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How debugger works

This text was found here http://www.alexonlinux.com/how-debugger-works


In this article, I’d like to tell you how real debugger works. What happens under the hood and why it happens. We’ll even write our own small debugger and see it in action.

I will talk about Linux, although same principles apply to other operating systems. Also, we’ll talk about x86 architecture. This is because it is the most common architecture today. On the other hand, even if you’re working with other architecture, you will find this article useful because, again, same principles work everywhere.

Kernel support

Actual debugging requires operating system kernel support and here’s why. Think about it. We’re living in a world where one process reading memory belonging to another process is a serious security vulnerability. Yet, when debugging a program, we would like to access a memory that is part of debugged process’s (debuggie) memory space, from debugger process. It is a bit of a problem, isn’t it? We could, of course, try somehow to use same memory space for both debugger and debuggie, but then what if debuggie itself creates processes. This really complicates things.

Debugger support has to be part of the operating system kernel. Kernel able to read and write memory that belongs to each and every process in the system. Furthermore, as long as process is not running, kernel can see value of its registers and debugger have to be able to know values of the debuggie registers. Otherwise it won’t be able to tell you where the debuggie has stopped (when we pressed CTRL-C in gdb for instance).

As we spoke about where debugger support starts we already mentioned several of the features that we need in order to have debugging support in operating system. We don’t want just any process to be able to debug other processes. Someone has to monitor debuggers and debuggies. Hence the debugger has to tell the kernel that it is going to debug certain process and kernel has to either permit or deny this request. Therefore, we need an ability to tell the kernel that certain process is a debugger and it is about to debug other process. Also we need an ability to query and set values from debuggie’s memory space. And we need an ability to query and set values of the debuggie’s registers, when it stops.

And operating system lets us to do all this. Each operating system does it in it’s manner of course. Linux provides single system call named ptrace() (defined in sys/ptrace.h), which allows to do all these operations and much more.


ptrace() accepts four arguments. First is one of the values from enum __ptrace_request that defined in sys/ptrace.h. This argument specifies what operation we would like to do, whether it is reading debuggie registers or altering values in its memory. Second argument specifies pid of the debuggie process. It’s not very obvious, but single process can debug several other processes. Thus we have to tell exactly what process we’re referring. Last two arguments are optional arguments for the call.

Starting to debug

One of the first things debuggers do to start debugging certain process is attaching to it or running it. There is a ptrace() operation for each one of these cases.

First called PTRACE_TRACEME, tells the kernel that calling process wants its parent to debug itself. I.e. me calling ptrace( PTRACE_TRACEME ) means I want my dad to debug me. This comes handy when you want debugger process to spawn the debuggie. In this case you do fork() creating a new process, then ptrace( PTRACE_TRACEME ) and then you call exec() or execve().

Second operation called PTRACE_ATTACH. It tells the kernel that calling process should become debugging parent of the process being called. Debugging parent means debugger and a parent process.

Debugger-debuggie synchronization

Alright. Now we told operating system that we are going to debug certain process. Operating system made it our child process. Good. This is a great time for us to have the debuggie stopped and us doing preparations before we actually start to debug. We may want to, for instance, analyze executable that we run and place a breakpoints before we actually start debugging. So, how do we stop the debuggie and let debugger do its thing?

Operating system does that for us using signals. Actually, operating system notifies us, the debugger, about all kinds of events that occur in debuggie and it does all that with signals. This includes the “debuggie is ready to shoot” signal. In particular, if we attach to existing process it receives SIGSTOP and we receive SIGCHLD once it actually stops. If we spawn a new process and it did ptrace( PTRACE_TRACEME ) it will receive SIGTRAP signal once it attempts to exec() or execve(). We will be notified with SIGCHLD about this, of course.

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