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Check your C before you wreck your C.

The dbgcheck library is a cross-platform way to address the most difficult aspects of debugging C code: memory and threading issues.

In particular, dbgcheck helps to avoid and isolate the following types of problems:

  • buffer overflows,
  • use of freed or unallocated memory,
  • double-freeing memory,
  • double-lock-acquiring,
  • double-lock-freeing, and
  • unsafe concurrency.

These are achieved by wrapping your calls to memory management and threading functions with dbgcheck-defined macros. You are free to use dbgcheck only in sections of your code where you think errors are likely; that is, it does not assume it controls all malloc calls or other critical memory/thread functions - only related pairs, such as malloc/free pairs. This library can work with any malloc implementation.

A major feature of dbgcheck is that you can turn it off at compile-time so that it adds absolutely zero overhead to the runtime efficiency of your application in production. The idea is to test thoroughly with dbgcheck turned on, using it to isolate and eliminate bugs -- then turn it off in production if application speed is critical.

When dbgcheck finds an error, it reports the specific file and line where that error occurred. If used correctly, this will be the exact location in your code where something has first gone wrong. (I say "if used correctly" because if you only wrap some of your critical calls, and the error is in an unwrapped call, then dbgcheck cannot detect that error.) In addition, most (but currently not all) error detection is synchronous so that breakpoints can be placed within dbgcheck.c to provide a way to either print a stack trace or use an interactive debugger to gain insight into the error.

This library works on windows, mac, and ubuntu.

Memory checks


At a very high level, only two things can go wrong with memory. Either you try to access an address that isn't allocated, or you run out of it.

If we treat all memory operations as byte-level reads or writes, then we can recategorize all possible errors like so:

  • computing an invalid address,
  • copying a too-large block to a given destination, or
  • using too much memory.

(Some low-level programs may also run into problems with aliasing, where a copy operation has been performed in an incorrect order causing a loss of data. From our byte-operation perspective, an aliasing error is not considered a low-level memory management problem. We also consider NULL pointers to be "not a pointer" for this categorization; dbgcheck can help notice if a NULL value is about to be dereferenced, although most systems will already let you know when you do that!)

This categorization makes sense in terms of malloc and free since every allocated block is an island, and the only valid pointers within that block must always be ultimately derived from the starting address of that block. Hence the only way to arrive at an invalid address is to either not use a valid starting address, or to add an invalid offset to a valid starting address.


Internally, dbgcheck adds additional bookkeeping to track memory references. When you allocate a block with dbgcheck, slightly more memory than you requested is actually allocated, and a block prefix is used to track the size of the block. malloc independently tracks block sizes, but dbgcheck is specifically designed to assume nothing beyond the formally specified behavior of malloc.

Whenever you want to access memory using a pointer, you have the option of asking dbgcheck to verify the validity of your pointer. This works by classifying pointers as either root pointers or inner pointers. A root pointer points to the beginning of an allocated block; in other words, it is the return value from dbgcheck__malloc or any of the other dbgcheck-based allocating functions (the others wrap strdup and calloc). An inner pointer may point anywhere within an allocated block or to the byte directly after the end of the allocated block. This last case is useful for performing conditional checks of the form my_ptr < block_end_ptr, and is a legal C pointer value.

Suppose you want to copy a string into an allocated block. To check the validity of the copy, dbgcheck asks you to provide the root pointer of the destination, the number of bytes about to be copied, and the destination pointer if it's not the same as the root pointer. Since dbgcheck can determine the full valid range of the destination block, this is sufficient to know exactly whether or not the copy operation is valid.

In a sense, this kind of check is analogous to the difference between strcpy and strncpy. The difference is that dbgcheck can help you to verify that the value of n you provide matches the available memory at the destination.

When a block is deallocated dbgcheck does something a little crazy, which is that it does not free the memory - it simply marks it so that it will know the memory has been freed. For those of you freaking out about your memory disappearing, please understand that this element of dbgcheck is designed for small use cases to help you isolate errors. In production, undefine the dbgcheck_on macro before including dbgcheck.h, which turns off this feature.

By leaving blocks allocated, dbgcheck is extremely likely to detect double-frees and access-after-free errors.

This methodology gives us a way to check for any of the three major categories of memory errors. The technical details of using dbgcheck to achieve this are covered in the API reference below.

Threading checks


There are two major bugs that can occur in multithreaded code:

  • Two sections of code intended to never run concurrently may run concurrently, or
  • a thread may become stuck waiting forever on a lock.

The first category of bug is difficult to check automatically, since the decision of which sections of code are not meant to run concurrently is nontrivial. The dbgcheck library does not attempt to solve this problem, but instead helps to clarify and verify the concurrency rules set up by the programmer; dbgcheck can also provide some checks against low-level lock usage errors. These checks are described in the next section.

Another relevant idea is lock nesting: we say that lock A nests outside lock B when some code locks B while A is already locked. A deadlock between A and B can occur if they nest outside each other. More generally, we can create a directed nesting graph between locks where node A is connected to B (AB) when A nests outside B. Then a deadlock between these locks can only occur if this graph contains a cycle.

The dbgcheck library does not currently know about lock nesting behavior or graphs beyond trivial cases. However, it is good design to think and communicate clearly about lock nesting behavior.


The dbgcheck library offers two types of thread-safety checks.

  1. Some checks communicate and verify that a concurrency design is upheld.
  2. Other checks wrap mutex lock and unlock calls to check for certain error cases.

Communicating and verifying concurrency design

Any given block of C code is either thread-safe, expected to run in a single thread, or expected to be run in a way that avoids concurrency with certain other code.

In this section, we'll discuss such code blocks as if they were always functions; however dbgcheck supports these checks at different points within or across functions as well.

If a function is thread-safe, there is no incorrect thread scenario, so dbgcheck has no verification function. However, it is recommended to clarify which functions are meant to be thread-safe with a comment. There are different degrees of thread-safety as well, such as being reentrant (safe to call recursively) or being safe to call concurrently if the inputs are different (such as a function that manipulates an input struct). A function that uses changing static variables fails both of these thread-safety conditions. It is recommended to use a comment to clearly label which code blocks are thread-safe, and to use a more specific nomenclature than simply "thread-safe."

Functions that expect to only be called from the same thread may use the dbgcheck__same_thread function. This will notice as soon as the function is run from a second thread, concurrently or not.

Some functions may expect to be run from different threads, but never concurrently. To verify this, you may use the dbgcheck__start_sync_block and dbgcheck__end_sync_block pair. These accept a string literal as input, which is the name of the sync_block. They pay attention to whether or not that block is ever entered twice, which indicates an unexpected concurrency. This same mechanism can be used to verify when multiple functions are all meant to avoid concurrency with each other.

Finally, some functions may expect their caller to have already locked a mutex or used some other concurrency control to enter a sync_block. This expectation can be communicated and verified with the dbgcheck__in_sync_block function, which notices if it is called outside of a started-but-not-yet-ended sync_block of the given name.

The dbgcheck library also wraps the calls pthread_mutex_lock and pthread_mutex_unlock - and their windows equivalents - with dbgcheck__lock and dbgcheck__unlock to notice the following error cases:

  • a thread trying to lock a mutex it currently has locked, or
  • a thread trying to unlock a mutex it does not have locked.

If a mutex is being used to avoid concurrency around a group of sync_block code blocks, then it's recommended to wrap the mutex controls around the sync_block checks, like so:

dbgcheck__start_sync_block("my sync block");

// your concurrency-avoiding code here

dbgcheck__end_sync_block("my sync block");

Using these functions in any other order would result in a sync_block call occurring when the lock was not held, which could result in a concurrency violation.

Clarity of code design

Note that these calls are designed for both verification and communication. Even when dbgcheck is turned off, these lines clarify the expected concurrency behavior of your program, which is a good thing.

API Reference

The "functions" below are all macros. They are defined this way so that they can use the compiler-defined __FILE__ and __LINE__ macros to know which code location the function is being called from. This is used to print out code location information if an error condition is noticed, and in some cases to know if an unexpected event has occurred.

When an error condition is noticed by dbgcheck - and when dbgcheck is turned on - your app will exit immediately with some indication as to why. In almost all cases, your app will exit with error code 1 and will print out the file name, line number, and an explanation of what expectation was not met. In the exceptional case that you performed a pointer check where you sent in a non-root pointer as a root pointer, your app will exit due to either a SIGSEGV or a SIGBUS. In these cases, the recommended method of debugging is to attach a debugger before the signal is sent and examine the stack when the signal occurs.

In the descriptions below the words notice and expect always indicate conditions which, if something goes wrong, will cause dbgcheck to exit your application with a message (or produce SIGSEGV/SIGBUS in the exceptional case just mentioned).

In case some readers are wondering why it's a good thing for a library to crash your app, keep in mind that your app will only cause this to happen if it already contains a serious bug that leads to undefined or frozen behavior. The usefulness of dbgcheck is in isolating and defending against these errors with much greater transparency. This crash-on-bug behavior is behind a flag meant to be turned off in production.

Memory functions

void *dbgcheck__malloc(size_t size, const char *set_name)

This wraps a call to malloc. The additional set_name parameter is used to verify that the dbgcheck__free call that deallocates this block uses the same name. This is a way to both verify that your frees match your mallocs, and to communicate about, and ease searching for, all memory management calls related to the same type of object.

void *dbgcheck__calloc(size_t size, const char *set_name)

This is similar to dbgcheck__malloc, except that it wraps calloc instead of malloc; thus the allocated memory block is set to all zero.

char *dbgcheck__strdup(const char *src, const char *set_name)

This wraps a call to strdup. The additional set_name parameter enables communication and verification about which type of object is being allocated. See the dbgcheck__malloc description for more details about set_name.

void dbgcheck__free(void *ptr, const char *set_name)

This frees a memory block allocated by dbgcheck__{malloc,calloc,strdup}. The set_name parameter is expected to match the set_name given to the allocating function.

void dbgcheck__ptr(void *root_ptr, const char *set_name)

This function checks that the given root_ptr points to the beginning of a memory block allocated with one of dbgcheck's allocation functions. It also checks that the memory block was allocated with the given set_name.

void dbgcheck__ptr_size(void *ptr, const char *set_name, size_t size)

This performs the same checks as dbgcheck__ptr, and also checks that the given ptr - which is expected to be a root pointer - has at least size room allocated in it. This is a great check to perform before a function that may cause a buffer overflow if used incorrectly; for example:

dbgcheck__ptr_size(dst_ptr, "dst str", buf_size);
strncpy(dst_ptr, src_ptr, buf_size);

void dbgcheck__inner_ptr(void *inner_ptr, void *root_ptr, const char *set_name)

This performs the same checks as dbgcheck__ptr, and also checks that the given inner_ptr points to some point within, or at the very end of, the memory block pointed to by root_ptr. Recall that C allows pointers to point to exactly one byte beyond an allocated memory block. To illustrate this idea:

char *root_ptr = malloc(a_size);
char *inner_ptr = root_ptr + a_size;  // inner_ptr is legal
inner_ptr++;                          // ruh-roh; no longer legal

void dbgcheck__inner_ptr_size(void *inner_ptr, void *root_ptr, const char *set_name, size_t size)

This performs the same checks as dbgcheck__inner_ptr. It also checks that there are at least size allocated bytes available in the memory block starting at inner_ptr. Similar to dbgcheck__ptr_size, this helps to avoid buffer overflows. For example:

dbgcheck__inner_ptr_size(inner_p, root_p, "dst str", buf_tail_size);
strncpy(inner_p, src_p, buf_tail_size);

Here are tips to help remember the order of parameters in these last four functions:

  • The set_name is always immediately after the root pointer.
  • If there's an inner pointer, it's always first.
  • If there's a size, it's always last.
  • The order and existence of inner_ptr, root_ptr, and size always follow the order and existence of the words inner, ptr, and size in the function name.

Thread functions

void dbgcheck__same_thread()

This function notices if it is ever called from the same location - that is, from the same source file and line number - from different threads. It communicates that the code block it occurs in is designed to only ever run from a single specific thread.

void dbgcheck__start_sync_block(const char *name)

This function begins a sync_block with the given name. If dbgcheck__start_sync_block is called on name again before dbgcheck__end_sync_block is called on name, then this is an error condition noticed by dbgcheck.

The name is expected to be a string literal, as a pointer to it is held indefinitely. It is recommended that both the start and end of a sync_block live in the same function, although this block may call other functions; otherwise it is harder to reason about the correctness of the code.

void dbgcheck__end_sync_block(const char *name)

This function marks the end of a concurrency-avoiding code block begun by dbgcheck__start_sync_block.

The name is expected to be a string literal, as a pointer to it is held indefinitely. It is recommended that both the start and end of a sync_block live in the same function, although this block may call other functions; otherwise it is harder to reason about the correctness of the code.

void dbgcheck__in_sync_block(const char *name)

This function expects the code to currently be within a sync_block with the given name. The start of a sync_block is set by calling dbgcheck__start_sync_block.

This is useful to communicate and verify that a function expects its caller to start a sync_block, but that it does not mark the start or end of a sync_block itself. This can be useful when a function is called by other functions that lock and unlock a mutex corresponding to a sync_block.

void dbgcheck__lock(pthread_mutex_t *mutex)

This wraps the pthread_mutex_lock function when pthreads is available, and the EnterCriticalSection function on windows.

This adds the functionality of verifying that the calling thread has not already locked the given mutex.

void dbgcheck__unlock(pthread_mutex_t *mutex)

This wraps the pthread_mutex_unlock function when pthreads is available, and the LeaveCriticalSection function on windows.

This adds the functionality of verifying that the calling thread currently has the given mutex locked.

General condition checks

void dbgcheck__fail_if(int cond, const char *fmt, ...)

This expects the given cond to evaluate to zero. If cond is nonzero, then the message given in fmt and the remaining ... variadic parameters are printed out using printf-style formatting.

As usual with unmet expectations, dbgcheck terminates the program if cond is not zero; also as usual, this termination behavior is turned off when dbgcheck_on is left undefined.

void dbgcheck__warn_if(int cond, const char *fmt, ...)

This function is identical to dbgcheck__fail_if, except that it never terminates the program; instead it only prints the given message when cond is nonzero.

In more detail: this expects the given cond to evaluate to zero. If cond is nonzero, then the message given in fmt and the remaining ... variadic parameters are printed out using printf-style formatting.

As an exception to the standard dbgcheck behavior, this function does not terminate the program if its expectation is unmet - that is, if cond is nonzero.


C library to avoid and isolate memory or thread errors.



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