The lost art of debugging for admins #part 1 - Basics and ptrace


Its been a while since my last update. Been quite busy but also because I didn’t have anything to add. But lately I’ve have a urge to write a series on how to debug on Linux (Works on other platforms as well). Mostly because it seems that the younger generation (And even older) no longer debugs their problems but just seek the nearest forum so see if anyone else had the same issue.

First rule of debugging is: check logs or use verbose options.

Once that fails (Many programs have poor logging or inadequate verbosity) you need to start looking at what the program actually does. You could just use the “look at the source Luuk” but for several reasons that might not be an option.

| 1) Looking though the source code is one thing, the other is understanding it (And you might not be familiar with the language or even be a programmer). Its quite time consuming and we all know once something stopped working we all have a CEO/Customer on our back. | 2) Closed source will prevent you from looking at the source code (Almost)

So back to basics on how programs actually work. Programs call software interrups. Its as simple as that .. lets examine that (You don’t need to be a programmer to understand this).

A simple Hello world program (Written in 32bit assembly language to keep the calls to the kernel clean) to demonstrate it.


        .ascii "Hello World\n"


    .globl _start 

        # Load all the arguments for write () 

        movl $4, %eax
        movl $1, %ebx
        movl $HelloWorldString, %ecx
        movl $12, %edx
        int $0x80

        # Need to exit the program 

        movl $1, %eax
        movl $0, %ebx
        int $0x80

I have split the _start section up in 2 fragments. One for the actually writing of “Hello world” and one for a clean exit. Notice the int $0x80 .. these are software interrups calling the kernel. Now there is about 300 calls you can make, thats about it.

First section

this is the actual sys_write call as defined in /usr/include/asm/unistd.h (it includes a unistd_64.h or unistd_32.h depending your platform)

        movl $4, %eax

file descriptor (in this case 1=STDOUT)

        movl $1, %ebx 

pointer to where the string “Hello World” is located

        movl $HelloWorldString, %ecx

string length of “Hello World\n”

        movl $12, %edx

call the kernel

        int $0x80

The equivalent call in C is the ssize_t write(int fd, const void *buf, size_t count) (man 2 write)

Second section is just like the above

sys_close call (1)

        movl $1, %eax

exit status (0=all ok)

        movl $0, %ebx

Call kernel

        int $0x80

The equivalent call in C is the void _exit(int status) (man 2 exit)

So lets run the program

    # as -o HelloWorldProgram.o HelloWorldProgram.s
    # ld -o HelloWorldProgram HelloWorldProgram.o
    # ./HelloWorldProgram 
    Hello World

it works and that brings in the first tool for debugging.

strace(1) (trace system calls and signals)

running HelloWorldProgram via strace shows that calls are made (Like we didn’t already knew :) )

    # strace ./HelloWorldProgram
    execve("./HelloWorldProgram", ["./HelloWorldProgram"], [/* 19 vars */]) = 0
    write(1, "Hello World\n", 12Hello World
    )           = 12
    _exit(0)                                = ?

So it starts the program, writes (our sys_write) Hello World and then exits (our sys_close).

Now this is just a boring example so lets find a better use case.

Use case #1

The use case for this debugging: A user cannot upload files via vsftpd and complains. Nothing in the logs indicating other than the permissions are wrong (Because of the “Create directory operation failed” error message from the ftp client). So lets examine

    # quota -q
    # quota kgn
    Disk quotas for user kgn (uid 1008): none

Quotas seems fine and permissions are set to 777 (bad choice but this was the case). I created a session by connecting to the ftp server

    # ftp

login and then find the process using ps in a second terminal. Now connect strace to the vsftpd process (in my case pid 12047). Then try to create a directory

    # strace -p 12047
    Process 12047 attached - interrupt to quit
    recvfrom(0, "MKD kgntest\r\n", 4096, MSG_PEEK, NULL, NULL) = 13
    read(0, "MKD kgntest\r\n", 13)          = 13
    getcwd("/", 4096)                       = 2
    mkdir("kgntest", 0777)                  = -1 EDQUOT (Disk quota exceeded)
    write(0, "550 Create directory operation f"..., 40) = 40
    getpid()                                = 3
    fcntl(3, F_SETLKW, {type=F_WRLCK, whence=SEEK_SET, start=0, len=0}) = 0
    write(3, "Thu Jul 25 20:48:20 2013 [pid 3]"..., 97) = 97
    fcntl(3, F_SETLK, {type=F_UNLCK, whence=SEEK_SET, start=0, len=0}) = 0
    rt_sigaction(SIGALRM, {0x4151d0, ~[RTMIN RT_1], SA_RESTORER, 0x7fed483d61e0}, NULL, 8) = 0
    alarm(300)                              = 230

So lets go through the above example.

The command “mkdir kgntest” received via the network to the process

    recvfrom(0, "MKD kgntest\r\n", 4096, MSG_PEEK, NULL, NULL) = 13

Read the command

    read(0, "MKD kgntest\r\n", 13)          = 13

Change the directory to / (its chrooted)

    getcwd("/", 4096)                       = 2

The actual command for creating a directory (using 777) and this fails with EDQUOT (Disk quota exceeded). So now we know that its the quota and not the vsftpd server or permissions (The actual fix for this is irrelevant)

    mkdir("kgntest", 0777)                  = -1 EDQUOT (Disk quota exceeded)

Use case #2

Debugging a program that says its already running even though its not.

    # puppet agent --test
    notice: Run of Puppet configuration client already in progress; skipping
    # ps -ef|grep puppet
    root     11562 11281  0 14:08 pts/1    00:00:00 grep puppet

Great, lets fire up strace

    # strace puppet agent --test
    ... (a lot of output removed)
    mmap2(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0xb701c000
    _llseek(6, 0, [0], SEEK_CUR)            = 0
    read(6, "", 4096)                       = 0
    close(6)                                = 0
    munmap(0xb701c000, 4096)                = 0
    kill(0, SIG_0)                          = 0
    stat64("/var/lib/puppet/state/puppetdlock", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=0, ...}) = 0
    gettimeofday({1374840585, 567949}, NULL) = 0
    rt_sigprocmask(SIG_SETMASK, [], NULL, 8) = 0
    write(1, "\33[0;36mnotice: Run of Puppet con"..., 83notice: Run of Puppet configuration client already in progress; skipping) = 83
    write(1, "\n", 1
    )                       = 1
    time(NULL)                              = 1374840585
    send(5, "<29>Jul 26 14:09:45 puppet-agent"..., 105, MSG_NOSIGNAL) = 105
    rt_sigprocmask(SIG_SETMASK, [], NULL, 8) = 0
    rt_sigaction(SIGINT, {SIG_DFL, [INT], SA_RESTART}, {0xb76e9bf0, [], 0}, 8) = 0
    close(4)                                = 0
    munmap(0xb72fb000, 4096)                = 0
    close(3)                                = 0
    munmap(0xb72fc000, 4096)                = 0
    exit_group(1)                           = ?

so just before we get the error message “Run of Puppet configuration client already in progress; skipping” there is a

    stat64("/var/lib/puppet/state/puppetdlock", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=0, ...}) = 0

So puppet seems to have crashed. It created a lock file in order not to run more than once but when crashed it forgot to cleanup.

| So lets fix it

    # rm /var/lib/puppet/state/puppetdlock


So now you know 2 things .. how programs actually works and how strace can help you find the problem (strace (Linux), dtrace (BSD), truss (All platforms))