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This note quickly presents two techniques to debug OCaml programs:

Tracing functions calls in the toplevel

The simplest way to debug programs in the toplevel is to follow the function calls, by “tracing” the faulty function:

let rec fib x = if x <= 1 then 1 else fib (x - 1) + fib (x - 2);;
#trace fib;;
fib 3;;
#untrace fib;;

Polymorphic function

A difficulty with polymorphic functions is that the output of the trace system is not very informative in case of polymorphic arguments and/or results. Consider a sorting algorithm (say bubble sort):

let exchange i j v =
  let aux = v.(i) in
  v.(i) <- v.(j); v.(j) <- aux

let one_pass_vect fin v =
  for j = 1 to fin do
    if v.(j - 1) > v.(j) then exchange (j - 1) j v

let bubble_sort_vect v =
  for i = Array.length v - 1 downto 0 do
    one_pass_vect i v

let q = [| 18; 3; 1 |];;

#trace one_pass_vect;;
bubble_sort_vect q;;

The function one_pass_vect being polymorphic, its vector argument is printed as a vector containing polymorphic values, [|<poly>; <poly>; <poly>|], and thus we cannot properly follow the computation.

A simple way to overcome this problem is to define a monomorphic version of the faulty function. This is fairly easy using a type constraint. Generally speaking, this allows a proper understanding of the error in the definition of the polymorphic function. Once this has been corrected, you just have to suppress the type constraint to revert to a polymorphic version of the function. For our sorting routine, a single type constraint on the argument of the exchange function warranties a monomorphic typing, that allows a proper trace of function calls:

let exchange i j (v : int array) =    (* notice the type constraint *)
  let aux = v.(i) in
  v.(i) <- v.(j); v.(j) <- aux

let one_pass_vect fin v =
  for j = 1 to fin do
    if v.(j - 1) > v.(j) then exchange (j - 1) j v

let bubble_sort_vect v =
  for i = Array.length v - 1 downto 0 do
    one_pass_vect i v

let q = [| 18; 3; 1 |];;

#trace one_pass_vect;;
bubble_sort_vect q;;


To keep track of assignments to data structures and mutable variables in a program, the trace facility is not powerful enough. You need an extra mechanism to stop the program in any place and ask for internal values: that is a symbolic debugger with its stepping feature.

Stepping a functional program has a meaning which is a bit weird to define and understand. Let me say that we use the notion of runtime events that happen for instance when a parameter is passed to a function or when entering a pattern matching, or selecting a clause in a pttern matching. Computation progress is taken into account by these events, independantly of the instructions executed on the hardware.

Although this is difficult to implement, there exists such a debugger for OCaml under Unix: ocamldebug (there also exists one for Caml Light, as a user contribution). Its use is illustrated in the next section.

In fact, for complex programs, it is likely the case that the programmer will use explicit printing to find the bugs, since this methodology allows the reduction of the trace material : only useful data are printed and special purpose formats are more suited to get the relevant information, than what can be output automatically by the generic pretty-printer used by the trace mechanism.

The OCaml debugger

We now give a quick tutorial for the OCaml debugger (ocamldebug). Before starting, please note that ocamldebug does not work under native Windows ports of OCaml (but it runs under the Cygwin port).

Launching the debugger

Consider the following obviously wrong program written in the file

(* file *)
let l = ref []
let find_address name = List.assoc name !l
let add_address name address = l := (name, address) :: ! l

let () =
  add_address "IRIA" "Rocquencourt";;
  print_string (find_address "INRIA"); print_newline ();;

At runtime, the program raises an uncaught exception Not_found. Suppose we want to find where and why this exception has been raised, we can proceed as follows:

  1. we compile the program in debug mode:

    ocamlc -g
  2. we launch the debugger:

    ocamldebug a.out

    Then the debugger answers with a banner and a prompt:

        OCaml Debugger version 4.00.1

Finding the cause of a spurious exception

Type r (for run); you get

(ocd) r
Loading program... done.
Time : 12
Program end.
Uncaught exception: Not_found

Self explanatory, is'nt it? So, you want to step backward to set the program counter before the time the exception is raised; hence type in b as backstep, and you get

(ocd) b
Time : 11 - pc : 15500 - module List
143     [] -> <|b|>raise Not_found

The debugger tells you that you are in module List, inside a pattern matching on a list that already chose the [] case and is about to execute raise Not_found, since the program is stopped just before this expression (as witnessed by the <|b|> mark).

But, as you know, you want the debugger to tell you which procedure calls the one from List, and also who calls the procedure that calls the one from List; hence, you want a backtrace of the execution stack:

(ocd) bt
#0  Pc : 15500  List char 3562
#1  Pc : 19128  Uncaught char 221

So the last function called is from module List at character 3562, that is :

let rec assoc x = function
  | [] -> raise Not_found
  | (a,b)::l -> if a = x then b else assoc x l

The function that calls it is in module Uncaught, file char 221:

print_string (find_address "INRIA"); print_newline ();;

To sum up: if you're developping a program you can compile it with the -g option, to be ready to debug the program if necessary. Hence, to find a spurious exception you just need to type ocamldebug a.out, then r, b, and bt gives you the backtrace.

Getting help and info in the debugger

To get more info about the current status of the debugger you can ask it directly at the toplevel prompt of the debugger; for instance:

(ocd) info breakpoints
No breakpoint.

(ocd) help break
  1      15396  in List, character 3539
break : Set breakpoint at specified line or function.
Syntax: break function-name
break @ [module] linenum
break @ [module] # characternum

Setting break points

Let's set up a breakpoint and rerun the entire program from the beginning ((g)oto 0 then (r)un):

(ocd) break @Uncaught 9
Breakpoint 3 at 19112 : file Uncaught, line 9 column 34

(ocd) g 0
Time : 0
Beginning of program.

(ocd) r
Time : 6 - pc : 19112 - module Uncaught
Breakpoint : 1
9 add "IRIA" "Rocquencourt"<|a|>;;

Then, we can step and find what happens when find_address is about to be called

(ocd) s
Time : 7 - pc : 19012 - module Uncaught
5 let find_address name = <|b|>List.assoc name !l;;

(ocd) p name
name : string = "INRIA"

(ocd) p !l
$1 : (string * string) list = ["IRIA", "Rocquencourt"]

Now we can guess why List.assoc will fail to find "INRIA" in the list...

Using the debugger under (X)Emacs

Note also that under Emacs you call the debugger using ESC-x camldebug a.out. Then Emacs will set you directly to the file and character reported by the debugger, and you can step back and forth using ESC-b and ESC-s, you can set up break points using CTRL-X space, and so on...

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