5. Debugging with the Memory Pool System

Memory management errors are some of the most stubborn and difficult to track down, because the effect so often appears at a distant point in the program that is seemingly unrelated to the cause, and by the time the error is revealed, the information needed to reconstruct the cause has long vanished. Immediately after an overwriting error, the block that overran its bounds is fine, and the block that was overwritten may not be visited for a long time. A failure to fix a reference does not necessarily cause the object pointed to by the missed reference to die immediately: there may be other references to that object, or a garbage collection may be delayed. And even if it does die, the space it occupies may not be re-allocated for some time.

5.1. General debugging advice

  1. Compile with debugging information turned on (-g on the GCC or Clang command line).

  2. Build the cool variety of the MPS (by defining the preprocessor constant CONFIG_VAR_COOL, for example by setting -DCONFIG_VAR_COOL on the GCC or Clang command line). This variety contains many internal consistency checks (including such checks on the critical path, which make it too slow for use in production), and can generate profiling output in the form of the telemetry stream.

  3. If your program triggers an assertion failure in the MPS, consult Common assertions and their causes for suggestions as to the possible cause.

  4. Prepare a reproducible test case if possible. The MPS may be asynchronous, but it is deterministic, so in single-threaded applications you should be able to get consistent results.

    However, you need to beware of address space layout randomization: if you perform computation based on the addresses of objects, for example, hashing objects by their address, then ASLR will cause your hash tables to be laid out differently on each run, which may affect the order of memory management operations. See Address space layout randomization below.

    A fact that assists with reproducibility is that the more frequently the collector runs, the sooner and more reliably errors are discovered. So if you have a bug that’s hard to reproduce, or which manifests itself in different ways on different runs, you may be able to provoke it more reliably, or get a more consistent result, by having a mode for testing in which you run frequent collections (by calling mps_arena_collect() followed by mps_arena_release()), perhaps as frequently as every allocation. (This will of course make the system run very slowly, but it ensures that if there are roots or references that are not being scanned then the failure will occur close in time to the cause, making it easier to diagnose.)

  5. Run your test case inside the debugger. Use assert and abort in your error handler (rather than exit) so that you can enter the debugger with the contents of the control stack available for inspection.

    You may need to make sure that the debugger isn’t entered on barrier(1) hits (because the MPS uses barriers to protect parts of memory, and barrier hits are common and expected).

    If you are using GDB on Linux or FreeBSD, run this command:

    handle SIGSEGV pass nostop noprint

    On these operating systems, you can add this command to your .gdbinit if you always want it to be run.

    On macOS, barrier hits do not use signals and so do not enter the debugger.

  6. If the client program is stopped in the debugger with the MPS part of the way through execution of an operation in an arena (for example, a crash inside a scan method), it will not be possible to call introspection functions, such as mps_arena_has_addr() or mps_addr_pool() (because the MPS is not re-entrant), and it may not be possible to examine some regions of memory (because they are protected by the MPS).

    If you are in this situation and would like to be able to call MPS functions or examine regions of memory from the debugger, then you can put the arena into the postmortem state by calling mps_arena_postmortem() from the debugger. This unlocks the arena and turns off protection.


    After calling mps_arena_postmortem(), MPS-managed memory is not in a consistent state, and so it is not safe to continue running the client program.

5.2. Address space layout randomization

Address space layout randomization (ASLR) makes it hard to prepare a repeatable test case for a program that performs computation based on the addresses of objects, for example, hashing objects by their address. If this is affecting you, you’ll find it useful to disable ASLR when testing.

Here’s a small program that you can use to check if ASLR is enabled on your system. It outputs addresses from four key memory areas in a program (data segment, text segment, stack and heap):

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int data;

int main() {
    void *heap = malloc(4);
    int stack = 0;
    printf("data: %p text: %p stack: %p heap: %p\n",
           &data, (void *)main, &stack, heap);
    return 0;

When ASLR is turned on, running this program outputs different addresses on each run. For example, here are four runs on macOS 10.9.3:

data: 0x10a532020 text: 0x10a531ed0 stack: 0x7fff556ceb1c heap: 0x7f9f80c03980
data: 0x10d781020 text: 0x10d780ed0 stack: 0x7fff5247fb1c heap: 0x7fe498c03980
data: 0x10164b020 text: 0x10164aed0 stack: 0x7fff5e5b5b1c heap: 0x7fb783c03980
data: 0x10c7f8020 text: 0x10c7f7ed0 stack: 0x7fff53408b1c heap: 0x7f9740403980

By contrast, here are four runs on FreeBSD 8.3:

data: 0x8049728 text: 0x8048470 stack: 0xbfbfebfc heap: 0x28201088
data: 0x8049728 text: 0x8048470 stack: 0xbfbfebfc heap: 0x28201088
data: 0x8049728 text: 0x8048470 stack: 0xbfbfebfc heap: 0x28201088
data: 0x8049728 text: 0x8048470 stack: 0xbfbfebfc heap: 0x28201088

Here’s the situation on each of the operating systems supported by the MPS:

  • FreeBSD (as of version 10.0) does not support ASLR, so there’s nothing to do.

  • On Windows (Vista or later), ASLR is a property of the executable, and it can be turned off at link time using the /DYNAMICBASE:NO linker option.

  • On Linux (kernel version 2.6.12 or later), ASLR can be turned off for a single process by running setarch with the -R option:

    -R, --addr-no-randomize
           Disables randomization of the virtual address space

    For example:

    $ setarch $(uname -m) -R ./myprogram
  • On macOS (10.7 or later), ASLR can be disabled for a single process by starting the process using posix_spawn(), passing the undocumented attribute 0x100, like this:

    #include <spawn.h>
    pid_t pid;
    posix_spawnattr_t attr;
    posix_spawnattr_setflags(&attr, 0x100);
    posix_spawn(&pid, argv[0], NULL, &attr, argv, environ);

    The MPS provides the source code for a command-line tool implementing this (tool/noaslr.c). We’ve confirmed that this works on macOS 10.9.3, but since the technique is undocumented, it may well break in future releases. (If you know of a documented way to achieve this, please contact us.)

5.3. Example: underscanning

An easy mistake to make is to omit to fix a reference when scanning a formatted object. For example, in the Scheme interpreter’s scan method, I might have forgotten to fix the first element of a pair:

  /* oops, forgot: FIX(CAR(obj)); */
  base = (char *)base + ALIGN_OBJ(sizeof(pair_s));

This means that as far as the MPS is concerned, the first element of the pair is unreachable and so dead, so after collecting the region of memory containing this object, the space will be reused for other objects. So CAR(obj) might end up pointing to the start of a valid object (but the wrong one), or to the middle of a valid object, or to an unused region of memory, or into an MPS internal control structure.

The reproducible test case is simple. Run a garbage collection by calling (gc) and then evaluate any expression:

$ gdb ./scheme
GNU gdb 6.3.50-20050815 (Apple version gdb-1820) (Sat Jun 16 02:40:11 UTC 2012)

(gdb) run
Starting program: example/scheme/scheme
Reading symbols for shared libraries +............................. done
MPS Toy Scheme Example
7944, 0> (gc)
Collection started.
  Why: Client requests: immediate full collection.
  Clock: 11357
Collection finished.
    live 1888
    condemned 7968
    not_condemned 0
    clock: 12008
7968, 1> foo
Assertion failed: (TYPE(frame) == TYPE_PAIR), function lookup_in_frame, file scheme.c, line 1065.

Program received signal SIGABRT, Aborted.
0x00007fff91aeed46 in __kill ()

What’s going on?

(gdb) backtrace
#0  0x00007fff91aeed46 in __kill ()
#1  0x00007fff90509df0 in abort ()
#2  0x00007fff9050ae2a in __assert_rtn ()
#3  0x0000000100003f55 in lookup_in_frame (frame=0x1003fa7d0, symbol=0x1003faf20) at scheme.c:1066
#4  0x0000000100003ea6 in lookup (env=0x1003fb130, symbol=0x1003faf20) at scheme.c:1087
#5  0x000000010000341f in eval (env=0x1003fb130, op_env=0x1003fb148, exp=0x1003faf20) at scheme.c:1135
#6  0x000000010000261b in start (p=0x0, s=0) at scheme.c:3204
#7  0x0000000100011ded in ProtTramp (resultReturn=0x7fff5fbff7d0, f=0x100002130 <start>, p=0x0, s=0) at protix.c:132
#8  0x0000000100001ef7 in main (argc=1, argv=0x7fff5fbff830) at scheme.c:3314
(gdb) frame 4
#4  0x0000000100003ea6 in lookup (env=0x1003fb130, symbol=0x1003faf20) at scheme.c:1087
1086            binding = lookup_in_frame(CAR(env), symbol);
(gdb) print (char *)symbol->symbol.string
$1 = 0x1003faf30 "foo"

The backtrace shows that the interpreter is in the middle of looking up the symbol foo in the environment. The Scheme interpreter implements the environment as a list of frames, each of which is a list of bindings, each binding being a pair of a symbol and its value, as shown here:

Diagram: The environment data structure in the Scheme interpreter.

The environment data structure in the Scheme interpreter.

In this case, because the evaluation is taking place at top level, there is only one frame in the environment (the global frame). And it’s this frame that’s corrupt:

(gdb) frame 3
#3  0x0000000100003f55 in lookup_in_frame (frame=0x1003fa7d0, symbol=0x1003faf20) at scheme.c:1066
1066            assert(TYPE(frame) == TYPE_PAIR);
(gdb) list
1061         */
1063        static obj_t lookup_in_frame(obj_t frame, obj_t symbol)
1064        {
1065          while(frame != obj_empty) {
1066            assert(TYPE(frame) == TYPE_PAIR);
1067            assert(TYPE(CAR(frame)) == TYPE_PAIR);
1068            assert(TYPE(CAAR(frame)) == TYPE_SYMBOL);
1069            if(CAAR(frame) == symbol)
1070              return CAR(frame);
(gdb) print frame->type.type
$2 = 13

The number 13 is the value TYPE_PAD. So instead of the expected pair, frame points to a padding object.

You might guess at this point that the frame had not been fixed, and since you know that the frame is referenced by the car of the first pair in the environment, that’s the suspect reference. But in a more complex situation this might not yet be clear. In such a situation it can be useful to look at the sequence of events leading up to the detection of the error. See Telemetry.

5.4. Example: allocating with wrong size

Here’s another kind of mistake: an off-by-one error in make_string leading to the allocation of string objects with the wrong size:

static obj_t make_string(size_t length, char *string)
  obj_t obj;
  mps_addr_t addr;
  size_t size = ALIGN_OBJ(offsetof(string_s, string) + length/* oops, forgot: +1 */);
  do {
    mps_res_t res = mps_reserve(&addr, obj_ap, size);
    if (res != MPS_RES_OK) error("out of memory in make_string");
    obj = addr;
    obj->string.type = TYPE_STRING;
    obj->string.length = length;
    if (string) memcpy(obj->string.string, string, length+1);
    else memset(obj->string.string, 0, length+1);
  } while(!mps_commit(obj_ap, addr, size));
  total += size;
  return obj;

Here’s a test case that exercises this bug:

(define (church n f a) (if (eqv? n 0) a (church (- n 1) f (f a))))
(church 1000 (lambda (s) (string-append s "x")) "")

And here’s how it shows up in the debugger:

$ gdb ./scheme
GNU gdb 6.3.50-20050815 (Apple version gdb-1820) (Sat Jun 16 02:40:11 UTC 2012)
(gdb) run < test.scm
Starting program: example/scheme/scheme < test.scm
Reading symbols for shared libraries +............................. done
MPS Toy Scheme Example
9960, 0> church
Assertion failed: (0), function obj_skip, file scheme.c, line 2940.
10816, 0>
Program received signal SIGABRT, Aborted.
0x00007fff91aeed46 in __kill ()
(gdb) backtrace
#0  0x00007fff91aeed46 in __kill ()
#1  0x00007fff90509df0 in abort ()
#2  0x00007fff9050ae2a in __assert_rtn ()
#3  0x00000001000014e3 in obj_skip (base=0x1003f9b88) at scheme.c:2940
#4  0x0000000100068050 in amcScanNailedOnce (totalReturn=0x7fff5fbfef2c, moreReturn=0x7fff5fbfef28, ss=0x7fff5fbff0a0, pool=0x1003fe278, seg=0x1003fe928, amc=0x1003fe278) at poolamc.c:1485
#5  0x0000000100067ca1 in amcScanNailed (totalReturn=0x7fff5fbff174, ss=0x7fff5fbff0a0, pool=0x1003fe278, seg=0x1003fe928, amc=0x1003fe278) at poolamc.c:1522
#6  0x000000010006631f in AMCScan (totalReturn=0x7fff5fbff174, ss=0x7fff5fbff0a0, pool=0x1003fe278, seg=0x1003fe928) at poolamc.c:1595
#7  0x000000010002686d in PoolScan (totalReturn=0x7fff5fbff174, ss=0x7fff5fbff0a0, pool=0x1003fe278, seg=0x1003fe928) at pool.c:405
#8  0x0000000100074106 in traceScanSegRes (ts=1, rank=1, arena=0x10012a000, seg=0x1003fe928) at trace.c:1162
#9  0x000000010002b399 in traceScanSeg (ts=1, rank=1, arena=0x10012a000, seg=0x1003fe928) at trace.c:1222
#10 0x000000010002d020 in TraceQuantum (trace=0x10012a5a0) at trace.c:1833
#11 0x000000010001f2d2 in TracePoll (globals=0x10012a000) at trace.c:1981
#12 0x000000010000d75f in ArenaPoll (globals=0x10012a000) at global.c:684
#13 0x000000010000ea40 in mps_ap_fill (p_o=0x7fff5fbff3e0, mps_ap=0x1003fe820, size=208) at mpsi.c:961
#14 0x000000010000447d in make_string (length=190, string=0x0) at scheme.c:468
#15 0x0000000100008ca2 in entry_string_append (env=0x1003cbe38, op_env=0x1003cbe50, operator=0x1003fad48, operands=0x1003f9af8) at scheme.c:2562
#16 0x0000000100002fe4 in eval (env=0x1003cbe38, op_env=0x1003cbe50, exp=0x1003f9ae0) at scheme.c:1159
#17 0x0000000100005ff5 in entry_interpret (env=0x1003cb958, op_env=0x1003cb970, operator=0x1003f99d8, operands=0x1003f9948) at scheme.c:1340
#18 0x0000000100002fe4 in eval (env=0x1003cb958, op_env=0x1003cb970, exp=0x1003f9878) at scheme.c:1159
#19 0x000000010000206b in start (p=0x0, s=0) at scheme.c:3213
#20 0x000000010001287d in ProtTramp (resultReturn=0x7fff5fbff7a0, f=0x100001b80 <start>, p=0x0, s=0) at protix.c:132
#21 0x0000000100001947 in main (argc=1, argv=0x7fff5fbff808) at scheme.c:3314
(gdb) frame 3
#3  0x00000001000014e3 in obj_skip (base=0x1003f9b88) at scheme.c:2940
2940            assert(0);
(gdb) list
2935            break;
2936          case TYPE_PAD1:
2937            base = (char *)base + ALIGN_OBJ(sizeof(pad1_s));
2938            break;
2939          default:
2940            assert(0);
2941            fprintf(stderr, "Unexpected object on the heap\n");
2942            abort();
2943            return NULL;
2944          }

The object being skipped is corrupt:

(gdb) print obj->type.type
$1 = 4168560

What happened to it? It’s often helpful in these situations to have a look at nearby memory.

(gdb) x/20g obj
0x1003f9b88:        0x00000001003f9b70      0x00000001003fb000
0x1003f9b98:        0x0000000000000000      0x00000001003f9c90
0x1003f9ba8:        0x00000001003fb130      0x0000000000000000
0x1003f9bb8:        0x00000001003fb000      0x00000001003fb148
0x1003f9bc8:        0x0000000000000000      0x00000001003f9730
0x1003f9bd8:        0x00000001003f9a58      0x0000000000000000
0x1003f9be8:        0x00000001003f9bc8      0x00000001003fb000
0x1003f9bf8:        0x0000000000000000      0x00000001003fb0a0
0x1003f9c08:        0x00000001003f9b40      0x0000000000000004
0x1003f9c18:        0x000000010007b14a      0x0000000100005e30

You can see that this is a block containing mostly pairs (which have tag 0 and consist of three words), though you can see an operator (with tag 4) near the bottom. But what’s that at the start of the block, where obj‘s tag should be? It looks like a pointer. So what’s in the memory just below obj? Let’s look at the previous few words:

(gdb) x/10g (mps_word_t*)obj-8
0x1003f9b48:        0x00000001003f9ae0      0x00000001003fb000
0x1003f9b58:        0x0000000000000000      0x00000001003f9a80
0x1003f9b68:        0x00000001003f9b80      0x0000000000000005
0x1003f9b78:        0x0000000000000000      0x0000000000000000
0x1003f9b88:        0x00000001003f9b70      0x00000001003fb000

Yes: there’s a pair (with tag 0) at 0x1003f9b80. So it looks as though the previous object was allocated with one size, but skipped with a different size. The previous object being the string (with tag 5) at 0x1003f9b70 which has length 0 and so is three words long as far as obj_skip is concerned:

(gdb) print obj_skip(0x1003f9b70)
$2 = (mps_addr_t) 0x1003f9b88

but the next object (the pair) was clearly allocated at 0x1003f9b80 (overwriting the last word of the string), so the string must have been allocated with a size of only two words. This should be enough evidence to track down the cause.

5.5. What next?

If you tracked down all your bugs, then the next step is the chapter Tuning the Memory Pool System for performance.

But if you’re still struggling, please contact us and see if we can help.