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Existential Pontification and Generalized Abstract Digressions

Multi-day debugging

Most of my hacking cycles right now are going towards debugging the new code generator for GHC. The code generation stage of GHC takes the Spineless Tagless G-machine (STG) intermediate representation (IR) to the C-- high-level assembly representation; the old code generator essentially performed this step in one big bang. The new code generator is many things. It is a more modular, understandable and flexible codebase. It is a client of cutting edge research in higher-order frameworks for control-flow optimization.

It is also frickin’ hard to debug.

I used to get frustrated and give up if I couldn’t figure out what was causing a bug within a few hours of close analysis. Working on GHC has enlightened me about the multi-day debugging: a well-defined bug that persists despite several days of intense analysis. (I’ve only managed this a few times in the past—I’m quite proud that I managed to pull together enough information to resolve “the bug”. What is “the bug”? Have you ever been browsing a MediaWiki site and then been mysteriously asked to download a PHP file? Yeah, that’s “the bug”). It has exponentially increased my proficiency with gdb and has been an amazing romp in the theoretics and practice of compiler construction. I’ve felt stupid for not immediately understanding what in retrospect seem perfectly clear and obvious concepts. I’ve felt an amazing rush, not from when the problem is solved (though that certainly gives a good feeling), but when my plan of attack is making progress. I’ve seen my theories evolve from one to another to another, and have learned never to trust any experimental observation at first sight.

While the debugging process is not yet done (though I think I’m close to having a correct—but slow—new code generation pipeline), I thought I’d take out some time to describe the journey.

Why is debugging GHC hard?

There are some classic reasons:

  • I didn’t write GHC. (Ha!) Debugging not-your-code is hard.
  • I’ve never written a compiler before.
  • In fact, I had never taken a compilers class (currently being fixed, though I think I’ve learned a lot more a lot more quickly via GHC hacking).

Some reasons that come naturally from big projects:

  • GHC takes a long time to compile, so think before you compile.
  • GHC is big; there are a lot of possible places for bugs to creep in.

Some of it’s because GHC is written in a functional programming language for compiling functional programs:

  • Forget about line-by-line stepping: it’s all assembly and memory dumps.
  • GHC is highly abstract, and you can’t really hope to understand what the code is doing by mapping it to some step-by-step execution.
  • The generated code is in continuation passing style and doesn’t resemble any imperative execution scene you might have seen before. I will never again take a calling convention for granted.

Why debugging GHC is easy?

Fascinatingly enough, while the bugs result in extremely strange behavior in compiled programs that takes ages to decipher, once the bad behavior is fully understood, the fix is usually a one-liner. It is this fact that makes debugging GHC frustrating and brilliant at the same time: sometimes code you’re debugging is fundamentally mistaken, and you have to rewrite the whole thing. GHC’s code is fundamentally clear (a testament to those who wrote it), and a bug is usually just a small detail someone forgot to attend to. The solutions are like Mystery Hunt solutions: short, and you know when you’ve found it. Nothing messy like, “What is this actually supposed to do?”

I have the benefit of an existing code generation pipeline which I can use to compare my results with, although doing so is not trivial since the new code generator does go about the compilation in a fundamentally different way, and so sections of code are frequently not comparable.

I also have the benefit of a wondrous test-suite which produces me programs that reproduceably segfault with little fuss, and have been relatively blessed with bugs that show in single-threaded situations. My programs have well defined inputs and outputs, and I have sophisticated mechanisms for inspecting the internal state of the multipass compiler.

Lessons learned

  • Have utter and complete confidence in your build. If you have the slightest suspicion that your build didn’t precisely pick up on a change you made, make a new build tree and build from scratch. A lot of mysterious problems go away when you do a clean build.
  • The GHC .gdbinit file is magical; I don’t know where I’d be without it, and I’m probably only using 20% of its macros at this point. disas is your friend, as is pstk and pmem. I can’t describe how many times I’ve used the go-back-in-time trick.
  • It is always worth reducing your test input. Not only does it make the output you stare at simpler, the act of reduction will cause changes in irrelevant portions of the output, but preserve the essential portions that are related to the bug. Probably my biggest breakthroughs were when I could show that another program exhibited the same bug.
  • Do the background reading. A lot of the “undocumented” cleverness in GHC is actually described in the literature. Reading the Hoopl paper suddenly made the register spilling code lucid, and made me realize my princess was in another castle.
  • Your first theory is usually wrong. You will fixate on the wrong detail. Keep all of the possibilities in mind, but at the very beginning, you should ask for more information. If you did not write the system, you probably don’t have any intuition about what the bug might be, and attempts to short-cut the analysis process will just leave you confused. (An annoying side effect is once you’ve done your research, you start thinking, “Man, if only I had known the system a bit better, I would have spotted that bug much more quickly.”)
  • You still need a working theory to dictate what sort of information you are going to gather, but it’s really important to keep anomalies in mind as you begin to formulate a solution. For a more detailed analysis on this, see Test 4221 below. If a fix “works”, but there is an anomaly, keep trying to understand the situation.
  • You will never collect a ton of data in one go, stare at it, and notice the critical pattern that resolves the bug. Debugging is all about asking the right questions, and on the path to this state, you will ask a lot of wrong questions.

What have I fixed so far?

Warning: Gory technical detail ahead.

Build it

My first job was to make the latest new code generation code compile with the latest GHC branch (it had bit-rotted a bit in the interim.) This went mostly smoothly, except for the fact that Norman Ramsey really likes polymorphic local definitions and MonoLocalBinds reared its ugly head in Hoopl and a few other modules.

Test 4030

Test 4030 was this “simple” program (simple is in quotes, because as Simon Peyton-Jones put it, “that looks like a hard one to start with... threads, exceptions, etc.”)

main = do tid <- block $ forkIO $ let x = x in x
        killThread tid

The resulting code segfaulted in stg_BLACKHOLE_info when attempting to dereference “something.”

0x822a6e0 <stg_CAF_BLACKHOLE_info>:  jmp    0x822a620 <stg_BLACKHOLE_info>
0x822a620 <stg_BLACKHOLE_info>:      mov    0x4(%esi),%eax
0x822a623 <stg_BLACKHOLE_info+3>:    test   $0x3,%eax
0x822a628 <stg_BLACKHOLE_info+8>:    jne    0x822a663 <stg_BLACKHOLE_info+67>
0x822a62a <stg_BLACKHOLE_info+10>:   mov    (%eax),%ecx -- SEGFAULT!

This something ended up being a new stack slot that Simon Marlow introduced when he had rewritten the blackholing scheme. The solution was to port these changes to the new code generator. I ended up manually reviewing every patch within the merge time window to ensure all changes had been ported, and probably squished a few latent bugs in the process. There’s no patch because I ended up folding this change into the merge (since the new blackholing scheme had not existed at the time the new code generator branch was frozen.)

Test ffi021

Test ffi021 involved creating a pointer to an imported FFI function, and then dynamically executing it. (I didn’t even know you could do that with the FFI!)

type Malloc = CSize -> IO (Ptr ())

foreign import ccall unsafe "&malloc" pmalloc:: FunPtr Malloc
foreign import ccall unsafe "dynamic" callMalloc :: FunPtr Malloc -> Malloc

This ended up being a latent bug in the inline statement optimizer (not a bug in the new code generator, but a bug that the new codegen tickled). I got as far as concluding that it was an optimization bug in the native code generator before Simon Marlow identified the bug, and we got a one-line patch.

hunk ./compiler/cmm/CmmOpt.hs 156
-   where infn (CmmCallee fn cconv) = CmmCallee fn cconv
+   where infn (CmmCallee fn cconv) = CmmCallee (inlineExpr u a fn) cconv

Test 4221

This one took three weeks to solve. The original test code was fairly complex and highly sensitive to code changes. My first theory was that we were attempting to access a variable that had never been spilled to the stack, but after talking to Simon Peyton Jones about how stack spilling worked I got the inkling that this might not actually be the problem, and stopped attempting to understand the Hoopl code that did spilling and went back to analysis. There was another false end with regards to optimization fuel, which I hoped would help pinpoint the point of error but in fact doesn't work yet. (Optimization fuel allows you to incrementally increase the number of optimizations applied, so you can binary search which optimization introduces the bug. Unfortunately, you most of the so-called “optimizations” were actually essential program transformations on the way to machine code.)

The breakthrough came when I realized that the bug persisted when I changed the types in the input program from CDouble to CInt64, but not when I changed the types to CInt32. This allowed me to identify the erroneous C-- code involving garbage collection and reduce the test-case to a very small program which didn’t crash but showed the wrong code (since the program needed to run for a while in order to trigger a stack overflow at precisely the right place):

{-# LANGUAGE ForeignFunctionInterface #-}
module Main(main) where

import Foreign.C

foreign import ccall safe "foo" foo :: CLLong -> CLLong
-- Changing to unsafe causes stg_gc_l1 to not be generated
-- Changing to IO causes slight cosmetic changes, but it's still wrong

main = print (foo 0)

After a huge misunderstanding regarding the calling convention and futile attempts to find a bug in the stack layout code (I assumed that slot<foo> + 4 indicated a higher memory location; in fact it indicated a lower memory location than slot<foo>), I finally identified the problem to be with the stg_gc_* calling convention.

My first patch to fix this changed the callee (the stg_gc_* functions) to use the observed calling convention that the new code generator was emitting, since I couldn’t see anything wrong with that code. But there was an anomalous bit: by this theory, all of the calls to GC should have used the wrong calling convention, yet only doubles and 64-bit integers exhibited this behavior. My patch worked, but there was something wrong. This something wrong was in fact the fact that 32-bit x86 has no general purpose non-32-bit registers, which was why the code generator was spilling only these types of arguments onto the stack. I learned a little bit more about GHC’s virtual registers, and determined another one line fix.

hunk ./compiler/cmm/CmmCallConv.hs 50
-               (_,   GC)               -> getRegsWithNode
+               (_,   GC)               -> allRegs

Test 2047 (bagels)

This one is in progress. Fixing the GC bug resolved all of the remaining mysterious test suite failures (hooray), and with this I was able to recompile GHC with all of the libraries with the new code generator. This triggered test 2047 to start segfaulting.

It took me a little bit of time to establish that I had not introduced a bug from compiling the stage 2 compiler with the new codegen (which I had done overzealously) and confirm which library code had the bug, but once I had done so I managed to reduce it to the following program (which I had lovingly named “bagels”):

import Bagel

main = do
    l <- getContents
    length l `seq` putStr (sort l)

with sort defined in the module Bagel as such:

module Bagel where
-- a bastardized version of sort that still exhibits the bug
sort :: Ord a => [a] -> [a]
sort = mergeAll . sequences
    sequences (a:xs) = compare a a `seq` []:sequences xs
    sequences _ = []

    mergeAll [x] = x
    mergeAll xs  = mergeAll (mergePairs xs)

    mergePairs (a:b:xs) = merge a b: mergePairs xs
    mergePairs xs       = xs

    merge (a:as') (b:bs') = compare a a `seq` merge as' as'
    merge _ _ = []

and run with the following data:

$ hexdump master-data
0000000 7755 7755 7755 7755 7755 7755 7755 7755

This program has a number of curious properties. The segfault goes away if I:

  • Turn off compacting GC
  • Reduce the size of master-data
  • Turn off optimizations
  • Use the old codegen
  • Put all of the code in one file
  • Remove the seqs from 'sort' (which isn't actually a sort)
  • Remove the seqs from 'main'
  • Make the sort function monomorphic on Char

The current theory is someone (either the new code generator or the compacting GC) is not handling a tag bit properly, but I haven’t quite figured out where yet. This is the only outstanding bug unique to the new code generator.

Where to from here?

The code generator produces some pretty idiotic code (as I noticed while I was reading pages and pages of C--), and it’s also pretty slow. Once correct, it’s time to optimize, in more ways than one.

8 Responses to “Multi-day debugging”

  1. Thomas says:

    Very nice work and write-up! Tiny nitpick: STG = Spineless Tagless G-machine (not “Stackless”).

  2. solrize says:

    Very awesome debugging work, at the same time scary because of how it conflicts with the proverb that once Haskell programs type-check, they rarely have complicated bugs. I wonder whether the new codegen uses (or could benefit from) recent extensions to the GHC type system, sort of like the way Darcs reportedly benefitted from use of GADT’s.

  3. Thomas says:

    @solrize: Hoopl uses GADTs and type functions (which can be very annoying at times), but the C– intermediate representation doesn’t.

    Based on the kinds of bugs, only few of them could have been caught by the type checker. E.g., a mismatch between a C primitive and the codegen cannot be caught by types alone. The registers bug may have been catchable by marking fake registers somehow.

    The main problem is that you have to encode invariants of imperative code into your intermediate representation. It could be an interesting research project, though. (In fact CompCert does something like that using Coq.)

  4. solrize: Interestingly enough, the new code generator does use some pretty advanced type system features to cover some invariants (e.g. the open-closed GADT encoding to rule out incorrect program transformations.) It would have been nice, however, if tagging was a statically checked deal… but that’s C–, not Haskell. :-)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Can you elaborate on the go-back-in-time trick?

  6. It’s described in under the section “Going back in time”.

  7. Anonymous says:

    haha, I see, I have used similar trick, but didn’t know about the GDB commands so I was using a local variable to count the break points in my C++ code…

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