Julia Evans

Using strace to avoid reading Ruby code

This is the start of a new category! I just started at Stripe yesterday, so this is in the things-I-am-learning-at-Stripe category. Yay!

Yesterday I was getting set up, and we were having a problem with an internal tool written in Ruby that was sshing somewhere. So we wanted to know exactly what ssh command it was running. The normal way I’d think about doing this is by, well, reading the code. But that takes time!

So! My new favorite thing in life is strace (as evidenced by these two posts) (when all you have is a hammer…). But I wasn’t sure that we could use strace to figure out the ssh command.

But then Evan did this (or something equivalent):

strace -f -e trace=execve [the ruby command]

This looks at all the system calls that the command runs, filters out everything that isn’t executing a command, and also looks in all the child processes. Grepping for ssh spat out the exact ssh command that it was running!

The looking-in-all-child-processes part (-f) is important because it started some subprocesses.

This is super fun because what I’d usually do is go read the code to try and figure out what it’s doing, and reading code is hard! strace is easy!

Also it’s a great example of incidental/accidental learning. I like working with people who know more (and different!) things than I do :)

I’m trying to put together more examples of when understanding how system calls work is useful in everyday non-kernel-hacking programming. If you have suggestions, tell me on Twitter! I’m @b0rk. (or by email!)

(edit: Greg Price suggested using strace -e process instead of strace -e trace=execve. It’s shorter, and it also shows you other process-related system calls.)

More practical uses for strace! A resume workshop idea