Featured image for Valgrind.

Valgrind is normally associated with finding memory issues and tracking memory use of programs. But it can also track other resources like file descriptors, including where in your program they were originally opened.

File descriptors

A file descriptor is a positive integer number representing resources that can do input or output. Naturally, they can represent files that your program opens, but also network sockets and pipes between programs. Also, file descriptors can be created for monitoring timers, signals, and process ids.

File descriptors are, by default, a limited resource. ulimit -n will show you what the default number of file descriptors that a program can open. A program can normally have only 1024 file descriptors open. Although this number can be increased (also using ulimit -n), you might still want to make sure you don't keep file descriptors open unnecessarily.

As long as a file descriptor is open, the resources associated with it cannot be released. For example, a file cannot be deleted from the disk if a program is still reading it, or a network port will be kept open. Also, open file descriptors are inherited by any program created by execve (unless it was opened with the O_CLOEXEC flag).

Valgrind --track-fds=yes

So forgetting to close a file descriptor when it is no longer needed wastes resources and might indicate a logical error in your program. Just like a memory leak, you can leak file descriptors by forgetting to close them when you are done with them. Valgrind can help you track down when that happens. Valgrind tracks all system calls that create or close/destroy file descriptors. So at the end of your program, it can show you which were opened but never closed.

Take, for example, this trivial program that reads a preferences file but forgets to close it after it has read all program settings:

#include <stdio.h>

int main ()

  /* Read preferences.  */

  FILE *prefs = fopen ("myprefs", "r");

  /* Parse preferences.  Forget to fclose prefs.  */

  return 0;

Let's compile this and make sure the myprefs file exists:

$ gcc -g -o leaky leaky.c

$ touch myprefs

Now when running this under valgrind with --track-fds=yes (which works with any valgrind tool, including the none tool, in case you aren't interested in any other memory tracking reports), it will point out that a file descriptor is still open in your program and tell you where it was originally opened:

$ valgrind -q --tool=none --track-fds=yes ./leaky

==3283== FILE DESCRIPTORS: 4 open (3 std) at exit.

==3283== Open file descriptor 3: myprefs

==3283==    at 0x4953628: open (open64.c:41)

==3283==    by 0x48D73D5: _IO_file_open (fileops.c:188)

==3283==    by 0x48D759A: _IO_file_fopen@@GLIBC_2.2.5 (fileops.c:280)

==3283==    by 0x48CB88C: __fopen_internal (iofopen.c:75)

==3283==    by 0x40113C: main (leaky.c:6)

You see that the code on line 6 was responsible for opening the file descriptor for myprefs, but the stacktrace shows it was actually created inside the glibc library.

Also note that valgrind reports 4 open file descriptors (3 std). There are three standard file descriptors, stdin (0), stdout (1), and stderr (2), for reading from standard input, writing to standard output, or standard error. The standard 3 file descriptors are normally not reported because programs usually don't close and/or reassign these file descriptors.

If you do want to see a report on the standard file descriptors, you can run valgrind with --track-fds=all (this is a new option since valgrind 3.17.0):

$ valgrind -q --tool=none --track-fds=all ./leaky

==3292== FILE DESCRIPTORS: 4 open (3 std) at exit.

==3292== Open file descriptor 3: myprefs

==3292==    at 0x4953628: open (open64.c:41)

==3292==    by 0x48D73D5: _IO_file_open (fileops.c:188)

==3292==    by 0x48D759A: _IO_file_fopen@@GLIBC_2.2.5 (fileops.c:280)

==3292==    by 0x48CB88C: __fopen_internal (iofopen.c:75)

==3292==    by 0x40113C: main (leaky.c:6)


==3292== Open file descriptor 2: /dev/pts/1



==3292== Open file descriptor 1: /dev/pts/1



==3292== Open file descriptor 0: /dev/pts/1


Interactive tracking with vgdb or gdb

Knowing which file descriptors are still open when the program finishes is very useful to see whether you can close those and free the resources associated with it. But it is also useful to know which file descriptors are open during the runtime of the program. Sometimes the usage of a library might open unexpected file descriptors. Or file descriptors might be kept open for longer than necessary.

To monitor a program running under valgrind you can use the vgdb utility. vgdb can be used as standalone utility or in combination with gdb. As a standalone utility, it can query a running valgrind process to see which file descriptors are open.

For example, if we are running our favorite editor with valgrind --track-fds=yes emacs, then we can interactively query the current open file descriptors (and where they were opened) by running:

$ vgdb v.info open_fds

sending command v.info open_fds to pid 4472

==4472== FILE DESCRIPTORS: 6 open (3 std) .

==4472== Open AF_INET socket 5: xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx:60770 <-> yyy.yyy.yyy.yyy:443

==4472==    at 0x724C64B: socket (syscall-template.S:120)

==4472==    by 0x586709: connect_network_socket.lto_priv.0 (process.c:3366)

==4472==    by 0x5C58B4: wait_reading_process_output (process.c:5249)

==4472==    by 0x425D28: sit_for (dispnew.c:6161)

==4472==    by 0x4BA2AD: read_char (keyboard.c:2800)

==4472==    by 0x4C1AE6: read_key_sequence.lto_priv.0 (keyboard.c:9635)

==4472==    by 0x4B41CA: command_loop_1.lto_priv.0 (keyboard.c:1392)

==4472==    by 0x530746: internal_condition_case (eval.c:1450)

==4472==    by 0x4AFDAD: command_loop_2 (keyboard.c:1133)

==4472==    by 0x530688: internal_catch (eval.c:1181)

==4472==    by 0x4B1A88: command_loop.lto_priv.0 (keyboard.c:1111)

==4472==    by 0x5C35CC: recursive_edit_1.isra.0 (keyboard.c:720)


==4472== Open file descriptor 4: /dev/tty

==4472==    at 0x723A7A6: openat (openat64.c:39)

==4472==    by 0x4A0152: init_tty (fcntl2.h:129)

==4472==    by 0x42917C: init_display_interactive.lto_priv.0 (dispnew.c:6492)

==4472==    by 0x41D166: main (dispnew.c:6560)


==4472== Open file descriptor 3:

==4472==    at 0x724B99B: timerfd_create (syscall-template.S:120)

==4472==    by 0x41E9CE: main (atimer.c:584)

Here you see that emacs at that time had 3 (extra) file descriptors open, one for a timer, one for a terminal display, and one for a network socket. The IP addresses are obscured in the above output for a buffer that was using eww (the Emacs Web Wowser) to load a web page.

Note that if there are multiple processes running under valgrind (for example, because you used valgrind --trace-children=yes), then you have to tell vgdb which process to query using --pid=xxxx.

To have more control over when exactly to show the known open file descriptors, you can also use vgdb together with valgrind just like how you Debug memory errors with Valgrind and GDB.

Using the valgrind option --vgdb-error=0 and the gdb target remote | vgdb command, as the above article describes, you can interrupt, step through, or set breakpoints in your program where you want to see which file descriptors are open. Then you can use the gdb monitor command to query valgrind. Here is an example running the bash shell under valgrind and gdb:

(gdb) monitor v.info open_fds

==5338== FILE DESCRIPTORS: 4 open (3 std) .

==5338== Open file descriptor 255: /dev/pts/3

==5338==    at 0x499A0EB: dup2 (syscall-template.S:120)

==5338==    by 0x147FEA: move_to_high_fd (general.c:661)

==5338==    by 0x16DC23: initialize_job_control (jobs.c:4412)

==5338==    by 0x13CAE6: shell_initialize (shell.c:1994)

==5338==    by 0x139F78: main (shell.c:590)

Wrap up

Valgrind cannot just track memory use but also file descriptors used by your program. File descriptors are finite resources that should be closed when the program is done with the underlying resource to reclaim (kernel) memory or device resources, which is important for long-running processes.

Valgrind using --track-fds=yes can show you which file descriptors were never closed by your program. And in combination with vgdb and gdb, it can help you show which file descriptors are open at various stages of your program and where those file descriptors were originally opened.

Last updated: August 14, 2023