C++ debugging with GDB and Valgrind quickstart

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m coming into C++ from Python and Matlab. I’ve programmed C++ before, but it’s been a while, and handling the memory management myself and tracking down seg faults again is taking some getting used to. Here are two things that really helped me out.

Program – GDB
As the scale of the program I’m working on in C++ keeps increasing, debugging it becomes more and more of a pain in the ass to do using the old “add print statements” approach to pinpointing the source of the problem. After one seg fault too many I broke down and started looking at how to use GDB. Turns out, it’s very straightforward to get some basic (and very useful) functionality out of it.

Here are the steps:

  1. Add -g to your compile command, ie g++ -g test.cpp -o test
  2. Type in gdb test to your console
  3. Type run into the gdb console, then when your program breaks, type in backtrace or bt to get the line that your program broke down on, and the trace of function calls leading up to it!

There’s a bunch of other functionality built in to gdb, but I was just looking for a very simple, low overhead introduction to it and this was all I needed to get going. Having that line number can save a ton of time.

Program – Valgrind
Once my program got up and going though, I noticed that for longer simulation runs I got core memory dump errors. After a very short search I came across a program called Valgrind that profiles C++ code to find memory leaks. Turns out I had quite a few.
This program is also extremely easy to use. To install on linux is, of course, just sudo apt-get install valgrind. To use Valgrind to check for memory leaks in your program and get information about where they originated, from the console type:

valgrind --leak-check=full --show-reachable=yes --track-origins=yes ./test

If all is going well, then you should see something like this pop up at the end of the printout:

==9422== HEAP SUMMARY:
==9422==     in use at exit: 0 bytes in 0 blocks
==9422==   total heap usage: 31,127 allocs, 31,127 frees, 858,710 bytes allocated
==9422== All heap blocks were freed -- no leaks are possible

It’s beautiful.
Valgrind tracks your allocations and freeing of memory, so if it finds that there are unmatched allocations, or you do something fairly tricky with your handling of memory, you’ll get a printout that lets you know there’s unfreed memory and will give you a trace of function calls leading to the memory that isn’t freed. It’s a great program, for more information they have a quickstart guide here: http://valgrind.org/docs/manual/quick-start.html#quick-start.intro.

As I said before, I’m getting used to memory management in C++ again; here are a couple of things that really perplexed me while I was trying to track down the memory leaks:

Perplexment 1 – Copy constructor on dereferenced pointers
I had been passing around pointers into class constructor, and then assigning them to local variables on the stack (so I thought). The idea was then when the class then was destroyed, the stack had taken over control of the memory and would free automatically. It looked like this:

class classA {
    int a;
    VectorXf b;

    classA(); // constructor

classA::classA(int a, VectorXf *b) {
    this->a = a;

    if (b == NULL)
        b = new(VectorXf)(VectorXf::Ones(a));
    this->b = *b;

WRONG. Apparently this won’t even work at all most of the time, but the Eigen library has an amazing set of copy constructors that let this slide. What’s happening when you dereference this pointer is that a copy of the VectorXf that b points to is created. Then, the instance you created to pass into this constructor is left unfreed floating around in the ether. Terrible. The fix, is, of course, to make b a pointer to a vector instead. i.e.

class classA {
    int a;
    VectorXf* b;

    classA(); // constructor

classA::classA(int a, VectorXf *b) {
    this->a = a;

    if (b == NULL)
        b = new(VectorXf)(VectorXf::Ones(a));
    this->b = b;

Now this also holds when you return pointers! If you have some function

VectorXf* classA::func1 getVec();

that is returning a pointer to you, you be damned sure you store that result in a pointer. None of this:

VectorXf x = *func1();

or any of its like or ilk, that is bad news. Also this:

VectorXf x = func1()->reverse();

no no no no no no. Memory leak. Same as dereferencing, leaves you with VectorXfs floating around in the wild.

And now you know. And knowledge is power.

Perplexment 2 – Putting virtual in front of base class deconstructor
The other thing that caught me up was that if you have a base class and inheriting classes set up, the deconstructor of the base class must be declared with virtual, or it isn’t called by the inheriting classes. i.e.

virtual ~baseClass();

Additionally, if you don’t have that virtual line in front of your base class deconstructor, none of the inheriting class deconstructors get called either! This was another one that tripped me up.

Perplexment 3 – delete a, b, …
This does not work! It compiles fine, but having a string of variables to delete in a row does not actually delete the latter variables. Perplexing!

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2 thoughts on “C++ debugging with GDB and Valgrind quickstart

  1. penj3 says:

    “Perplexment 3 – delete a, b, …”
    Because “delete a” and “b” are separate operands of the comma operator.

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