Extending gdbserver to support an strace client

The strace command traces system calls and signals, deciding them and their corresponding arguments into a symbolic form. A frequent debugging request from developers is the ability to allow strace to trace system calls for a program that is also being debugged by GDB, like this:

% gdb --args test-program
(gdb) b main
Breakpoint 1 at 0x40128e: file test-program.c, line 22.
(gdb) run
Starting program: test-program
Breakpoint 1, main (argc=3, argv=0x7fffffffdb98) at test-program.c:22
22 int thread_count = 2;

In another terminal window, we invoke strace on the same process GDB is debugging:

% strace -p $(pgrep -f test-program)
strace: attach: ptrace(PTRACE_SEIZE, 27882): Operation not permitted

The culprit here is that the ptrace system call, which is used by both GDB and strace to control the execution of programs, and does not allow both strace and GDB to control the same process.

One solution is to use gdbserver to support both the gdb client and the strace client.

Extending strace to support gdbserver

The first step in this process is to extend strace to support gdbserver. The strace command is implemented using the ptrace call to intercept system calls. Gdbserver is also able to intercept system calls. To enable strace to use gdbserver, it is necessary to add a new back end that uses gdbserver instead of ptrace to do the system call interception. This gdbserver back end provides similar functionality to the ptrace back end.

Now, let's look at some examples.

Example of strace using a gdbserver

An example of running strace with an alternative gdbserver back end is:

% strace -G '|/usr/bin/gdbserver --once --multi stdio' test-program

This example says to:

  1. Connect to gdbserver using the -G option.
  2. Run gdbserver only once.
  3. Communicate with strace with stdio.
  4. Use gdbserver to trace test-program.

When run, the output provides (some output omitted):

[pid 15603] close(-1) = -1 EBADF (Bad file descriptor)
[pid 15603] chroot(".") = -1 EPERM (Operation not permitted)
[pid 15603] pipe([3, 4]) = 0
[pid 15603] write(4, "a\0", 2) = 2
[pid 15603] read(3, "a\0", 2) = 2
[pid 15603] madvise(0x7ffff75bb000, 8368128, MADV_DONTNEED) = 0
[pid 15595] --- stopped by 255 ---
[pid 15595] +++ exited with 0 +++

Example of strace using a standalone gdbserver

Alternately strace can use a standalone gdbserver:

  1. Start gdbserver:
    % gdbserver --multi :65432
  2. Second, start the strace client and communicate with gdbserver using the TCP port 65432.
  3. Tell strace to trace the test program:
    % strace -G localhost${i} test-program

Example of strace using a remote gdbserver

An example of running strace with a standalone gdbserver on a remote machine is to first start gdbserver on the remote machine:

% gdbserver --once :65432 test-program

Second, start the strace client and communicate with gdbserver on the remote host using the TCP port given in the gdbserver command:

% strace -G remote-host.org.com:65432

Note that we give neither a -p PID option nor a test program option. That information was specified by gdbserver, and strace will inherit that test program connection:

brk(NULL) = 0x63a000
arch_prctl(0x3001 /* ARCH_??? */, 0x7fffffffdb40) = -1 EINVAL (Invalid argument)
--- stopped by 255 ---
+++ exited with 0 +++

Extending gdbserver to support both a gdb and an strace client

Gdbserver currently handles a single client connection. To support both a gdb and strace client, it is necessary to enable gdbserver to handle multiple client connections. To do this, gdbserver must alternate between:

  1. The gdb client waits.
  2. Gdbserver sends a syscall packet to strace.
  3. Strace continues running via gdbserver.
  4. Gdbserver interacts with the gdb client while the strace client waits.

Gdbserver currently keeps state information for a single client. Making gdbserver multiple client-aware requires adding state information for both the gdb client and the strace client—for example, the file descriptor for the connection and state information regarding the packets sent over the connection.

As is the case with time-sharing, one client will always be the active client. Client packet requests (continue, step, get memory, etc.) and the current client state (active or waiter) determine the client's next state. For instance:

  1. State: GDB client is active, strace client is waiting.
  2. Request: GDB client makes the next request over a syscall.
  3. State: GDB client is waiting, strace client is active.
  4. Request: Strace receives syscall and continues running via gdbserver.
  5. State: GDB client is active, strace client is waiting.

Example of a gdbserver and strace client

This example says to start gdbserver and use TCP port 65432 to communicate with clients:

  1. Start gdbserver:
% gdbserver --multi :65432
  1. Do the following for GDB:
    1. Start the gdb client in another terminal window.
    2. Tell GDB to communicate with the gdbserver using the TCP port 65432.
    3. Set a breakpoint and run the test program:
% gdb
(gdb) file test-program
(gdb) target extended-remote localhost:65432
(gdb) set remote exec-file test-program
(gdb) b thread_worker
(gdb) run
(gdb) Thread 1 "test-program" hit Breakpoint 1, thread_worker () ...
52 pthread_barrier_wait (&barrier);
  1. Start the strace client in another terminal window.
  2. Do the following for strace:
    1. Tell strace to communicate with gdbserver using the TCP port 65432.
    2. Tell strace to trace the test program that was started by the gdb client.
      % strace -G localhost:65432 -p $(pgrep test-program)
    3. The following would be displayed in the strace window:
      brk(0x426000) = 0x426000
  1. [GDB window] Tell the gdb client to use thread two, set a breakpoint, and advance the test program:
(gdb) thread 2
[Switching to thread 2 (Thread 7464.7490)]
#0 thread_worker () at test-program.c:59
(gdb) b 52
(gdb) continue
59 close (-1);
(gdb) next
61 chroot (".");
(gdb) next
  1. [Strace window] Notice that strace has traced the close and chroot system calls:
[pid 7490] close(-1) = -1 EBADF (Bad file descriptor)
[pid 7490] chroot(".") = -1 EPERM (Operation not permitted)
  1. [GDB window] Advance the test program:
(gdb) next
63 pipe (fd);
(gdb) next
65 write (fd[1], buf1, sizeof (buf1));
(gdb) next
67 read (fd[0], buf2, sizeof (buf2));
(gdb) next
  1. [Strace window] Notice that strace has traced the pipe, write, and read calls:
[pid 7490] pipe([3, 4]) = 0
[pid 7490] write(4, "a\0", 2) = 2
[pid 7490] read(3, "a\0", 2) = 2
  1. [GDB window] Continue the test program to completion:
(gdb) continue
[Inferior 1 (process 7464) exited normally]
(gdb) quit
Remote connection closed
  1. [Strace window] Notice that the attached process has exited:
[pid 7490] madvise(0x7ffff7475000, 8368128, MADV_DONTNEED) = 0
[pid 7464] --- stopped by 255 ---
[pid 7464] +++ exited with 0 +++
strace: Process 7490 detached

Current tool status

Versions of the GDB remote protocol, strace, and corresponding gdbserver are currently under review. Initial versions of the gdbserver and strace tools are available for experimentation at gdbserver_copr and strace_copr.


Extending strace to additionally support gdbserver provides an additional means to run strace. For example, to trace a program that is running on a remote machine. Additionally, this extended strace, along with a corresponding extended gdbserver, enables tracing system calls in a program while a gdb client is debugging the same program.

Last updated: June 29, 2020