Function tracer for gcc
C Python Shell
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ftracer is a simple user space implementation of a linux kernel style function tracer. It allows to trace every call in a instrumented user applications. It is useful for debugging and performance analysis due to its fine grained time stamp.

This allows to do control flow oriented debugging without any special instrumentation. So if the program does something unexpected it's easily possible to look at the function calls before that, and use that to deduce the cause of the problem.

ftracer relies on gcc generating a call on top of every function call. The tracing slows every function call down (about 3x). The tracing is per thread and does not create a global bottleneck.

It supports a dump function in C, directly callable by the program or on exit, and a gdb function to dump from gdb.

Requires gcc 4.7+ and a x86_64 Linux system and the ability to rebuild the program.

Quick howto

 cd ftracer
 FTRACER=1 ./test
 TIME      TOFF FUNC                      ARGS
 0.00      0.00 f1                        1 2 3
 0.06      0.06   f2                      a b c
 0.10      0.04     f3                    1 2 3
 0.14      0.04   f3                      4 5 6
 0.18      0.03   f2                      14 15 16
 0.20      0.03     f3                    1 2 3
 0.23      0.03   f3                      4 5 6
 0.27      0.04 f3                        7 8 9
 0.30      0.03 f1                        3 4 5
 0.33      0.03   f2                      a b c
 0.35      0.03     f3                    1 2 3
 0.39      0.04   f3                      4 5 6
 0.42      0.03   f2                      14 15 16
 0.45      0.03     f3                    1 2 3
 0.49      0.04   f3                      4 5 6
 0.53      0.04 f3                        7 8 9

The time stamps include the overhead from the tracing and are in us.

The argument printing is approximate. The tracer doesn't know the true number of arguments, so if the function has less than three integer arguments it may print junk for the arguments not passed. It also cannot dump floating point arguments. The argument printing is in hex.

Performance overhead

On a Westmere system the instrumentation increases the cost of an empty call by about 3 times. This is with a micro benchmark that does these calls in a tight loop. On codes doing less function calls the overhead will likely be lower, as an Out-of-order CPU can better schedule around it.

Exact slowdowns will depend on the CPU and the surrounding code and how many function calls it does.

To use in your own project

The program needs to be build with -pg -mfentry and linked with -rdynamic -ldl ftrace.o

cd my-project
make CFLAGS='-g -pg -mfentry' LDFLAGS='-rdynamic -ldl ../ftrace/ftrace.o'
(or CXXFLAGS if using C++)
make sure to rebuild everything

FTRACER=1 ./my_program

FTRACER=1 enables automatic dumping at exit or SIGABRT (e.g. assert failure) If a number other than 0 and 1 is specified it specifies the number of entries to dump.

Control ftracer from the program:

#include "ftracer.h"


ftrace_dump(stdout, 100);   /* Dump last 100 entries of current thread to stdout */

Call ftrace_dump_on_exit(max) to automatically dump on exit

A common use case is to keep the tracer running, but dump when something odd happens (like an assertation failure)

The thread buffer is per process and is thread safe. However ftrace_dump will only dump the current process and the automatic exit on dumping will only dump the thread that called exit.

Using ftracer from gdb

The trace buffer can be also controlled from gdb using a special python module. This has the advantage that gdb can display the trace buffers from all threads, and it supports decoding the addresses of static functions.

Note that the program needs to be linked with -lpthread to allow gdb to access the per thread buffers

FTRACER=1 gdb program
(gdb) source 
<program stops e.g. at a break point or signal>
    (gdb) ftracer

[Switching to thread 1 (Thread 0x7ffff7615700 (LWP 23177))]
#0  main () at test.c:28
28              f1(3, 4, 5);
    TIME    DELTA THR FUNC                      ARGS
    0.00     0.00   1 f1                        1 2 3
    0.03     0.03   1   f2                      a b c
    0.05     0.02   1     f3                    1 2 3

When multiple threads are active they are displayed interleaved side by side. With many threads this may require a very wide terminal (plus a very small font) This can be useful to look for race conditions. This mode is only supported by gdb, not by the C dumper.

To enable or disable tracing from gdb call ftrace_enable() or ftrace_disable()

(gdb) p ftrace_enable()

(gdb) p ftrace_disable()


make check runs a simple test suite.


The trace buffer size per thread is hard coded, but can be changed in the Makefile and rebuilding ftracer.o.

static symbols cannot be resolved to names right now from the program. One option is to run the output through fresolve afterwards, but it will only work for the main binary, not shared libraries.

FTRACER=1 ./test 2>&1 | ./fresolve ./test

or easier with the frun wrapper

frun ./test

Alternatively compile with -Dstatic= if needed or use the gdb ftracer command. The tracer cannot see uninstrumented and inlined functions. There are some circumstances that confuse the nesting heuristic. With gcc 4.8 you may need to also disable shrink-wrapping. To trace dynamically linked functions in standard libraries -- like malloc -- you can use ltrace instead.

Andi Kleen