I recently tracked down a bug in a relatively complex piece of software using the LD_PRELOAD mechanism and I figured it was worth documenting it here in case anybody finds it useful or interesting.

For those unfamiliar, LD_PRELOAD is a hack present in the dynamic linker of most unix-like systems that allows hooking calls to any functions located in a dynamic library. It goes without saying that this is a pretty powerful tool that can be used in many different ways, from faking the system time, to forcing all network traffic through a proxy, to debugging, which is what I’ll cover here.

Discovering the Bug

As always, the first step in debugging is discovering an issue that you need to solve. In my case, I found an issue while working on my libkvmchan project, specifically its daemon which is a multi-process multi-thread codebase with a homebrew IPC mechanism and many moving parts.

After adding a slew of seemingly minor changes to the codebase, I noticed that whenever one of the newly added codepaths was executed, statements printing to stdout would no longer make it to my console window. The logging facility that uses stderr was unaffected, which narrowed it down. After checking the usual suspects (missing newline to flush the buffer, print statements not being hit, etc.), I began to suspect that the process’ stdout file descriptor had been closed somehow.

To confirm my suspicion, I checked the process’ /proc entry, which is a kernel interface for querying information on a running process including any file descriptors it has open.

$ ls -l /proc/$(pgrep kvmchand)/fd
total 0
lrwx------. 1 root root 64 Apr  7 13:28 0 -> /dev/pts/4
lrwx------. 1 root root 64 Apr  7 13:28 2 -> /dev/pts/4
lrwx------. 1 root root 64 Apr  7 13:28 3 -> 'socket:[358583]'
lrwx------. 1 root root 64 Apr  7 14:06 4 -> 'anon_inode:[eventpoll]'
lrwx------. 1 root root 64 Apr  7 14:06 5 -> 'socket:[358585]'
lrwx------. 1 root root 64 Apr  7 14:06 7 -> 'socket:[358587]'

Sure enough, file descriptors 0 and 2 (stdin and stderr respectively) were present and pointed to my console’s allocated pseudo-tty, but file descriptor 1 corresponding to stdout is absent. I double checked and confirmed that fd 1 was present before my newly-added codepath gets hit and disappears afterwards, so the issue definitely had to do with my new code causing fd 1 to be closed.

Strangely though, the new code I added had absolutely nothing to do with closing file descriptors! Grepping the modified files for close() calls and adding a check for file descriptor 1 didn’t catch anything either, so it was clear that the new code was triggering a bug in an entirely different part of the codebase.

So now the question is, what is the most effective way to track down the erroneous close that is occurring in a completely unknown part of this large, multi-threaded codebase? LD_PRELOAD to the rescue!

LD_PRELOAD to the Rescue

Now that we know the bug is likely caused due to an erroneous call to close() with a file descriptor of 1, we can discover the location of the bug rather trivially by intercepting all close() calls with LD_PRELOAD and checking for a parameter of fd 1.

First, we create a new C file that defines a function in the global namespace with the same name and signature as the function we want to hook. In our case, that signature is int close(int fd). Then we simply need to inspect the argument and perform some action if it’s equal to 1, and forward it to the actual close() function in libc otherwise.

What should be done when the invalid file descriptor argument is detected though? The easiest thing I could think of was to execute an illegal instruction which would allow us to catch the exception in a debugger. I’m on a POWER9 system, so I used the assembly pseudo-op .long 0 to do this. On x86_64 you might want to use the int3 instruction instead to generate a software breakpoint.

Here’s the implementation of the hook:

#define _GNU_SOURCE

#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <dlfcn.h>

int close(int fd) {
    static int (*close_fn)(int) = NULL;
    if (!close_fn)
        close_fn = dlsym(RTLD_NEXT, "close");

    if (fd == 1)
        // Tried to close fd 1 - execute an illegal instruction
        asm volatile(".long 0\n");

    return close_fn(fd);

Breaking this down, the first thing our hook does is declare a static function pointer which is used to store the address of the actual close() function provided by our system libc. It gets populated by a call to dlsym which dynamically resolves the address of the real close(). For more information, check out dlsym’s man page, specifically the section about RTLD_NEXT.

Next comes the check for file descriptor 1, which should only be hit by the bug. As discussed earlier, if the check passes the code executes the opcode 0x00000000 which is guaranteed by the Power ISA to be an invalid instruction and should thus raise a SIGILL. On x86_64 this should probably be replaced with the int3 instruction.

Finally we simply forward the argument to the real close() function and return the result.

Now all that’s left is building the hook and using it to track down the bug.

Using the LD_PRELOAD hook

With the hook written and saved, compiling it is straightforward - we just need to provide a few flags to gcc telling it to output a shared library and to link against libdl, which provides the dlsym() function we used to grab the function pointer to the real close().

$ gcc -shared -fPIC -ldl hook_close.c -o hook_close.so

We can now use LD_PRELOAD to run our application with the hook installed and then attach gdb to it:

$ LD_PRELOAD=$PWD/hook_close.so ./my_application &
$ gdb -p $(pgrep my_application)
(gdb) continue

It’s also possible to launch the application with the hook from within gdb:

$ gdb ./my_application
(gdb) set environment LD_PRELOAD ./hook_close.so
(gdb) run

In my case, I went with the former method since the application I was debugging spawns multiple child processes and it was easier to launch it normally and then attach gdb to the relevant PID.

With gdb attached, it’s just a matter of triggering the bug and using the backtrace command to find the erroneous callsite:

Thread 3 "kvmchand" received signal SIGILL, Illegal instruction.
Switching to Thread 0x7fff9ce4ed80 (LWP 54610)]
0x00007fffa02c0724 in close () from /home/shawnanastasio/opt/libkvmchan/hook_close.so
(gdb) backtrace
#0  0x00007fffa02c0724 in close () from /home/shawnanastasio/opt/libkvmchan/hook_close.so
#1  0x000000012702d990 in server_receiver_thread (data_=0x127050608 <g_ipc_data+144>) at daemon/ipc.c:529
#2  0x00007fff9fb59618 in start_thread () from /lib64/libpthread.so.0
#3  0x00007fff9fa68cb4 in clone () from /lib64/libc.so.6
(gdb) quit

The backtrace points to daemon/ipc.c:529 as the culprit. After observing the surrounding code the bug became clear:

int *fds = (msg.flags & IPC_FLAG_FD) ? msg.fds : NULL;
if (ipcmsg_send(socfd, &msg, sizeof(struct ipc_message), fds, msg.fd_count) < 0)
    goto fail_errno;

// Close fds now that we're done forwarding them
if (fds) {
    for (uint8_t i=0; i<IPC_FD_MAX; i++) {
        if (fds[i] != -1)

This code is responsible for closing file descriptors passed via IPC messages after they have been forwarded to their destination. The issue is that instead of iterating through the number of file descriptors present in the array (msg.fd_count), it iterates through all values (IPC_FD_MAX). This works fine if the user always sends IPC_FD_MAX (5) file descriptors (as was the case before my recent changes), but if the user sends less, the code will end up passing uninitialized values to close() as long as they’re not equal to -1.

In this case, it seems one of the uninitialized values of the array ended up being 1, which resulted in stdout being closed. The fix was very straightforward to implement and was committed as 8855a5680e59.


So what did we learn then? Well firstly, care needs to be taken when dealing with array sizes and uninitialized values when working in C (yes, I know you already knew that), and secondly, LD_PRELOAD is a very powerful tool that allows for tracking down some pretty nasty bugs with relatively little effort.

I’m certainly not the first person to write about LD_PRELOAD debugging, but hopefully you found this write-up helpful or at least interesting.

Happy hacking!