Julia Evans

How do you read the memory maps of a Mac process?

Hello! For the last few days I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the memory maps of a Mac program!

why do I need memory maps?

To do profiling, I need the address of 2 variables: ruby_version (so I know how the structs will be laid out) and ruby_current_thread so I can get stack traces.

Getting the addresses of those 2 variables is not thaat hard – often they’re in the symbol table of the Ruby binary I’m looking at. But because of ASLR (“address space layout randomization”), the binary is loaded into memory at a random place. So I need to:

  • find the address of ruby_version in the symbol table
  • find out where the Ruby binary is loaded in memory (from the process’s memory maps!)
  • add them together! (also subtract the value of the __mh_execute_header symbol)

On Linux, you get memory maps by looking at the /proc/PID/maps file, and they look like this – you have an address range, permissions (eg r-xp), a size, an inode number, and possibly a filename of the file that’s mapped there.

00400000-00401000 r-xp 00000000 00:14 13644        /usr/bin/ruby1.9.1
00600000-00601000 r--p 00000000 00:14 13644        /usr/bin/ruby1.9.1
00601000-00602000 rw-p 00001000 00:14 13644        /usr/bin/ruby1.9.1
0060b000-00887000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0              [heap]
7f1d44648000-7f1d4464a000 r-xp 00000000 00:14 14411  /usr/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-linux/enc/trans/transdb.so
7f1d4464a000-7f1d4484a000 ---p 00002000 00:14 14411  /usr/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-linux/enc/trans/transdb.so
7f1d4484a000-7f1d4484b000 r--p 00002000 00:14 14411  /usr/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-linux/enc/trans/transdb.so
7f1d4484b000-7f1d4484c000 rw-p 00003000 00:14 14411  /usr/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-linux/enc/trans/transdb.so

On Mac the memory maps have basically the same structure, but getting them is quite a bit harder! Trying to do this on Mac gave me a lot of appreciation for Linux’s “everything is a text file in /proc” philosophy – it feels a little janky sometimes to be parsing a text file, but getting the memory maps on Linux took me like 2 hours and I was done, and trying to figure it out on Mac has taken me like 3 days and I’m still not finished.

attempt 1: vmmap

My first attempt at this was to use a binary called vmmap (man page) which will print a process’s memory maps! vmmap --wide PID got me all the memory maps I wanted. Neat!

However – vmmap is super slow for some reason. It takes 2 seconds to get the memory maps fora process! I read somewhere (though I can’t find the reference now) that this is because vmmap pauses the process before taking its memory maps.

I can’t find the source to verify why vmmap is so slow (if you know where the source for the vmmap binary is, let me know!! It’s not on https://opensource.apple.com/ as far as I can tell) .

I’m not happy with vmmap being slow for 2 reasons:

  1. a 2-second delay is annoying for the user
  2. (more importantly) if vmmap really is pausing the process, that’s not good – I’d really prefer that my profiling tool not interfere with the process it’s profiling at all.

So I don’t want to use vmmap.

attempt 2: reimplement vmmap myself in Rust

Okay, so I don’t want to use the vmmap tool. Next step: Reimplement its functionality (or at least the part I need) in Rust!

With the help of this C example code of a vmmap clone, I wrote a partial sketchy vmmap clone in Rust! The code is here: main.rs.

To do this I used the mach crate, which has Rust bindings for a bunch of Mac kernel functions you can call. I also learned that on Macs / BSD there’s this concept of a “port”:

a “port” is a protected message queue for communication between tasks; tasks own send rights and receive rights to each port

Here’s how I get a single memory map from a program! The interface to this function is a little weird – you give it a port ID and an address, and it gives you the first memory map after that address. Basically this function just wraps the mach_vm_region function from the Mach microkernel. (the headers for all the Mach functions are in /usr/include/mach/*.h)

I’ve commented the code a bit. It uses the https://github.com/andrewdavidmackenzie/libproc-rs crate for the regionfilename function (which gives you the filename of the library associated with the memory map). I had to use the version of that crate on github master because the released version had a use-after-free bug.

fn mach_vm_region(target_task: mach_port_name_t, mut address: mach_vm_address_t) -> Option<Region> {
    let mut count = mem::size_of::<vm_region_basic_info_data_64_t>() as mach_msg_type_number_t;
    let mut object_name: mach_port_t = 0;
    // we need to create new `size` and `info` structs for the function we call to read the data
    // into
    let mut size = unsafe { mem::zeroed::<mach_vm_size_t>() };
    let mut info = unsafe { mem::zeroed::<vm_region_basic_info_data_t>() };
    let result = unsafe {
        // Call the underlying Mach function
            target_task as vm_task_entry_t,
            &mut address,
            &mut size,
            &mut info as *mut vm_region_basic_info_data_t as vm_region_info_t,
            &mut count,
            &mut object_name,
    if result != KERN_SUCCESS {
        return None;
    // this uses 
    let filename = match regionfilename(41000, address) {
        Ok(x) => Some(x),
        _ => None,
    Some(Region {
        size: size,
        info: info,
        address: address,
        count: count,
        filename: filename,

It made me happy that I could write a reasonable first approximation of a vmmap clone in 100ish lines of Rust!

my Rust program: way faster than vmmap!

My Rust program did what I hoped – it runs in like 80ms or something, about 15x faster than vmmap. I still don’t know exactly what vmmap is doing that’s slow (dtruss didn’t tell me anything terribly helpful), but whatever it is, my Rust program isn’t doing that thing.

There’s still a major issue with my Rust vmmap clone – it actually only gives me some of the memory maps from my process right now. For any dynamically linked libraries (including a Ruby library, which I need the address and filename of!!) they’re stored in a place called the “dyld shared cache” or something which I still haven’t understood and don’t know how to read from yet.

There’s a bunch of code about this “dyld” thing in the links below that I’m planning to read – I think I should be able to get it to work!

Useful resources for reading memory maps from a Mac process

Here are the 4 most useful resources I’ve found so far about reading memory maps on Mac:

that’s all for now!

Figuring out how to support Macs in rbspy over the last few days has been interesting! I’ve never done any Mac or BSD systems programming before, and I’m still trying to understand basic concepts like “what is a port?” but I feel like I’m making good progress :D

Profiler week 3: refactoring, better testing, and an alpha release! How do you spy on a program running in a container?