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Revision as of 21:14, 16 September 2010 by Dmalcolm (talk | contribs) (Basic Operation)

Memory Debugging Tools


The gdb debugger has been extended with new commands that make it easier to track down and fix excessive memory usage within programs and libraries.

This functionality was created by Fedora contributor David Malcolm, and we believe it is unique to Fedora.


Current status

  • Targeted release: Fedora 14
  • Last updated: 2010-09-16
  • Percentage of completion: 100%

TODO: This is "feature-complete", but some issues remain:

  • I need to blog about this and write better docs
  • Fix the bugs
  • Testing


  • Preparing upstream project for initial launch:
  • I've disabled C++ support for now, as the current implementation slows down other operations.

Initial version of code uploaded

Packaged and reviewed; available as an update to F14.

Upstream tickets:

Detailed Description

The new "gdb-heap" package adds a new "heap" command to /usr/bin/gdb.

The command allows you to get a breakdown of how that process is using dynamic memory.

It allows for unplanned memory usage debugging: if a process unexpectedly starts using large amounts of memory you can attach to it with gdb, and use the heap command to figure out where the memory is going. You should also be able to use it on core dumps.

We believe this approach is entirely new, and is unique to Fedora 14.

Benefit to Fedora

This feature could be of great use to developers and system administrators: it provides a new way of analyzing how a process uses memory, without requiring advance planning.

It is unique to Fedora (it makes heavy use of the gdb/python integration we have in Fedora), and was developed by a Fedora contributor (who is a Red Hat engineer).


Code is isolated, as an extension to gdb, written in Python.

  • I'm tracking development of the code in the upstream tracker here:
  • Package the code in RPM form, add it to Fedora
  • Ensure that it's available without the user needing excessive configuration; ideally, if the rpm is installed, then you get the command automagically
  • Add it to comps so that it's suggested for installed by default if gdb is installed.
  • Testing

How To Test

No special hardware is needed.

You will need to install the gdb-heap package (not yet packaged)

Exploratory testing

  • Pick a process on your system (either as root, or one of your own processes)
  • Use "gdb attach PID" to connect to it
  • Use python import heap to register the "heap" command
  • Use the "heap" command and its various subcommands (as described on the upstream website)
  • Ensure that all results look correct, and that there are no Python tracebacks within gdb.

Ideally the amount of "uncategorized" data should not be a substantial proportion of the overall size of the dynamically-allocated memory; if it is, then that may be a bug.

Ideally the command should not take too long to run. The more blocks of memory that are "live" within a process, the longer it will take to analyze the usage. Crude timings suggest it can analyze about 5000 allocations per second, so if you have a process with 300,000 allocations, it could take a minute to analyze them.

User Experience

Basic Operation

Having attached to a process with gdb

[david@fedora-14] $ gdb attach $(pidof -x name-of-program)

you should be able to use the "heap" command to get a breakdown of how that process is using memory.

You can also do this with core dumps:

[david@fedora-14] $ gdb -c core.1976

In this example, I've attached gdb to a python process:

(gdb) heap
       Domain                        Kind              Detail   Count  Allocated size
-------------  --------------------------  ------------------  ------  --------------
       python                         str                       6,689         477,840
      cpython           PyDictEntry table                         167         456,944
      cpython           PyDictEntry table            interned       1         200,704
       python                         str            bytecode     648          92,024
uncategorized                                        32 bytes   2,866          91,712
       python                        code                         648          82,944
uncategorized                                      4128 bytes      19          78,432
       python                    function                         609          73,080
       python          wrapper_descriptor                         905          72,400
       python                        dict                         247          71,200
uncategorized                                        72 bytes     852          61,344

As you can see, gdb-heap will attempt to categorize the chunks of dynamically-allocated memory that it finds. It shows you how many blocks of memory of each category it found, with the categories sorted by the number of bytes of RAM that they're using.

The categorization is divided into three parts:

  • domain: high-level grouping e.g. "python", "C++", etc
  • kind: type information, appropriate to the domain e.g. a class/type
  • detail: additional detail (e.g. the size of a buffer, or a note that this python string is actually bytecode)

Some domains:

Domain Meaning of 'kind'
python the python class
cpython C structure/type (implementation detail within Python)
pyarena Python's optimized memory allocator
uncategorized/code> (none; gdb-heap wasn't able to identify what this is used for)
<code>C++ the C++ class (disabled for now in Fedora 14's gdb-heap; the heuristic needs to be optimized)

You can see in the above example that much of the memory is taken up by python strings (the "str" type), but a considerable amount is also occupied by implementation details of python dictionaries (the "PyDictEntry tables").

There are numerous subcommands. heap is integrated into gdb's tab-completion, so that you can see the available commands with the TAB key:

(gdb) heap
[TAB pressed]
all    diff   label  log    sizes  used   

Here's a tour of what's available. Refer to the upstream documentation for more information.

Showing all dynamic memory


Finding blocks of RAM (query language)







There's a baseline of functionality that I'm developing on top of Fedora 13's gdb.

The gdb-heap code peeks around inside the internals of the glibc heap implementation, violating encapsulation (rather by definition for a debugger), so if that changes, corresponding changes will need to be made to gdb-heap.

Some features require additional work in gdb, which I've filed RFE bugs for. Naturally this will require coordination with gdb to ensure that they land in Fedora 14:

  • RHBZ #610241: RFE: please expose "info symbol ADDRESS" in the python API
  • RHBZ #610249: RFE: notification about changes in the inferior process

Contingency Plan

None necessary, simply remove the package


Release Notes

  • The gdb debugger has been extended with new commands that make it easier to track down and fix excessive memory usage within programs and libraries. This functionality was created by Fedora contributor David Malcolm, and we believe it is unique to Fedora 14.

Comments and Discussion