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Debug your programs like they're closed source! - Julia Evans

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Tags: debugging
Clipped on: 2015-01-21

Debug your programs like they're closed source!

Apr 20th, 2014 in coding, favorite, kernel, strace

Until very recently, if I was debugging a program, I practically always did one of these three things:

  1. open a debugger
  2. look at the source code
  3. insert some print statements

I’ve started sometimes debugging a new way. With this method, I don’t look at the source code, don’t edit the source code, and don’t use a debugger. I don’t even need to have the program’s source available to me!

Can we repeat that again? I can look at the internal behavior of closed-source programs.

How?!?! AM I A WIZARD? Nope. SYSTEM CALLS! What is a system call? Operating systems know how to open files, display things to the screen, start processes, and all kinds of things. Programs can ask their operating system to do these things, using functions called system calls.

System calls are the API for your computer, so you don’t have to know how a network card works to send a HTTP request.

Here’s a list of the system calls Linux 2.2 provides, to give you a sense for what’s available. There’s exit, open, read, write, time, mount, kill, and all kinds of other things. System calls are basically the definition of platform specific (different operating system have different system calls), so we’re only going to be talking about Linux here.

How can we use these to debug? Here are a few of my favorite system calls!


open opens files. Every time any program opens a file it needs to use the open system call. There’s no other way.

So! Let’s say you have a backup program on your computer, and you want to know which files it’s working on. And that it doesn’t show you a progress bar or have any options. Let’s say that it has PID 60.

We can spy on this program with a tool called strace and print out every file it opens! strace shows you which system calls a program calls. To spy on our backup program, we would run strace -e trace=open -p 60, to tell it to print all the open system calls from PID 60.

For example, I ran strace -e trace=open ssh and here were some of the things I found:

open("/etc/ssh/ssh_config", O_RDONLY)   = 3
open("/home/bork/.ssh/config", O_RDONLY) = 3
open("/home/bork/.ssh/id_dsa", O_RDONLY) = 4
open("/home/bork/.ssh/", O_RDONLY) = 4
open("/home/bork/.ssh/id_rsa", O_RDONLY) = 4
open("/home/bork/.ssh/", O_RDONLY) = 4
open("/home/bork/.ssh/known_hosts", O_RDONLY) = 4

This makes total sense! ssh needs to read my private and public keys, my local ssh config, and the global ssh config. Neat! open is super simple and super useful.


execve starts programs. All programs. There’s no way to start a program except to use execve. We can use strace to spy on execve calls too!

For example! I was trying to understand a Ruby script that was basically just running some ssh commands. I could have read the Ruby code! But I really just wanted to know which damn command it was running! I did this by running strace -f -s3000 -e trace=execve and read zero code!

The -f option is super important here. It also tracks the system calls of every subprocess! I basically use -f all the time. Use -f. ([longer blog post about using strace + execve to poke at Ruby programs]).


write writes to files. I think there are ways to write to a file without using write (like by using mmap), but usually if a file is being written to, it’s using write.

If I strace -e trace=write on an ssh session, this is some of what I see:

write(3, "SSH-2.0-OpenSSH_5.9p1 Debian-5ubuntu1.1\r\n", 41) = 41
write(5, "[jvns /home/public]$ ", 21)   = 21
write(3, "\242\227e\376\344\36\270\343\331\307\231\332\373\273\324\303X\n<\241p`\212\21\317\353`\1/\3629\273m\23\17\26\304\fJ\352z\210\2\210\211~7W", 48) = 48
write(5, "logout\r\n", 8)               = 8
write(3, "b\277\306\16!\6J\202\tF$\241\32\302\3\0\23\310\346f\241\233\263\254\325\351z\222\234\224\270\231", 32) = 32
write(3, "\311\372\353\273\233oU\226~\373N\227\323*S\263\307\272\204VzO \10\2\316\224\335X@Hj\26\366\271J:i6\311\240A\325\331\341\220\1%\233\240\23n\23\242\34\277\2139\376\31j\255\32h", 64) = 64
write(2, "Connection to closed.\r\n", 52) = 52

So it opens an SSH connection, writes a prompt to my terminal, sends some (encrypted!) data over the connection, and prints that the connection is closed! Neat! I understand a bit more about how ssh works now!


I want to talk about one more Linux thing, and it isn’t a system call. It’s a directory called /proc! There are a million things that /proc does, but this is my favorite:

/proc tells you every file your process has open. All of them! For example, one of my Chrome processes has PID 3823. If I run ls -l /proc/3823/fd/*, it shows me all the files Chrome has open!

fd stands for “file descriptor”.

$ ls -l /proc/3823/fd/*
total 0
lr-x------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 0 -> /dev/null
l-wx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 1 -> /dev/null
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 10 -> socket:[16583]
lr-x------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 100 -> /opt/google/chrome/nacl_irt_x86_64.nexe
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 101 -> /home/bork/.config/google-chrome/Default/Application Cache/Cache/index
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 102 -> /home/bork/.config/google-chrome/Default/Application Cache/Cache/data_0
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 103 -> socket:[178726]
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 104 -> socket:[21064]
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 105 -> /home/bork/.config/google-chrome/Default/Application Cache/Cache/data_1
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 106 -> /home/bork/.config/google-chrome/Default/Application Cache/Cache/data_2
lrwx------ 1 bork bork 64 Apr 19 09:28 107 -> /home/bork/.config/google-chrome/Default/Application Cache/Cache/data_3

aaaand a million more. This is great. There are also a ton more things in /proc/3823. Look around! I wrote a bit more about /proc in Recovering files using /proc (and spying, too!).

ltrace: beyond system calls!

Lots of things happen outside of the kernel. Like string comparisons! I don’t need a network card for that! What if we wanted to know about those? strace won’t help us at all. But ltrace will!

Let’s try running ltrace killall firefox. We see a bunch of things like this:

fopen("/proc/10578/stat", "r")                               => 0x11984f0
fscanf(0x11984f0, 0x403fe7, 0x7fff09984980, 0x7f2fc7cd4728, 0)
strcmp("firefox", "kworker/u:0")

So! We’ve just learned that killall works by opening a file in /proc (wheeee!), finding what its name is, and seeing if it’s the same as “firefox”. That makes sense!

When are these tools useful?

These systems-level debugging tools are only appropriate sometimes. If you’re writing a graph traversal algorithm and it has a logical error, knowing which files it opened won’t help you at all!

Here are some examples of times when using systems tools might make your life easier:

  • Is your program running a command, but the wrong one? Look at execve!
  • Your program communicates with something on a network, but some of the information it’s sending is wrong? It’s probably sending it with write, sendto, or send.
  • Your program writes to a file, but you don’t know what file it’s writing to? Use /proc to see what files it has open, or look at what it’s writeing. /proc doesn’t lie.

At first debugging this way is confusing, but once you’re familiar with the tools it can actually be faster, because you don’t have to worry about getting the wrong information! And you feel like a WIZARD.

Learn your operating system instead of a new debugger

There are all kinds of programming-language-specific debugging tools you can use. gdb! pry! pdb! And you should! But you probably switch languages more often than you switch OSes. So, learning your OS in depth and then using it as a debugging tool is likely a better investment of your time than learning a language-specific debugging tool.

If you want to know which files a process has open, it doesn’t matter if that program was originally written in C++ or Python or Java or Haskell. The only way for a program to open a file on Linux is with the open system call. If you learn your operating system, you acquire superpowers. You can debug programs that are binary-only and closed source. You can use the same tools to debug no matter which language you’re writing.

And my favorite thing about these methods is that your OS won’t lie to you. The only way to run a program is with the execve system call. There aren’t other ways. So if you really want to know what command got run, use strace. See exactly which parameters get passed to execve. You’ll know exactly what happened.

Further reading

Try Greg Price’s excellent blog post Strace – The Sysadmin’s Microscope. I have an ever-growing collection of blog posts about strace, too!

My favorite way to learn more, honestly, is to just strace random programs and see what I find out. It’s a great way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon! =)

Thanks to Lindsey Kuper and Dan Luu for reading a draft of this :)

Have fun!

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