How debugger works

Table of contents

IntroductionBACK TO TOC

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 supportBACK TO TOC

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 (debuggee) 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 debuggee, but then what if debuggee 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 debuggee registers. Otherwise it won’t be able to tell you where the debuggee 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 debuggees. 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 debuggee’s memory space. And we need an ability to query and set values of the debuggee’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()BACK TO TOC

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 debuggee registers or altering values in its memory. Second argument specifies pid of the debuggee 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 debugBACK TO TOC

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 debuggee. 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-debuggee synchronizationBACK TO TOC

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 debuggee 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 debuggee 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 debuggee and it does all that with signals. This includes the “debuggee 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.

A new debugger was bornBACK TO TOC

Now lets see code that actually demonstrates that. Complete listing can be found here.

The debuggee does the following…

    if (ptrace( PTRACE_TRACEME, 0, NULL, NULL ))
        perror( "ptrace" );

    execve( "/bin/ls", argv, envp );

Note the ptrace( PTRACE_TRACEME ) followed by execve(). This is what real debuggers do to spawn the process that going to be debugged. As you know, execve() replaces current executable image and memory of the current process with the executable and memory space belonging to program that being execve()‘d. Once kernel finishes this operation, it sends SIGTRAP to calling process and SIGCHLD to the debugger. The debugger receives appropriate notifications via signals and via wait() that returns. Here is the debugger’s code.

    do {
        child = wait( &status );
        printf( "Debugger exited wait()\n" );
        if (WIFSTOPPED( status ))
            printf( "Child has stopped due to signal %d\n",
                WSTOPSIG( status ) );
        if (WIFSIGNALED( status ))
            printf( "Child %ld received signal %d\n",
                    WTERMSIG(status) );
    } while (!WIFEXITED( status ));

Compiling and running listing1.c produces following output:

In debuggee process 14095
In debugger process 14094
Process 14094 received signal 17
Debugger exited wait()
Child has stopped due to signal 5

Here we can clearly see that debugger indeed receives a signal and gets notified via wait(). If we want to place a breakpoint before we start to debug the process, this is our chance. Lets talk about how we can do something like that.

The magic behind INT 3BACK TO TOC

It is time to dig a bit into subject that is not adored by most of the programmers and that is assembler language. I am afraid we don’t have much choice because breakpoints work on assembler level.

We have to understand that each our compiled program is actually a set of instructions that tells CPU what to do. Some of our C expressions translated into single instruction, while others may be translated into hundreds and even thousands of instructions. Instruction may be bigger or smaller. From 1 byte up to 15 bytes long for modern CPUs (Intel x86_64).

Debuggers mostly operate on CPU instruction level. The matter of fact that gdb understands C/C++ code and allows you to place breakpoints at certain C/C++ line is only an enhancement over gdb‘s basic ability to place breakpoints on certain instruction.

There are several ways to place breakpoints. The most widely used is the INT 3 instruction. It is a single byte operation code instruction that once reached by CPU, tells it to call special breakpoint interrupt handler, provided by operating system during its initialization. Since INT 3 instruction operation code is so small, we can safely substitute any instruction with it. Once operating system’s interrupt handler called, it figures what process reached a breakpoint and notifies it and its debugging process via signals.

Breakpoints hands onBACK TO TOC

Lets return to our debuggee/debugger friends. As we mentioned debugger does have a chance to place a breakpoint before letting the debuggee process to run. Lets see how this can be done.

Breakpoints placed with INT 3 instruction. Before writing the actual 0xcc (INT 3 operation code), we should figure where to place the instruction. For purpose of this article we will do it manually. On the contrary, real debuggers include complex logic that calculates where and when to place the breakpoints. gdb places several breakpoints by itself, without you even knowing about it. And obviously it has functionality that places breakpoints once you ask it to do so.

In our previous example we had our debuggee process executing ls. It is not suitable for our next demonstration. We will need a sample program that would let us easily demonstrate breakpoints in action. Here it is.

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
        printf( "~~~~~~~~~~~~> Before breakpoint\n" );
        // The breakpoint
        printf( "~~~~~~~~~~~~> After breakpoint\n" );

        return 0;

And here is the disassembler output of the main() routine.

0000000000400508 <main>:
  400508:       55                      push   %rbp
  400509:       48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp
  40050c:       bf 18 06 40 00          mov    $0x400618,%edi
  400511:       e8 12 ff ff ff          callq  400428 <puts@plt>
  400516:       bf 2a 06 40 00          mov    $0x40062a,%edi
  40051b:       e8 08 ff ff ff          callq  400428 <puts@plt>
  400520:       b8 00 00 00 00          mov    $0x0,%eax
  400525:       c9                      leaveq
  400526:       c3                      retq

We can see that if we will place a breakpoint at address 0x400516, we will see a printout before reaching the breakpoint and right after reaching it. For the sake of our demonstration, we will place a breakpoint at this address. Once we will reach the breakpoint, we will sleep and then let the debuggee running. We should see debuggee producing first printout, then sleeping for a few seconds and then producing second printout.

We’ll achieve our goal in several steps.

  1. First of all, we should fork() off the debuggee. We already did something similar.
  2. Next step is to intercept the execve() call in debuggee. Been there, done that.
  3. Here’s something new. We should modify a byte at address 0x400516 from 0xbf to 0xcc, saving original value (0xbf). This is how we place the breakpoint.
  4. Next, we’re going to wait() for the process. Once it will reach the breakpoint, we’ll be notified.
  5. Once the debuggee reaches the breakpoint we want to restore the code we broke with our 0xcc to its original state.
  6. In addition, we want to fix value of RIP register. This register tells CPU what is the location in memory of next meaningful instruction for it to execute. It’s value will be 0x400517, one byte after 0xcc that we placed. We want to set the RIP register to 0x400516 value because we don’t want the CPU to skip over that MOV instruction that we broke with our 0xcc.
  7. Finally, we want to wait five seconds for the sake of demonstration and let the debuggee continue running.

First things first. Lets see how we do step 3.

        addr = 0x400516;

        data = ptrace( PTRACE_PEEKTEXT, child, (void *)addr, NULL );
        orig_data = data;
        data = (data & ~0xff) | 0xcc;
        ptrace( PTRACE_POKETEXT, child, (void *)addr, data );

Again, we can see how ptrace() does the job for us. First we peek 8 (sizeof( long )) bytes from address 0x400516. On some architectures this could cause lots of headache because of unaligned memory access. Luckily, we’re on x86_64 and unaligned memory accesses are permitted. Next we set the lowest byte  to be 0xcc – INT 3 instruction. Finally, we place 8 bytes back to their place.

We’ve seen how we can wait for certain event in debuggee. Also, we now know how to restore the original value at address 0x400516. So we can skip over steps 4-5 and jump right into step 6. This is something that we haven’t done so far.

What we have to do is to read debuggee registers, change them and write them back. Again ptrace() does all the job for us.

        struct user_regs_struct regs;
        ptrace( PTRACE_GETREGS, child, NULL, &regs ); = addr;
        ptrace( PTRACE_SETREGS, child, NULL, &regs );

Things are not too well documented here. For instance ptrace() documentation never mentions struct user_regs_struct, however this is what ptrace() system call expects to receive in kernel. Once we know what we should use as ptrace() arguments, it is easy. We use PTRACE_GETREGS operation to obtain values of debuggee’s registers, we modify the RIP register and write them back with PTRACE_SETREGS operation. Clear and simple.

Lets see how things actually work. You can find complete listing of debugger process here. Compiling and running listing2.c, produces following output.

In debuggee process 29843
In debugger process 29842
Process 29842 received signal 17
~~~~~~~~~~~~> Before breakpoint
Process 29842 received signal 17
RIP before resuming child is 400517
Time before debugger falling asleep: 1206346035
Time after debugger falling asleep: 1206346040. Resuming debuggee...
~~~~~~~~~~~~> After breakpoint
Process 29842 received signal 17
Debuggee exited...
Debugger exiting...

You can see that “Before breakpoint” printout appears 5 seconds before “After breakpoint” printout. The “RIP before resuming child is 400517” clearly indicates that the debuggee has stopped on address 0x400517, as we expected.

Single stepsBACK TO TOC

After seeing how easy to place a breakpoint, you can guess that stepping over one line of C/C++ code is simply a matter of placing a breakpoint on the next line of code. This is exactly what gdb does when you want it to single step over some expression.

ConclusionBACK TO TOC

Debuggers and how they work often associated with some kind of magic.

Debuggers, and gdb as an example, are exceptionally complicated piece of software. Placing breakpoints and single stepping is only a small fraction of what it is able to do. gdb in particular works on dozens of hardware architectures. It supports remote debugging. It is perhaps the most advanced and complicated executable analyzer. It knows when a program loads dynamic library and analyzes the code of that library automatically. It supports bunch of programming languages – from C/C++ to ADA. And these are just few out of its features.

On the contrary, we’ve seen how easy to start debugging certain process, place a breakpoint, etc. The basic functionality that allows debugging is in the operating system and in the CPU, waiting for us to use it.

Did you know that you can receive periodical updates with the latest articles that I write right into your email box? Alternatively, you subscribe to the RSS feed!

Want to know how? Check out
Subscribe page


  1. […] Playing with ptrace, Part I * Process tracing using ptrace * How debugger works […]

  2. […] Playing with ptrace, Part I * Process tracing using ptrace * How debugger works […]

  3. […] How debugger works * Understanding ELF using readelf and objdump * Implementing breakpoints on x86 Linux * NASM manual […]

  4. Hi Alexander,

    this is a very good article about debugging. Thanks a lot!

    But… I can’t find some of code from the article :(
    For example,

    Can you upload it again?


  5. DW says:

    the link of sourecode is broken. Where can I get them?


  6. DW says:

    And I have a question.
    In this condition, the debugged program is only permitted to execute, with no read and write permission. I can disassembly raw data, which can be got via ptrace with PTRACE_PEEKDATA request.

    But How can I know where is the address of main function?

  7. DW says:

    @Kevin P. – thanks, I get it. And I have finished my ebugger yesterday, and it is workable now. :)
    And I also learn how to find the address of main function.
    anyway, thank you and the paper :D

  8. Kevin P. says:

    and by the way, very interesting article Alex, thanks!

    in `listing2.c`, at least on Fedora14, #include linux/user.h should be replaced by “sys/user.h” (and the bp should be placed at 0x4004d2 on my 64b system, but that’s part of the game :)

  9. Hey guys. These links point to my older domain which has expired couple of week ago. I didn’t want to renew it, but now it seems that I probably should :D So it is done. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  10. Alexander says:

    Interesting article. But in the case of shared library how does debug work? Code of shared library can be reused by any number of processes in be reside in the same area of RAM. In case of inserting INT3 instruction to shared code how will system lead itself?

  11. Vamshi says:

    Great article!

  12. Coaku says:

    @DW – Hi, I’m so confused that how to get the address of main() when the debuggie is running ? thanks :)

  13. @Coaku, try this in your code, determined at compile time, available when debugging:

    unsigned long foo = (unsigned long)&main;

  14. Richard says:

    Hi, Alex

    This is a very interesting article, and I like it very much.

    Well, I found one thing missed in your code.
    I use this one,

    I think we need to add this line before sending the last PTRACE_CONT to child.

    ptrace(PTRACE_POKETEXT, child, (void *)addr, orig_data);

    So that in child space, it could continue the original code instead of 0xcc again.

  15. 调试器工作原理——基础篇 | IT博报 | 实时、前沿、分享 says:

    […] How debugger works […]

  16. Implementing a GDB Stub in Kitten OS | Angen Zheng says:

    […] [4]. […]

  17. […] debugger works and even demonstrate a small program that debugs other program. It’s right here and I hope you’ll find it […]

  18. […] you’re looking for a system call, it appears that ptrace is how GDB might do it. Also, here’s a nice overview of how debuggers […]

  19. John Seena says:

    debuggie -> debuggee

    I know it’s a made-up word, but still…

  20. Asif says:

    about the debugger becoming the parent as well,
    this is not reflected in the value returned in getppid()

  21. […] Un autre article sur le fonctionnement d’un debugger […]

  22. D2 says:

    Debugging using Eclipse, I see 2 threads in the debuggee that usually don’t exist. I was curious about where those threads come from. I have searched quite a bit on the innertube but have not found anything about this. My best guess is that they are injected by ptrace, and that this is really the deeper answer to how ptrace actually works.

    Does anybody have any info on this?

  23. Shakaiba says:

    Thanks for this very informative blog. I need some advice. What I am trying to do is fork a process, exec a new executable in the child process, let the parent terminate and attach to the child process by GDB to debug this child process. The reason I am using an initial parent process to fork a child(debuggable) process is that I want to set some environment properties for this child process which requires some system calls into the linux kernel and do not want to modify the GDB to do so. I tried and found that I can attach to the child process through GDB after the parent process has terminated but in that case the child is already running after the exec() system call. The problem is that I cannot use ptrace(PTRACE_TRACEME) for the child, which causes it to stop at first instruction because in that case GDB cannot attach to it, as it is already traced by its parent. How can I stop the child process after setting up its environment so that it is stopped at its first instruction when i do exec()?

Leave a Reply

Prove you are not a computer or die *