GDB and SystemTap Probes -- part 2

Table of Contents

I tell you this: it is depressing when you realize that you spent more time struggling with blog engines than writing posts on your blog!

It’s been a long time since I wrote the first post about this subject, and since then the patches have been accepted upstream, and GDB 7.5 now has official support for userspace SystemTap probes :-). Yay!

Well, but enough of cheap talk, let’s get to the business!

Errata for my last post

Frank Ch. Eigler, one of SystemTap’s maintainers, kindly mentioned something that I should say about SystemTap userspace probes.

Basically, it should be clear that SDT probes are not the only kind of userspace probing one can do with SystemTap. There is yet another kind of probe (maybe even more powerful, depending on the goals): DWARF-based function/statement probes. SystemTap supports this kind of probing mechanism for quite a while now.

It is not the goal of this post to explain it in detail, but you might want to give it a try by compiling your binary with debuginfo support (use the -g flag on GCC), and do something like:

$ stap -e 'probe process("/bin/foo").function("name") { log($$parms) }' -c /bin/foo
$ stap -e 'probe process("/bin/foo").statement("*@file.c:443") { log($$vars) }' -c /bin/foo

And that’s it. You can read SystemTap’s documentation, or this guide to learn how to add userspace probes.

Using GDB with SystemTap SDT Probes

Well, now let’s get to the interesting part. It is time to make GDB work with the SDT probe that we have put in our example code. Let’s remember it:

#include <sys/sdt.h>

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

  STAP_PROBE1 (test_program, my_probe, a);

  return 0;

It is a very simple example, and we will have to extend it later in order to show more features. But for now, it will do.

The first thing to do is to open GDB (with SystemTap support, of course!), and check to see if it can actually see probe inserted in our example.

$ gdb ./test_program
GNU gdb (GDB)
Copyright (C) 2012 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
License GPLv3+: GNU GPL version 3 or later <>
(gdb) info probes
Provider     Name     Where              Semaphore Object
test_program my_probe 0x00000000004004ae           /home/sergio/work/src/git/build/gdb/test_program

Wow, it actually works! :-)

If you have seen something like the above, it means your GDB is correctly recognizing SDT probes. If you see an error, or if your GDB doesn’t have the info probes command, then you’d better make sure you have a recent version of GDB otherwise you won’t be able to use the SDT support.

Putting breakpoints in the code

Anyway, now it is time to start using this support. The first thing I want to show you is how to put a breakpoint in a probe.

(gdb) break -probe-stap my_probe
Breakpoint 1 at 0x4004ae

That’s all! We have chosen to extend the break command in order to support the new -probe-stap parameter. If you’re wondering … why the -probe prefix?, it is because I was asked to implement a complete abstraction layer inside GDB in order to allow more types of probes to be added in the future. So, for example, if someone implements support for an hypothetical type of probe called xyz, you would have break -probe-xyz. It took me a little more time to implement this layer, but it is worth the effort.

Anyway, as you have see above, GDB recognize the probe’s name and correctly put a breakpoint in it. You can also confirm that it has done the right thing by matching the address reported by info probes with the one reported by break: they should be the same.

Ok, so now, with our breakpoint in place, let’s run the program and see what happens.

(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/sergio/work/src/git/build/gdb/test_program

Breakpoint 1, main (argc=1, argv=0x7fffffffdf68) at /tmp/example-stap.c:8
8  STAP_PROBE1 (test_program, my_probe, a);

As you can see, GDB stopped at the exact location of the probe. Therefore, you are now able to put marks (i.e., probes) in your source code which are location-independent. It means that it doesn’t really matter where in the source code your probe is, and it also doesn’t matter if you change the code around it, changing the line numbers, or even moving it to another file. GDB will always find your probe, and always stop at the right location. Neat!

Examining probes’ arguments

But wait, there’s more! Remember when I told you that you could also inspect the probe’s arguments? Yes, let’s do it now!

Just remember that, in SDT’s parlance, the current probe’s argument is a. So let’s print its value.

(gdb) p $_probe_arg0
$1 = 10
(gdb) p a
$2 = 10

“Hey, captain, it seems the boat really floats!”

Check the source code above, and convince yourself that a’s value is 10 :-). As you might have seen, I have used a fairly strange way of printing it. It is because the probe’s arguments are available inside GDB by means of convenience variables. You can see a list of them here.

Since SDT probes can have up to 12 arguments (i.e., you can use STAP_PROBE1STAP_PROBE12), we have created inside GDB 12 convenience variables, named $_probe_arg0 until $_probe_arg11. I know, it is not an easy name to remember, and even the relation between SDT naming and GDB naming is not direct (i.e., you have to subtract 1 from the SDT probe number). If you are not satisfied with this, please open a bug in our bugzilla and I promise we will discuss other options.

I would like to emphasize something here: just as you don’t need debuginfo support for dealing with probes inside GDB, you also don’t need debuginfo support for dealing with their arguments as well. It means that you can actually compile your code without debuginfo support, but still have access to some important variables/expressions when debugging it. Depending on how GCC optimizes your code, you may experience some difficulties with argument printing, but so far I haven’t heard of anything like that.

More to come

Ok, now we have covered more things about the SDT probe support inside GDB, and I hope you understood all the concepts. It is not hard to get things going with this, specially because you don’t need extra libraries to make it work.

In the next post, I intend to finish this series by explaining how to use tracepoints with SDT probes. Also, as I said in the previous post of this series, maybe I will talk a little bit about how the SDT probes are organized within the binary.

See you soon!

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