Julia Evans

Three steps to learning GDB

Debugging C programs used to scare me a lot. Then I was writing my operating system and I had so many bugs to debug! I was extremely fortunate to be using the emulator qemu, which lets me attach a debugger to my operating system. The debugger is called gdb.

I’m going to explain a couple of small things you can do with gdb, because I found it really confusing to get started. We’re going to set a breakpoint and examine some memory in a tiny program.

1. Set breakpoints

If you’ve ever used a debugger before, you’ve probably set a breakpoint.

Here’s the program that we’re going to be “debugging” (though there aren’t any bugs):

#include <stdio.h>
void do_thing() {
int main() {

Save this as hello.c. We can debug it with gdb like this:

[email protected] ~> gcc -g hello.c -o hello
[email protected] ~> cat
[email protected] ~> gdb ./hello

This compiles hello.c with debugging symbols (so that gdb can do better work), and gives us kind of scary prompt that just says


We can then set a breakpoint using the break command, and then run the program.

(gdb) break do_thing 
Breakpoint 1 at 0x4004f8
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/bork/hello 

Breakpoint 1, 0x00000000004004f8 in do_thing ()

This stops the program at the beginning of do_thing.

We can find out where we are in the call stack with where: (thanks to @mgedmin for the tip)

(gdb) where
#0  do_thing () at hello.c:3
#1  0x08050cdb in main () at hello.c:6

2. Look at some assembly code

We can look at the assembly code for our function using the disassemble command! This is cool. This is x86 assembly. I don’t understand it very well, but the line that says callq is what does the printf function call.

(gdb) disassemble do_thing
Dump of assembler code for function do_thing:
   0x00000000004004f4 <+0>:     push   %rbp
   0x00000000004004f5 <+1>:     mov    %rsp,%rbp
=> 0x00000000004004f8 <+4>:     mov    $0x40060c,%edi
   0x00000000004004fd <+9>:     callq  0x4003f0 
   0x0000000000400502 <+14>:    pop    %rbp
   0x0000000000400503 <+15>:    retq 

You can also shorten disassemble to disas

3. Examine some memory!

The main thing I used gdb for when I was debugging my kernel was to examine regions of memory to make sure they were what I thought they were. The command for examining memory is examine, or x for short. We’re going to use x.

From looking at that assembly above, it seems like 0x40060c might be the address of the string we’re printing. Let’s check!

(gdb) x/s 0x40060c
0x40060c:        "Hi!"

It is! Neat! Look at that. The /s part of x/s means “show it to me like it’s a string”. I could also have said “show me 10 characters” like this:

(gdb) x/10c 0x40060c
0x40060c:       72 'H'  105 'i' 33 '!'  0 '\000'        1 '\001'        27 '\033'       3 '\003'        59 ';'
0x400614:       52 '4'  0 '\000'

You can see that the first four characters are ‘H’, ‘i’, and ‘!’, and ‘\0’ and then after that there’s more unrelated stuff.

I know that gdb does lots of other stuff, but I still don’t know it very well and x and break got me pretty far. You can read the documentation for examining memory.