It seems that using a debugger like the GNU Debugger has become something of a lost art for the generation of developers whom are more involved with higher-level languages. Instead, it seems many people resort to so-called printf-debugging, where one places print statements all over the place to sort of trace the state of the program's execution at any given moment. Of course, this is very tedious, and can be done more naturally and efficiently with a dedicated debugger.

This notes page covers GDB's native interface in particular, although there are a couple of interfaces such as cgdb, a lightweight interface with vim binds, as well as DDD, which is a more general-purpose debugging interface.

Aside from GDB there's also LLDB to keep an eye on, which is the LLVM project's very own debugger. A tutorial is available, as well as a table listing the LLDB equivalents for various GDB commands.

Remember that, when debugging, it's best if a program is built with a symbol table---the list of memory addresses corresponding to the program's variables and lines of code---by passing the -g parameter to gcc or clang.

For an additional resource, RMS' own tutorial on GDB is available, as well as this very good guide.

The GDB session samples provided in this page are highlighted with a basic GDB Pygments lexer I found on github from user snarez, which I then customized a bit.

# Workflow

GDB is usually started by passing it the name of the program we want to debug:

$ gdb program_to_debug

Processes with curses-like interfaces can be debugged by running them in a separate terminal and then attaching to them with the -p switch (or using the attach command):

$ gdb -p PID

$ gdb programname PID # other way

Another thing that can be done is to run GDB and tell it that the program should be run on a different terminal. This is accomplished with the tty command. For example, assuming the program should be on /dev/pts/8---perhaps because we have another window paired with that pseudoterminal---we would run the following:

(gdb) tty /dev/pts/8

Then the following should be entered so that the keyboard input to the window will go to the program rather than to the shell, by making the shell go to sleep:

$ sleep 100000

Entering nothing at this prompt re-runs the previous command, which is very useful when stepping with next.

It's common to then place a temporary breakpoint on main as an entrypoint into the debugging session with tbreak main.

The program is then run with the run command, passing it the appropriate program arguments. The program's execution will be paused at each breakpoint:

(gdb) run arg1 arg2
Starting program: /path/to/program_to_debug arg1 arg2

Breakpoint 1, function_containing_breakpoint(ac=4, av=0xbffff094) at src.c:16

If the program was previously run, the arguments passed to the previous run can be reused by simply entering run on its own. If the program is already running, GDB will ask if it should restart the program.

GDB is focused on one file at any given moment, which is the file that will be looked for when given parameters without specifying the file name, such as breaking by line number or function name. The first focused file is the one with the main entry point, but the file focus is changed whenever the list command is run, when one steps into code residing on a different file, or when hitting a breakpoint from a separate source file.

# Session

It's normal to keep a GDB session to open during the debugging session. As bugs are fixed and the program is recompiled, GDB will detect the changes and load them in. Breakpoints and other information specified in ways not dependent on line numbers should continue to work.

However, if exiting is necessary, the commands entered can be saved to a GDB startup file of name .gdbinit. This can then be loaded when GDB loads with:

$ gdb -command=.gdbinit program

Breakpoints can be saved to a file with:

(gdb) save breakpoints filename
(gdb) source filename

History can be saved by putting this in ~/.gdbinit:

# Breakpoints

Breakpoints, set with the break command, pause execution of the program just before that line of code executes.

(gdb) break function
(gdb) break line
(gdb) break file:line
(gdb) break file:function

It's also possible to set a breakpoint relative to the currently executing line of course code in the currently selected stack frame:

(gdb) break +offset
(gdb) break -offset

It's also possible to set a breakpoint at a specific virtual memory address, which is useful when there are no debugging symbols:

(gdb) break *address

If breaking based on the function name, a breakpoint is applied for every function with that name, which can be troublesome in C++ which allows function overloading. It'd be necessary to disambiguate by line number or file path.

A temporary breakpoint, set with the tbreak command, is one that operates just like a regular breakpoint but it clears itself after the first time it is reached.

Catchpoints are similar to breakpoints and are triggered by things such as thrown and caught exceptions, signals, calls to fork(), loading and unloading of libraries, and other events.

# Deleting

Breakpoints can be either deleted in two ways, using the delete or clear commands. The delete command accepts breakpoint identifiers or if none are given, deletes all breakpoints:

(gdb) delete breakpoint_list
(gdb) delete # deletes all breakpoints

The clear command accepts arguments similar to the break command. If no argument is given, it deletes the breakpoint at the next instruction that GDB will execute, which is useful for deleting the breakpoint that GDB just reached:

(gdb) clear # delete breakpoint that was just reached

# Disabling

The disable command is like the delete command in its arguments, but it simply disables breakpoints instead of removing them. Like the delete command, if no argument is provided, it disables all breakpoints.

The enable command is the opposite of the disable command. The enable command can provide tbreak-like functionality with enable once, which enables a list of breakpoints and then disables them once they're reached.

# Conditionals

A condition can be associated with a breakpoint, using the contidion command, so that execution only pauses at it if it satisfies the condition. The condition can refer to variables local to the scope of the breakpoint. For example, the following places a condition on breakpoint #1 so that it only breaks if num_y is 1:

(gdb) condition 3 i == 10

This condition also could have been provided to the break command itself as follows:

(gdb) break 3 if i == 10

A condition can be removed from an existing breakpoint as well:

(gdb) cond 3

Pretty much any valid C conditional statement can be used, where true is non-zero and false is zero. This includes equality, logical, and inequality operators, bitwise and shift operators, arithmetic operators, and functions that are linked into the program.

(gdb) break 180 if string == NULL && i < 0
(gdb) break test.c:34 if (x & y) == 1
(gdb) break myfunc if i % (j + 3) != 0
(gdb) break test.c:myfunc if !check_variable_sanity(i)
(gdb) break 44 if strlen(mystring) == 0

Note that when using a library function or other externally-linked function that provides no debugging symbols, the result of the function will be interpreted as an integer. This can lead to misinterpretations, such as:

(gdb) print cos(0.0)
$1 = 14368

This can be alleviated if necessary by defining a GDB convenience variable with the necessary type information for the function in question:

(gdb) set $p = (double (*) (double))cos
(gdb) ptype $p
type = double (*)()
(gdb) p cos(3.14159265)
$2 = 14368
(gdb) p $p(3.14159265)
$4 = -1

# Command Lists

It's possible to define a list of commands to be run as soon as a particular breakpoint is triggered using the commands command which takes the following form. If the first command in the list is the silent command, it'll suppress information about the breakpoint whenever it's triggered.

(gdb) commands breakpoint-identifier
> command
> end

Commands can be removed from a breakpoint by redefining an empty command list.

It's possible to define macros---sets of commands---with the define command. Its form is similar to commands' but its first argument is the name of the macro. The arguments are accessible as $argn where n is anywhere from 0 to 9. Macro arguments aren't comma separated. Useful macros can be placed in the startup file and referenced within GDB. The command show user can be used to list all macros.

(gdb) define print_and_go
> printf $arg0, $arg1
> continue
> end

Commands can also include if conditions.

# Watchpoints

A watchpoint, set with watch, can be thought of as being attached to an expression, such that it gets triggered when the result of that expression changes. Setting a watchpoint on a variable causes the debugger to pause execution at the point when the memory location of that variable changes. For example, to watch the z variable:

(gdb) watch z

More powerful watchpoints can be established that are based on conditions related to the variable in question. For example, to watch for when z becomes greater than 28:

(gdb) watch (z > 28)

There is also rwatch which triggers when a variable is read, and awatch which triggers when a variable is read or written.

Watchpoints are deleted as soon as any variable in the expression goes out of scope, requiring one to re-establish them the next time that function is called, if necessary. This can be automated by a command on a breakpoint in the relevant scope that establishes the watchpoint.

# Signals

It's possible to avoid the pausing of execution or printing a warning when signals are received by having GDB handle them with the handle command. For example, to avoid stopping and printing a warning when SIGUSR is received:

(gdb) handle SIGUSR1 nostop noprint

# Information

The info breakpoints command can provide a summary of the various breakpoints that have been established and their properties. The breakpoint's disposition refers to what will happen to it the next time it's reached.

# Executing

A key thing to remember is that whatever line GDB is currently at has not been executed yet.

# Stepping

Single-stepping is possible with the next command, where a execution proceeds one original-source-code-line (e.g. 1 C++ line) at a time. The step command is similar, but if the line is on a function call, it will enter that function's body if there are debugging symbols available for it, whereas next would step over it.

Both step and next accept optional arguments specifying how far to step.

# Resuming

Execution can be resumed until the next breakpoint with the continue command. It accepts an optional argument n telling it to ignore the next n breakpoints.

The finish command instructs GDB to resume execution until just after the current stack frame finishes, i.e. until just after the current function call finishes. However, if there are any intervening breakpoints, GDB will pause at them.

The until command resumes execution until GDB reaches a machine instruction that has a higher memory address than the current one. Like finish, it pauses at intervening breakpoints. The until command is usually useful when used on loops. It also accepts arguments similar to break, which causes execution to continue until that location is reached.

The advance command continues to a specific location which is specified in the same form that break accepts. This essentially has the effect of continuing to a temporary breakpoint denoted by the location.

# Inspecting

Inspecting the program's state at any point in its execution is usually the primary motivation for debugging and setting breakpoints, so I consider it one of the most important parts to learn.

# Source

Source code can be shown by using the list command, which itself changes the file currently in focus by GDB, used for setting breakpoints and other things. When it's first run, list shows the 10 source lines centered around main. Subsequence list commands show the next 10 lines, stopping when the end is reached. The reverse, showing the previous 10 lines, can be done with list -. If list is given a number, it shows 10 source lines centered on that line number. This command can also accept a range of lines to print, where one of the endpoints can optionally be omitted.

(gdb) list
(gdb) list -
(gdb) list 5
(gdb) list ,28
(gdb) list 28,
(gdb) list 21,25
(gdb) list funcname
(gdb) list file.c:12
(gdb) list file.c:funcname

The number of lines output by GDB when using list is by default 10, but this can be changed:

(gdb) set listsize 5

# Printing

Basic variables such as integers can be printed with the print command. More complicated types will be covered later on. It's also possible to print out individual array elements with regular index syntax.

(gdb) print y[0]
$1 = 12

The print command has support for printing in a variety of different format, which is done with p/fmt var where fmt is any one of:

Format Code
address a
binary t
char c
decimal d
float f
hex x
hex (left zero padded) z
instruction i
octal o
unsigned decimal u
string s

There is also a printf function which behaves the same way as the function of the same name in C, but like print in GDB, the parentheses are optional.

This makes GDB much more preferable to actual printf-debugging which modifies the source code and is itself susceptible to bugs, or can even have unforeseen consequences.

Structures can be printed outright and their constituent data members will be displayed.

(gdb) p *structptr
$1 = {val = 12, left = 0x8049698, right = 0x0}

All of this information on one line can become difficult to read, in which case an alternative "pretty printing" scheme may be used which uses one struct member per-line:

(gdb) set print pretty
(gdb) p *structptr
$1 = {
  val = 12,
  left = 0x8049698,
  right = 0x0

Specific members can be printed individually by accessing the same way as one would in C/C++, both -> and . can be used on pointers:

(gdb) p structptr->val
(gdb) p structptr.val

The display command registers a variable for printing every time execution pauses. If no argument is passed, it lists all auto-displayed variables. Display directives can be disabled or enabled with the corresponding commands. To remove a display directive altogether, use the undisplay command:

(gdb) disable display 1
(gdb) enable display 1
(gdb) undisplay 1

The call command can also be used to call a particular function when a breakpoint is triggered, which can be used for printing some state out using a function defined in the program, specialized for that task.

(gdb) commands 2
> printf "current tree is"
> call printtree(root)
> end

The x command, for "examine," can be used to examing memory at a given address.

A summary of information about the current frame can be obtained with the info frame command. More specifically, the info args command can show the values of the arguments passed to the current function, and the info locals command can show all of the variables local to the current stack frame.

The ptype command can be used to determine the type of a variable. When the type is a structure or a class, it can show the layout/definition.

(gdb) ptype argc
type = int

A static array can be printed regularly with the print command:

int x[25];
(gdb) p x

It's also possible to print sub-ranges of an array, for example 5 elements starting at element 3:

(gdb) p x[3]@5

Dynamically allocated arrays have to be dereferenced and GDB has to be instructed on how large they are. This takes the form *ptr@size.

int x = (int *)malloc(6 * sizeof(int));
x[3] = 12;
(gdb) p *x@6
$1 = {0, 0, 0, 12, 0, 0}
(gdb) p (int [6]) *x
$1 = {0, 0, 0, 12, 0, 0}

# Call Stack Navigation

The runtime information immediately available to GDB is whatever is located on the current stack frame, determined by the current function call. Consider functions A, B, and C, where each one calls the next. If execution is paused within C, you can print values local to C's stack frame with typical commands like print. That is, if function C has local variable j, it can be printed with print j.

However, it's also possible to traverse the call stack as it is at any given moment, in order to bring a different frame into GDB's focus and therefore inspect that frame's state. The frame command allows traversal relative to the current function call's frame, which is referred to as frame 0. For example, to go to the grand-parent's frame:

(gdb) frame 2

GDB also provides simpler commands up and down for traversing relative to the currently focused stack frame.

The backtrace command shows the entire stack.

The command where can be used to determine where one is at any given moment.

# Setting

It's possible to set the value of variables mid-execution using the set command, which provides no output from GDB. Variables can also be set using the print command, which follows the setting of the variable with printing out its new value:

(gdb) set variable x = 12
(gdb) print x = 12

There are also variables specific to GDB that can be created and used. For example, GDB has a value history which simply assigns the result of an entered command to an increasing variable name. This is similar to Scala's interpreter which assigns the expression result values to res#. These variables can be referenced in future commands. The $ variable always refers to the previous result.

(gdb) p tmp->left
$1 = (struct node *) 0x80496a8
(gdb) p *$
$2 = {val = 5, left = 0x0, right = 0x0}

It's also possible to set environment variables within GDB:

(gdb) set environment ENVVAR = 3

Convenience variables can change values according to C rules. For example, given an array w, its elements can be iterated in GDB by creating a convenience variable that represents the iterations' current index.

int w[3] = {12, 5, 88};
(gdb) set $i = 0
(gdb) p w[$i++]
$1 = 12
$2 = 5
$3 = 88

# Core Files

A core file contains a detailed description of the program's state when it crashed, such as the contents of the stack(s), CPU's registers, and values of statically allocated variables.

Usually when a core dump file is generated, it's placed in the current directory named core or some variation of it. It may be necessary to increase the shell's core dump resource limit with the command:

$ ulimit -c unlimited

On systems that use systemd, such as mine, these files are instead managed by systemd's journal; they won't show up in the current directory regardless of the resource limit. The helper program systemd-coredumpctl can be used to extract the core dumps from the journal into individual files:

June 23rd, 2014: It seems this may no longer be the case as of arch package systemd-214-2.

$ systemd-coredumpctl dump PID -o outname # based on PID

$ systemd-coredumpctl dump urxvt -o outname # based on binary name

Core files are useful from a debugging perspective because they provide a starting point for dissecting the program to determine the cause of the crash. They are more useful than simply re-running the program within GDB because it would be that the bug that caused the crash occurs rarely and randomly.

Core files can be loaded into GDB by supplying them as a second argument, after the name of the program that generated the core file:

$ gdb crasher corefile

Once loaded, we can run a backtrace to determine the point at which the program crashed. The frame command can be used to navigate the call stack, and typical inspecting commands can be used to analyze the program's state as it was when it crashed. Breakpoints and similar tools can be established, then the program can be run normally.

# Threads

GDB announces whenever new threads are created. The info threads command can provide summary information about what each of the threads are doing. An asterisk denotes the currently focused thread. Note that some threads may be internal to the threading implementation, such as a Pthreads manager thread.

It's possible to switch GDB's focus to a different thread with the thread command, which takes as argument the thread identifier denoted in info threads.

It's also possible to provide thread disambiguators to the break command, to pause execution when a specific thread reaches a breakpoint:

(gdb) break linenr thread threadid if condition

# Abbreviations

Many commands have abbreviations which are simpler to enter:


# Valgrind

It's possible to load a GDB session inside of a valgrind session.

$ valgrind --vgdb=yes --vgdb-error=0 ./prog
$ gdb ./prog
(gdb) target remote | vgdb

It's possible to then send commands to valgrind from within GDB using the monitor command. The leak_check valgrind command for example can be used when paused at a GDB breakpoint to manually perform a memory leak check. Other useful valgrind commands are block_list and who_points_at.

(gdb) monitor help
(gdb) breakpoint 6
(gdb) monitor leak_check
February 18, 2014