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8 gdb tricks you should know

By: Guest Author

Despite its age, gdb remains an amazingly versatile and flexible tool, and mastering it
can save you huge amounts of time when trying to debug problems in your code. In this
post, I'll share 10 tips and tricks for using GDB to debug most efficiently.

I'll be using the Linux kernel for examples throughout this post, not because these
examples are necessarily realistic, but because it's a large C codebase that I know and
that anyone can download and take a look at. Don't worry if you aren't familiar with
Linux's source in particular -- the details of the examples won't matter too much.

1. break WHERE if COND

If you've ever used gdb, you almost certainly know about the "breakpoint"
command, which lets you break at some specified point in the debugged

But did you know that you can set conditional breakpoints? If you add if
CONDITIONto a breakpoint command, you can include an expression to be
evaluated whenever the program reaches that point, and the program will only
be stopped if the condition is fulfilled. Suppose I was debugging the Linux
kernel and wanted to stop whenever init got scheduled. I could do:
(gdb) break context_switch if next == init_task
Note that the condition is evaluated by gdb, not by the debugged program, so
you still pay the cost of the target stopping and switching to gdb every time the
breakpoint is hit. As such, they still slow the target down in relation to to how
often the target location is hit, not how often the condition is met.

2. command
In addition to conditional breakpoints, the command command lets you specify
commands to be run every time you hit a breakpoint. This can be used for a
number of things, but one of the most basic is to augment points in a program
to include debug output, without having to recompile and restart the program. I
could get a minimal log of every mmap() operation performed on a system
(gdb) b do_mmap_pgoff
Breakpoint 1 at 0xffffffff8111a441: file mm/mmap.c, line 940.
(gdb) command 1
Type commands for when breakpoint 1 is hit, one per line.
End with a line saying just "end".
>print addr
>print len
>print prot
3. gdb --args
This one is simple, but a huge timesaver if you didn't know it. If you just want to
start a program under gdb, passing some arguments on the command line,
you can just build your command-line like usual, and then put "gdb --args" in
front to launch gdb with the target program and the argument list both set:

[~]$ gdb --args pizzamaker --deep-dish --toppings=pepperoni

(gdb) show args
Argument list to give program being debugged when it is started is
" --deep-dish --toppings=pepperoni".
(gdb) b main
Breakpoint 1 at 0x45467c: file oven.c, line 123.
(gdb) run
I find this especially useful if I want to debug a project that has some arcane
wrapper script that assembles lots of environment variables and possibly
arguments before launching the actual binary (I'm looking at you, libtool).
Instead of trying to replicate all that state and then launch gdb, simply make a
copy of the wrapper, find the final "exec" call or similar, and add "gdb --args" in

4. Finding source files

I run Ubuntu, so I can download debug symbols for most of the packages on
my system from, and I can get source using apt-get source.
But how do I tell gdb to put the two together? If the debug symbols include
relative paths, I can use gdb's directory command to add the source directory
to my source path:
[~/src]$ apt-get source coreutils
[~/src]$ sudo apt-get install coreutils-dbgsym
[~/src]$ gdb /bin/ls
GNU gdb (GDB) 7.1-ubuntu
(gdb) list main
1192 ls.c: No such file or directory.
in ls.c
(gdb) directory ~/src/coreutils-7.4/src/
Source directories searched: /home/nelhage/src/coreutils-
(gdb) list main
1192 }
1193 }
1195 int
1196 main (int argc, char **argv)
1197 {
1198 int i;
1199 struct pending *thispend;
1200 int n_files;
Sometimes, however, debug symbols end up with absolute paths, such as the
kernel's. In that case, I can use set substitute-path to tell gdb how to translate
[~/src]$ apt-get source linux-image-2.6.32-25-generic
[~/src]$ sudo apt-get install linux-image-2.6.32-25-generic-dbgsym
[~/src]$ gdb /usr/lib/debug/boot/vmlinux-2.6.32-25-generic
(gdb) list schedule
5519 /build/buildd/linux-2.6.32/kernel/sched.c: No such file or
in /build/buildd/linux-2.6.32/kernel/sched.c
(gdb) set substitute-path /build/buildd/linux-2.6.32
(gdb) list schedule
5520 static void put_prev_task(struct rq *rq, struct
task_struct *p)
5521 {
5522 u64 runtime = p->se.sum_exec_runtime - p-
5524 update_avg(&p->se.avg_running, runtime);
5526 if (p->state == TASK_RUNNING) {
5527 /*
5528 * In order to avoid avg_overlap growing stale
when we are
5. Debugging macros
One of the standard reasons almost everyone will tell you to prefer inline
functions over macros is that debuggers tend to be better at dealing with inline
functions. And in fact, by default, gdb doesn't know anything at all about
macros, even when your project was built with debug symbols:

(gdb) p GFP_ATOMIC
No symbol "GFP_ATOMIC" in current context.
(gdb) p task_is_stopped(&init_task)
No symbol "task_is_stopped" in current context.
However, if you're willing to tell GCC to generate debug symbols specifically
optimized for gdb, using -ggdb3, it can preserve this information:
$ make KCFLAGS=-ggdb3
(gdb) break schedule
(gdb) continue
(gdb) p/x GFP_ATOMIC
$1 = 0x20
(gdb) p task_is_stopped_or_traced(init_task)
$2 = 0
You can also use the macro and info macro commands to work with macros
from inside your gdb session:
(gdb) macro expand task_is_stopped_or_traced(init_task)
expands to: ((init_task->state & (4 | 8)) != 0)
(gdb) info macro task_is_stopped_or_traced
Defined at include/linux/sched.h:218
included at include/linux/nmi.h:7
included at kernel/sched.c:31
#define task_is_stopped_or_traced(task) ((task->state &
Note that gdb actually knows which contexts macros are and aren't visible, so
when you have the program stopped inside some function, you can only
access macros visible at that point. (You can see that the "included at" lines
above show you through exactly what path the macro is visible).

6. gdb variables
Whenever you print a variable in gdb, it prints this weird $NN = before it in the
(gdb) p 5+5
$1 = 10
This is actually a gdb variable, that you can use to reference that same
variable any time later in your session:

(gdb) p $1
$2 = 10
You can also assign your own variables for convenience, using set:
(gdb) set $foo = 4
(gdb) p $foo
$3 = 4
This can be useful to grab a reference to some complex expression or similar
that you'll be referencing many times, or, for example, for simplicity in writing a
conditional breakpoint (see tip 1).
7. Register variables
In addition to the numeric variables, and any variables you define, gdb
exposes your machine's registers as pseudo-variables, including some cross-
architecture aliases for common ones, like $sp for the the stack pointer,
or $pc for the program counter or instruction pointer.
These are most useful when debugging assembly code or code without
debugging symbols. Combined with a knowledge of your machine's calling
convention, for example, you can use these to inspect function parameters:

(gdb) break write if $rsi == 2

will break on all writes to stderr on amd64, where the $rsi register is used to
pass the first parameter.
8. The x command
Most people who've used gdb know about the print or p command, because of
its obvious name, but I've been surprised how many don't know about the
power of the x command.
x (for "examine") is used to output regions of memory in various formats. It
takes two arguments in a slightly unusual syntax:
ADDRESS, unsurprisingly, is the address to examine; It can be an arbitrary
expression, like the argument to print.
FMT controls how the memory should be dumped, and consists of (up to) three
o A numeric COUNT of how many elements to dump
o A single-character FORMAT, indicating how to interpret and display
each element
o A single-character SIZE, indicating the size of each element to
x displays COUNT elements of length SIZE each, starting from ADDRESS,
formatting them according to the FORMAT.
There are many valid "format" arguments; help x in gdb will give you the full
list, so here's my favorites:
x/x displays elements in hex, x/d displays them as signed
decimals, x/c displays characters, x/i disassembles memory as instructions,
and x/s interprets memory as C strings.
The SIZE argument can be one of: b, h, w, and g, for one-, two-, four-, and
eight-byte blocks, respectively.
If you have debug symbols so that GDB knows the types of everything you
might want to inspect, p is usually a better choice, but if not, x is invaluable for
taking a look at memory.
[~]$ grep saved_command /proc/kallsyms
ffffffff81946000 B saved_command_line
(gdb) x/s 0xffffffff81946000
ffffffff81946000 <>: "root=/dev/sda1 quiet"
x/i is invaluable as a quick way to disassemble memory:
(gdb) x/5i schedule
0xffffffff8154804a <schedule>: push %rbp
0xffffffff8154804b <schedule+1>: mov $0x11ac0,%rdx
0xffffffff81548052 <schedule+8>: mov %gs:0xb588,%rax
0xffffffff8154805b <schedule+17>: mov %rsp,%rbp
0xffffffff8154805e <schedule+20>: push %r15
If I'm stopped at a segfault in unknown code, one of the first things I try is
something like x/20i $ip-40, to get a look at what the code I'm stopped at looks
A quick-and-dirty but surprisingly effective way to debug memory leaks is to let
the leak grow until it consumes most of a program's memory, and then
attach gdb and just x random pieces of memory. Since the leaked data is using
up most of memory, you'll usually hit it pretty quickly, and can try to interpret
what it must have come from.

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