Getting the Cython debugger running on macOS

Debuggers are complicated, especially ones that attach to compiled executables. In Python pdb runs inside the interpreter, so it does not need to control other processes, but this will not work once we have Cython-compiled components (or other C extensions) in our Python programmes. Unfortunately, Cython offers us plenty of opportunities to shoot ourselves in the foot, and it is more likely we will need to debug use-after-free, double-free or other nasty segfault situations.

Cython does come with a debugger, which is more properly a set of Python extensions to gdb, the GNU debugger. Macs come with lldb installed and functional, but sadly getting gdb running is a bit tricky. At the time of writing, I have macOS 10.14 Mojave, the current version of gdb is 9.2, and Cython is 0.29.14. Further, the Cython extensions require Python 2.7, but I need to be able to debug Python 3 programmes since it’s the only supported version of Python.

As of right now, I do not have a fully working debugger, but hopefully I will update this post after rebuilding gdb with some minor patches.

Building the debugger

gdb is available on Homebrew, but the Homebrew version is built against the most recent version of Python (currently 3.8). This is no good for us, so we have to build from source.

I downloaded the latest source file gdb-9.2.tar.gz and unzipped it into ~/code/gdb-9.2.

$ tar xf ~/Downloads/gdb-9.2.tar.gz ~/code/gdb-9.2

This actually gives us a subset of GNU binutils, of which gdb is only one subfolder in an autotools-managed build process. The root README tells us to look in gdb/README which itemises the options to gdb/configure, and in turn the root configure.

The only option I needed to set was to compile gdb with Python 2.7 support. Since this version of Python will also need to see Cython, I do not want to rely on my system python (which happens to be 2.7), so I set it up in a conda virtual environment:

$ conda create -n cython-debug python=2.7 cython
$ conda activate cython-debug

This is not the conda environment that I will have active when I am using the debugger, it is only necessary to ensure that gdb finds the correct version of Python, even when my default is Python 3. To install, gdb requires us not to be in the root source directory, so I create a subdirectory build and run the configuration process from there. I still have my cython-debug environment active, so that python2.7 is from there.

$ mkdir ~/code/gdb-9.2/build
$ cd ~/code/gdb-9.2/build
$ ~/code/gdb-9.2/configure --with-python=$(which python2.7)
$ make
$ sudo make install

I could have used the --prefix option to configure to set the install directory to somewhere other than /usr/local (and hence avoided the sudo), but I didn’t think this was too important for me. Running gdb directly from the build directory, without doing the installation, caused it to complain

Could not load the Python gdb module from `/usr/local/share/gdb/python'.
Limited Python support is available from the _gdb module.
Suggest passing --data-directory=/path/to/gdb/data-directory.

The search location /usr/local/share/gdb/python makes it clear that the installation is important.

At this point gdb exists on the system path, and the conda environment we created can now be safely ignored—as long as it exists, we can conda deactivate and move to whatever environment we like, and gdb will still run its Python components without complaint.

Signing the debugger

We can test the debugger with a simple C programme, for example

#include <stdio.h>

int f(int x)
    return x * x;

int main(int argc, const char **argv)
    int y = f(3);
    printf("hello, world: %d, %d\n", y, f(6));
    return 0;

I have compiled this with debugging symbols gcc -g to ~/code/ctest/main. If I try to run the debugger now, I get a kernel error

$ gdb ~/code/ctest/main
(gdb) run
Starting program: /Users/jake/code/ctest/main
Unable to find Mach task port for process-id 52235: (os/kern) failure (0x5).
 (please check gdb is codesigned - see taskgated(8))

gdb tells us that it needs to be “code-signed” to be granted the authorisations it needs to function, which has been necessary since Leopard (OS X 10.5). First we have to create a code-signing certificate, and ensure that it’s in the System keychain. I kept getting an “Unknown error” when trying to create it there directly in the wizard, but I created gdb-cert in the Login keychain, then just moved it over.

Further, since Mojave (OS X 10.14), we have to grant gdb the entitlement. The system lldb is a thin pass-through to its debug server distributed within Xcode, so we can extract the necessary entitlements from there:

$ codesign -d --entitlements :gdb-entitlements.xml /Applications/

The file gdb-entitlements.xml now looks like

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">

We code-sign the gdb executable with

$ codesign --entitlements gdb-entitlements.xml -fs gdb-cert $(which gdb)

where the -f option causes codesign to override any signatures that may already exist. This operation may need to be run as root if the gdb executable is somewhere that isn’t writeable.

If you have already run gdb before code-signing, you may need to reload taskgated to clear the authorisation cache. Since it’s a required kernel process, we can just kill it: sudo pkill taskgated.

Internal debugger issues

In theory, gdb should be working now. I can run gdb ~/code/ctest/main, and am greeted by a functioning interpreter:

Reading symbols from main...
Reading symbols from /Users/jake/code/ctest/main.dSYM/Contents/Resources/DWARF/main...
(gdb) r
Starting program: /Users/jake/code/ctest/main
[New Thread 0x1903 of process 5530]
[New Thread 0x1b03 of process 5530]
hello, world: 9, 36
[Inferior 1 (process 5530) exited normally]
(gdb) q

It is odd to me that two threads are spawned for a single-threaded programme, but it still ran. A larger problem is that occasionally on issuing the run command, gdb just completely hangs after only spawning the first thread. To kill it, ctrl-C isn’t sufficient, but suspending it with ctrl-Z and following it with kill -9 are.

More pressing is that trying to load debugging symbols from a file causes an internal gdb error:

$ gdb
(gdb) file main
Reading symbols from main...
Reading symbols from /Users/jake/code/ctest/main.dSYM/Contents/Resources/DWARF/main...
../../gdb/inferior.c:283: internal-error: inferior* find_inferior_pid(int): Assertion `pid != 0' failed.
A problem internal to GDB has been detected,
further debugging may prove unreliable.
Quit this debugging session? (y or n) n

This is a bug, please report it.  For instructions, see:

../../gdb/inferior.c:283: internal-error: inferior* find_inferior_pid(int): Assertion `pid != 0' failed.
A problem internal to GDB has been detected,
further debugging may prove unreliable.
Create a core file of GDB? (y or n) n
Command aborted.
(gdb) r
Starting program: /Users/jake/code/ctest/main
[New Thread 0x2603 of process 5623]
[New Thread 0x2303 of process 5623]
hello, world: 9, 36
[Inferior 1 (process 5623) exited normally]

Oddly, pushing gdb to continue causes it to function as normal. Unfortunately, when running in batch mode (as cygdb does on loading), those questions will automatically be answered y, which currently makes cygdb unusable.

A couple of points about this error:

  1. it appears only when using file to load debugging symbols; doing add-inferior -exec main will work fine.
  2. despite claiming that pid is 0 in find_inferior_pid, gdb seems to have successfully found it by the time it runs the inferior.
  3. regular initialisation and add-inferior do not cause gdb to call find_inferior_pid, and their temperatmental hangs may suggest that there is a deeper underlying problem that is only noticed occasionally.

Right now I have to start work on other parts of QuTiP, but I will hopefully return to solve the last problem!