GDB Preattach

In firefox development, it’s normal to do most development tasks via the mach command. Build? Use mach. Update UUIDs? Use mach. Run tests? Use mach. Debug tests? Yes, mach mochitest --debugger gdb.

Now, normally I run gdb inside emacs, of course. But this is hard to do when I’m also using mach to set up the environment and invoke gdb.

This is really an Emacs bug. GUD, the Emacs interface to all kinds of debuggers, is written as its own mode, but there’s no really great reason for this. It would be way cooler to have an adaptive shell mode, where running the debugger in the shell would magically change the shell-ish buffer into a gud-ish buffer. And somebody — probably you! — should work on this.

But anyway this is hard and I am lazy. Well, sort of lazy and when I’m not lazy, also unfocused, since I came up with three other approaches to the basic problem. Trying stuff out and all. And these are even the principled ways, not crazy stuff like screenify.

Oh right, the basic problem.  The basic problem with running gdb from mach is that then you’re just stuck in the terminal. And unless you dig the TUI, which I don’t, terminal gdb is not that great to use.

One of the ideas, in fact the one this post is about, since this post isn’t about the one that I couldn’t get to work, or the one that is also pretty cool but that I’m not ready to talk about, was: hey, can’t I just attach gdb to the test firefox? Well, no, of course not, the test program runs too fast (sometimes) and racing to attach is no fun. What would be great is to be able to pre-attach — tell gdb to attach to the next instance of a given program.

This requires kernel support. Once upon a time there were some gdb and kernel patches (search for “global breakpoints”) to do this, but they were never merged. Though hmm! I can do some fun kernel stuff with SystemTap…

Specifically what I did was write a small SystemTap script to look for a specific exec, then deliver a SIGSTOP to the process. Then the script prints the PID of the process. On the gdb side, there’s a new command written in Python that invokes the SystemTap script, reads the PID, and invokes attach. It’s a bit hacky and a bit weird to use (the SIGSTOP appears in gdb to have been delivered multiple times or something like that). But it works!

It would be better to have this functionality directly in the kernel. Somebody — probably you! — should write this. But meanwhile my hack is available, along with a few other gdb scxripts, in my gdb helpers github repository.


  • I had the same complaint, and what I wound up doing was writing a small shell script that invokes emacsclient to invoke gdb:

    The shell quoting was inconvenient, but once I got mach mochitest-plain --debugger=egdb to work, I was pretty happy.

  • Thanks Nathan.

    I tried something similar but couldn’t make it work. I think for some reason my hack had emacsclient exiting too early? I can’t remember – but I will definitely be trying out your approach.

  • Late to the party, but have you heard about RealGUD? You can attach it to an existing shell buffer.

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