored in binary, DT_RPATH section
  • Allow overriding system libraries on a per-application basis
  • Must recompile if paths change!
  • With -Wl,rpath=your/path,--enable-new-dtags to set DT_RUNPATH (searched AFTER LD_LIBRARY_PATH) search patch caveats

  • Order of entries in LD_LIBRARY_PATH matters
  • module system: Typically a module will prepend to LD_LIBRARY_PATH
    • => module load order matters!
  • Various tools work similar to module, e.g. virtualenv (python)
  • Combining these, not being careful w.r.t. ordering can get you into quite a pickle. Be disciplined!
  • ldd is very useful to figure out where the libraries are loaded from

Exercise: ls

  • Use strace to see what syscalls ls makes and try to understand what it's doing. Hint If you don't know what a syscall does, check the manual: man foo
  • Same as above, but check ls -l. What is the difference?
  • Use ldd to check which dynamic libraries are used by ls
  • Use readelf to inspect the ls binary