Making Hare more debuggable November 4, 2022 by Drew DeVault

Hare programs need to be easier to debug. This blog post outlines our plans for improving the situation. For a start, we’d like to implement the following features:

  1. Detailed backtraces
  2. Address sanitization
  3. New memory allocator
  4. DWARF support

These are roughly ordered by complexity — let’s take a look at each one in detail.

Detailed backtraces

Hare programs are always compiled with frame pointers. On x86_64, this involves generating the following entry point for each function:

.globl example
	pushq %rbp
	movq %rsp, %rbp
	/* ... */

This code pushes the %rbp register to the stack, then moves the stack pointer into %rbp. This allows us to walk the stack: the value at (%rbp) is the stack address at the entry to each function in the call stack, and (%rbp-1) is the return address of the corresponding call. Hare’s rt (runtime) module provides some helper functions for walking the stack in this manner:

use fmt;
use rt;

export fn main() void = {

fn func_a() void = {

fn func_b() void = {

fn backtrace() void = {
	let fp = rt::backtrace();

	for (true) {
		const frame = fp.addr: *[*]uintptr;
		fmt::printfln("\t{:x}", frame[-1])!;

		match (rt::nextframe(fp)) {
		case let next: rt::frame =>
			fp = next;
		case void =>

When run, this program gives the following output:

$ hare build -o main main.ha
$ ./main

This is a list of return addresses for each function call in the call stack. This isn’t entirely useful on its own, but we can use a tool like addr2line (from binutils) to convert it into something more helpful:

$ addr2line -fe main 80000fa 80000ef 80000e4 801b34d 801867d

This is still not ideal, being full of our internal temporary build artifact names, but we can see the function names in the call stack now. Getting the names of the functions associated with each address from our Hare program will require finding our program’s symbols, which is what addr2line is doing here.

In order to do something similar, Hare will have to find the process’s ELF data and locate each address within the symbol table. I already did something similar to this for the fault handler in Helios, so a lot of the necessary code already exists. Once all of this is in place, we can at least annotate backtraces with function names, which we can take advantage of on assertion failures, when running tests, and so on. Even better backtraces will have to wait for DWARF, which is discussed later in this article.

Address sanitization

I would like to implement an address sanitizer for Hare programs, similar to the one provided by Clang. I was recently doing some research on how this works, and it turns out to be surprisingly simple and, in theory, pretty straightforward to implement. You can read about the algorithm Clang uses here, but I will summarize it here.

The purpose of the address sanitizer is to test for out-of-bounds reads or writes, buffer overflows, and so on. This can also work with the memory allocator to detect use-after-free problems and the like. It works with the use of something called “shadow memory”: an extra region of memory that tracks what parts of memory are valid or invalid, aka “poisoned”.

Hare already has a number of checks in place which makes an address sanitizer less useful, such as bounds testing all array and slice accesses, prohibiting uninitialized variables, and so on. However, the compiler allows you to circumvent these checks and, in some situations, it is necessary to do so. Accordingly, an address sanitizer would be helpful for detecting problems when you draw outside of the lines.

The first step is to set aside shadow memory areas to keep track of what memory is valid or invalid. Each byte of shadow memory describes 8 bytes of real memory, and a bit which is set is considered “poisoned”. To store shadow memory, we can create a large memory mapping in the process which is mostly empty and maps each address of real memory to a bit in shadow memory. On 64-bit systems, the memory map looks like this (taken from the ASan docs):

[0x10007fff8000, 0x7fffffffffff] 	HighMem
[0x02008fff7000, 0x10007fff7fff] 	HighShadow
[0x00008fff7000, 0x02008fff6fff] 	ShadowGap
[0x00007fff8000, 0x00008fff6fff] 	LowShadow
[0x000000000000, 0x00007fff7fff] 	LowMem

Each shadow region describes the corresponding memory area, and the “gap” is used to prevent addresses within each shadow area from being used directly. A real address can be quickly converted to its shadow address with the expression (addr >> 3) + 0x7fff8000. The large mmaps which cover these regions are allocated sparsely by the kernel and mapped on-demand (causing a page fault) when read from or written to. A new shadow page will be zeroed by the kernel, which will indicate unpoisoned memory by default.

When reading or writing to memory, we can look up its shadow address and test if the address is poisoned. In qbe IR, this looks like the following:

	// let addr: *u64 = ...
	// return *addr;
	%s.0 =l shr %addr, 3
	%s.1 =l add %s.0, 0x7fff8000
	%s.2 =l loadl %s.1
	jnz %shadow.2, @invalid, @valid
	%val =l loadl %addr
	ret %val
	call $rt.asan_invalid_load8(l %addr)

The other piece to complete the ASan implementation involves marking invalid memory as poisoned. For stack allocations, this involves allocating a red zone on either side of the allocation, and marking the red zones as invalid. For example, given the following Hare program:

let x: u64 = 10;

We would allocate 96 bytes (rather than 8) on the stack, and mark each of the extra bytes as poisoned.

  %binding =l alloc8 96
  %x =l add %binding, 32

  %rz.0 =l shr %binding, 3
  %rz.1 =l add %rz.0, 0x7fff8000
  storew 0xFFFFFFFF, %rz.1
  %rz.2 =l add %rz.1, 4
  storew 0xFFFFFF00, %rz.2
  %rz.3 =l add %rz.2, 4
  storew 0xFFFFFFFF, %rz.3

At the function’s exit, a similar process can be used to unpoison the memory. The QBE IR shown above would then call rt::asan_invalid_load8 when attempting to access the red zone. It’s pretty straightforward — address sanitizer is a really brilliant and simple design. Big kudos to the Clang team for coming up with and implementing it.

New memory allocator

The next piece of Hare’s debuggability goals is to write a new allocator. Today, Hare uses a very simple allocator. I wrote it a long time ago based on a very simple design with the goal of having something simple and working implemented quickly. However, a more sophisticated allocator would offer many benefits.

The main improvements for debuggability would involve detecting and reporting on heap corruption. This would be most easily addressed by implementing ASan and poisoning memory outside of the user’s requested allocation as necessary.

There are some other improvements we can make as well. We can probably detect double-free without ASan, and leave that turned on for all builds. Another good idea would be to store a cache of backtraces which reports on the functions which are allocated or freed a given object, valgrind-style — probably turned off by default, but very helpful for narrowing down memory issues.

DWARF support

The most difficult challenge for debugging Hare programs is implementing DWARF. This is a format for encoding debugging information into programs, and is used to map instructions to file names and line numbers and store information about variables and types. This information is then utilized by interactive debuggers like gdb, and could be used internally for things like further improving backtraces to include file names and line numbers. However, DWARF is very complex.

The DWARF specification (which is 459 pages long) defines a virtual machine that has to be implemented in order to interpret its data. The main purpose of this is to reduce the size of the debugging tables, which would otherwise be very large. The price is significantly increased implementation complexity. Nevertheless, we intend to eat this cost. It will involve patching qbe, and will ideally bring improved debugging support to qbe’s other frontends, such as cproc.

With DWARF support in place, another improvement which might make sense to add is to teach gdb about Hare-specific semantics. For instance, the simplest of these would be to teach gdb to translate Hare identifiers like unix::passwd into symbol names, e.g. unix.passwd, and vice-versa.

Closing thoughts

Hare as a language provides many features which reduce the risk of bugs occuring in the first place, such as bounds-tested arrays, mandatory error handling, and so on. Some problems, like buffer overflows, are very rare in Hare. Others are easier to overlook, like use-after-free bugs. In any case, it’s important for us to make it easy to debug Hare programs, in order to improve the user’s odds of designing a robust program.

Each of these ideas interacts with the others, and when composed they form a much more robust debugging system. A new memory allocator would take advantage of ASan to detect use-after-free and improved backtraces for error reporting. ASan would also take advantage of improved backtraces, and better backtraces would rely on DWARF to resolve addresses into file names and line numbers.

If you’re interested in helping with any of these ideas, please join us. We would be pleased to have your help.