A client crash hunted down

Thursday 2 October 2003

Another tale of guerilla debugging. A Kubi tester had a Notes client crash. Because Kubi Client runs in the same process, we had to suspect our own code. She captured the screen shot of the crash dialog box, which had the instruction address, and the fact that it was trying to access memory at address 0x00000000, but nothing else. She never had it happen before, and couldn’t make it happen again. What’s a developer to do?

First, start the Notes client again, break it into a debugger, and look at the list of loaded modules. This will tell us which module the fatal instruction was in. Sure enough, it is one of our DLLs.

Subtract the base load address for the module from the fatal instruction address in the crash message. This gives the offset of the instruction in the module. In our case, it is 0x807f0.

Open the .map file for that DLL. It will contain many lines that look roughly like this:

0002:0008c7d0  ??6@Y(..ugly decorated fn name..)@@@Z 101807d0 f i Utils.obj
0002:0008c840  ?CleanUp@CSimplePool@@MAEXXZ 10180840 f   Utils.obj

Here’s the part I don’t really understand. If you look at the map file line, there’s the segment and offset at the beginning of the line (0002:0008c7d0), and the offset into the module later in the line (101807d0). A deeper Microsoft geek than me (and believe me, I’m not that deep) will understand the difference between these two, but I do not. What I do know is that the 0002 part of the first number gets turned roughly into the 10100000 part of the second number, leaving you with 807d0 as the interesting part of the second number.

The important thing is that our module offset (807f0) falls between the interesting part of the first line (807d0) and the interesting part of the second line (80840), so the fatal instruction is in that first routine (with the horrible decorated C++ name). It happens to be a stringifier for single byte ASCII strings into Unicode streams.

So we go to the .cod file for the object file in question (or build one if we hadn’t before). We find the chunk of the file that shows that routine’s compiled code. Subtracting our fatal instruction offset (807f0) from the routine’s offset (807d0) gives the offset of the instruction in the routine (20 hex). The .cod file can show us the exact instruction:

  00012 8b 94 24 f4 03
        00 00        mov     edx, DWORD PTR _p$[esp+1000]
  00019 89 84 24 e8 03
        00 00        mov     DWORD PTR __$ArrayPad$[esp+1004], eax
  00020 8a 02        mov     al, BYTE PTR [edx]
  00022 84 c0        test    al, al

Great! First, there is an instruction at offset 20 (“mov al, BYTE PTR [edx]”). Some of this tracking down could have gone wrong, or we could have made simple arithmetic mistakes. The fact that there is an instruction at offset 20 validates much of what we have done. Even better, it’s an instruction that could easily have been dealing with a NULL pointer. It uses the address in edx to load a byte into al. In C++, it would be:

char * edx;
char al;
al = *edx;      // Will crash if edx == NULL.

Looking at the stringifier code itself, it’s clear that there’s no protection there against being called with a NULL pointer. We can prevent this crash in the future by simply handling the NULL case. Another triumph of hard work over mysterious systems.

As I’m sure someone will point out: we haven’t really tracked down why the pointer was NULL to begin with, and that is probably still a problem. Whoever points that out is correct: We still have to do the work of checking the callers of the stringifier (of which there are tons), and find the one that could have passed in a NULL. But we’ve improved the situation, and made a common utility function more bullet-proof.


Excellent detective work. If you don't have John Robbins' book "Debugging Applications" (MS Press), it's handy to have on the shelf for situations like this. I wouldn't want to be a full time commando debugger, but when I need to follow breadcrumbs like this after a crash, it's handy to have all that stuff in one place (and with some other useful tools that he provides...)
I always thought programming forensics is an art form and should be a major...or at least a career path.
There used to be a debugger known as SoftICE, IMO the best I've ever used -- ideal for these idiosyncratic dll crashes.
Now i just thank god, I am out of this whole dll/c++/windows sdk business....


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