Using Valgrind to find memory problems - Part Four

Now that I had some experience dealing with memory leaks, I decided to try to reduce the memory leaks present in MoarVM. After a few quick wins, I found a situation where MVMCallsite objects referred to by MVMCompUnit objects 1) were not being cleaned up when their parent compunit is collected. I took it upon myself to plug this leak!

Once again, I started with an extremely naïve change: just free the callsite objects (and their associated resources) when a comp unit is collected. I feel comfortable starting with naïve changes, because roast, the Perl 6 test suite, is very good at exercising all of the special cases that run through the interpreter. And yet again, my naïvete got the better of me; I got an invalid free from ASan this time:

  ==18779==ERROR: AddressSanitizer: attempting free on address which was not malloc()-ed: 0x7f3ff1b0d4a0 in thread T0
      #0 0x7f3ff1ddc63a in __interceptor_free /build/gcc-multilib/src/gcc-5.3.0/libsanitizer/asan/
      #1 0x7f3ff123e137 in MVM_free src/core/alloc.h:29
      #2 0x7f3ff123e137 in MVM_callsite_destroy src/core/callsite.c:93
      #3 0x7f3ff1368e90 in gc_free src/6model/reprs/MVMCompUnit.c:88
      #4 0x7f3ff130820c in MVM_gc_collect_free_gen2_unmarked src/gc/collect.c:650
      #5 0x7f3ff12fcb61 in MVM_gc_global_destruction src/gc/orchestrate.c:502
      #6 0x7f3ff14ad19f in MVM_vm_destroy_instance src/moar.c:296
      #7 0x4011aa in main src/main.c:194
      #8 0x7f3ff0aa460f in __libc_start_main (/usr/lib/
      #9 0x401598 in _start (/tmp/nom/bin/moar+0x401598)
  AddressSanitizer can not describe address in more detail (wild memory access suspected).
  SUMMARY: AddressSanitizer: bad-free /build/gcc-multilib/src/gcc-5.3.0/libsanitizer/asan/ __interceptor_free

Interestingly enough, the invalid free was not a double free; it was a free of memory not managed by malloc. Unfortunately, ASan didn't tell me any details about this address - whether it lived on the stack, in static memory, or where. So now it was time to break out the big guns: valgrind.

Enter Valgrind

If you aren't familiar with it, Valgrind is a suite of tools for analysing programs. The most well-known tool in the suite is Memcheck, which checks for all sorts of memory problems, beyond what even ASan can do 2). An example of one of the amazing things it can do is it will track uninitialized values throughout your program and notify you if you have an if branch based on that uninitialized value. It's remarkable not only because of the power it offers, but also because of how it works: it actually emulates a CPU!

Valgrind is one of those tools that I had heard about, had little occasion to use, but kept it in my back pocket for the one day that I knew I had memory problems. To use valgrind with MoarVM, we just need to build it without --asan, as ASan and Valgrind don't play nice together. Using --debug is still recommended, however, for the same reasons we used it with ASan (nice stack traces). So after rebuilding Moar and running it through Valgrind, I got the following report:

  ==4843== Invalid free() / delete / delete[] / realloc()
  ==4843==    at 0x4C29D2A: free (in /usr/lib/valgrind/
  ==4843==    by 0x4F7D047: MVM_free (alloc.h:29)
  ==4843==    by 0x4F7D047: MVM_callsite_destroy (callsite.c:93)
  ==4843==    by 0x4FD410C: gc_free (MVMCompUnit.c:88)
  ==4843==    by 0x4FB6266: MVM_gc_collect_free_gen2_unmarked (collect.c:650)
  ==4843==    by 0x4FB314B: MVM_gc_global_destruction (orchestrate.c:502)
  ==4843==    by 0x503B48C: MVM_vm_destroy_instance (moar.c:296)
  ==4843==    by 0x400D3E: main (main.c:194)
  ==4843==  Address 0x5471798 is 0 bytes inside data symbol "obj_arg_flags"

Here we can see that Valgrind provided us a little extra information; namely, that the address we're trying to free is in obj_arg_flags. obj_arg_flags is a statically allocated piece of memory; it turns out that MoarVM preallocates a few callsite objects it knows will be used repeatedly. So I just needed to update my change to consider this (among a few other small things), and another leak was closed!

This is only scratching the surface of what Valgrind is capable of; I'm sure I'll have more opportunities to cover it more in the future.

Lessons Learned

I took away a few lessons from this exercise; the first one is that if you're going to do low-level programming like this, make sure you learn at least the basics of ASan and Valgrind. They will make your life so much easier! As things stand now, I wouldn't call myself a Valgrind pro, but I know enough now to say that I want to use Valgrind on everything. Valgrind is one of those tools where I feel compelled to read its entire manual.

The second lesson is something I knew, but is a continuous challenge for me: write good commit messages! Your future self will thank you. I feel like I did a good job with these this time around, and having those commit messages to read a few weeks/months later was extremely helpful in this blog post series.

Thanks for reading!

  1. 1) MVMCallsite objects are the MoarVM representation of Perl 6 signatures, and MVMCompUnit objects represent the result of a body of source code being compiled
  2. 2) ASan still remains in my toolkit, however, since it increases program execution time by only about 2x compared to Valgrind's 20x-30x
Published on 2015-12-28