GDB and SystemTap Probes -- part 3

Hi everybody :-).

I finally got some time to finish this series of posts, and I hope you like the overall result. For those of you who are reading this blog for the first time, you can access the first post here, and the second here.

My goal with this third post is to talk a little bit about how you can use the SDT probes with tracepoints inside GDB. Maybe this particular feature will not be so helpful to you, but I recommend reading the post either way. I will also give a brief explanation about how the SDT probes are laid out inside the binary. So, let’s start!

Complementary information

In my last post, I forgot to mention that the SDT probe support present on older versions of Fedora GDB is not exactly as the way I described here. This is because Fedora GDB adopted this feature much earlier than upstream GDB itself, so while this has a great positive aspect in terms of how the distro’s philosophy works (i.e., Fedora contains leading-edge features, so if you want to know how to FLOSS community will be in a few months, use it!), it also has the downside of delivering older/different versions of features in older Fedoras. But of course, this SDT feature will be fully available on Fedora 18, to be announced soon.

My suggestion is that if you use a not-so-recent Fedora (like Fedora 16, 15, etc), please upgrade it to the last version, or compile your own version of GDB yourself (it’s not that hard, I will make a post about it in the next days/weeks!).

With that said, let’s move on to our main topic here.

SDT Probes and Tracepoint

Before anything else, let me explain what a tracepoint is. Think of it as a breakpoint which doesn’t stop the program’s execution when it hits. In fact, it’s a bit more than that: you can define actions associated with a tracepoint, and those actions will be performed when the tracepoint is hit. Neat, huh? :-)

There is a nice description of what a tracepoint in the GDB documentation, I recommend you give it a reading to understand the concept.

Ok, so now we have to learn how to put tracepoints in our code, and how to define actions for them. But before that, let’s remember our example program:

#include <sys/sdt.h>

main (int argc, char *argv[])
  int a = 10;

  STAP_PROBE1 (test_program, my_probe, a);

  return 0;

Very simple, isn’t it? Ok, to the tracepoints now, my friends.

Using tracepoints inside GDB

In order to properly use tracepoints inside GDB, you will need to use gdbserver, a tiny version of GDB suitable for debugging programs remotely, over the net or serial line. In short, this is because GDB cannot put tracepoints on a program running directly under it, so we have to run it inside gdbserver and then connect GDB to it.

Running our program inside gdbserver

In our case, we will just start gdbserver in our machine, order it to listen to some high port, and connect to it through localhost, so there will be no need to have access to another computer or device.

First of all, make sure you have gdbserver installed. If you use Fedora, the package name you will have to install is gdb-gdbserver. If you have it installed, you can do:

$ gdbserver :3001 ./test_program
Process ./test_program created; pid = 17793
Listening on port 3001

The second argument passed to gdbserver instructs it to listen on the port 3001 of your loopback interface, a.k.a. localhost.

You will notice that gdbserver will stay there indefinitely, waiting for new connections to arrive. Don’t worry, we will connect to it soon!

Connecting an instance of GDB to gdbserver

Now, go to another terminal and start GDB with our program:

$ gdb ./test_program
(gdb) target remote :3001
Remote debugging using :3001
Reading symbols from /lib64/ debugging symbols found)...done.
Loaded symbols for /lib64/
0x0000003d60401530 in _start () from /lib64/

The command you have to use inside GDB is target remote. It takes as an argument the host and the port to which you want to connect. In our case, we just want it to connect to localhost, port 3001. If you saw an output like the above, great, things are working for you (don’t pay attention to the messages about glibc debug information). If you didn’t see it, please check to see if you’re connecting to the right port, and if no other service is using it.

Ok, so now it is time to start our trace experiment!

Creating the tracepoints

Every command should be issued on GDB, not on gdbserver!

In your GDB prompt, put a tracepoint in the probe named my_probe:

(gdb) trace -probe-stap my_probe
Tracepoint 1 at 0x4005a9

As you can see, the trace command takes exactly the same arguments as the break command. Thus, you need to use the -probe-stap modified in order to instruct GDB to put the tracepoint in the probe.

And now, let’s define the actions associated with this tracepoint. To do that, we use the actions command, which is an interactive command inside GDB. It takes some specific keywords, and if you want to learn more about it, please take a look at this link. For this example, we will use only the collect keyword, which tells GDB to… hm… collect something :-). In our case, it will collect the probe’s first argument, or $_probe_arg0, as you may remember.

(gdb) actions 
Enter actions for tracepoint 1, one per line.
End with a line saying just "end".
>collect $_probe_arg0

Simple as that. Finally, we have to define a breakpoint in the last instruction of our program, because it is necessary to keep it running on gdbserver in order to examine the tracepoints later. If we didn’t put this breakpoint, our program would finish and gdbserver would not be able to provide information about what happened with our tracepoints. In our case, we will simply put a breakpoint on line 10, i.e., on the return 0;:

Running the trace experiment

Ok, time to run our trace experiment. First, we must issue a tstart to tell GDB to start monitoring the tracepoints. And then, we can continue our program normally.

(gdb) tstart 
(gdb) continue

Breakpoint 1, main (argc=1, argv=0x7fffffffde88) at /tmp/test_program.c:10
10        return 0;
(gdb) tstop

Remember, GDB is not going to stop your program, because tracepoints are designed to not interfere with the execution of it. Also notice that we have also stopped the trace experiment after the breakpoint hit, by using the tstop command.

Now, we will be able to examine what the tracepoint has collected. First, we will the tfind command to make sure the tracepoint has hit, and then we can inspect what we ordered it to collect:

(gdb) tfind start
Found trace frame 0, tracepoint 1
8         STAP_PROBE1 (test_program, my_probe, a);
(gdb) p $_probe_arg0
$1 = 10

And it works! Notice that we are printing the probe argument using the same notation as with breakpoints, even though we are not exactly executing the STAP_PROBE1 instruction. What does it mean? Well, with the tfind start command we tell GDB to actually use the trace frame collected during the program’s execution, which, in this case, is the probe argument. If you know GDB, think of it as if we were using the frame command to jump back to a specific frame, where we would have access to its state.

This is a very simple example of how to use the SDT probe support in GDB with tracepoints. There is much more you can do, but I hope I could explain the basics so that you can start playing with this feature.

How the SDT probe is laid out in the binary

You might be interested in learning how the probes are created inside the binary. Other than reading the source code of /usr/include/sys/sdt.h, which is the heart of the whole feature, I also recommend this page, which explains in detail what’s going on under the hood. I also recommend that you study a little about how the ELF format works, specifically about notes in the ELF file.


After this series of blog posts, I expect that you will now be able to use the not-so-new feature of SDT probe support on GDB. Of course, if you find some bug while using this, please feel free to report it using our bugzilla. And if you have some question, use the comment system below and I will answer ASAP :-).

See ya, and thanks for reading!