Start Debugging in Visual Studio

Thu, March 15, 2012, 07:05 PM under VisualStudio

Every developer is familiar with hitting F5 and debugging their application, which starts their app with the Visual Studio debugger attached from the start (instead of attaching later). This is one way to achieve step 1 of the Live Debugging process.

Hitting F5, F11, Ctrl+F10 and the other ways to start the process under the debugger is covered in this MSDN "How To".

The way you configure the debugging experience, before you hit F5, is by selecting the "Project" and then the "Properties" menu (Alt+F7 on my keyboard bindings). Dependent on your project type there are different options, but if you browse to the Debug (or Debugging) node in the properties page you'll have a way to select local or remote machine debugging, what debug engines to use, command line arguments to use during debugging etc.

Currently the .NET and C++ project systems are different, but one would hope that one day they would be unified to use the same mechanism and UI (I don't work on that product team so I have no knowledge of whether that is a goal or if it will ever happen). Personally I like the C++ one better, here is what it looks like (and it is described on this MSDN page):


If you were following along in the "Attach to Process" blog post, the equivalent to the "Select Code Type" dialog is the "Debugger Type" dropdown: that is how you change the debug engine.

Some of the debugger properties options appear on the standard toolbar in VS. With Visual Studio 11, the Debug Type option has been added to the toolbar


If you don't see that in your installation, customize the toolbar to show it - VS 11 tends to be conservative in what you see by default, especially for the non-C++ Visual Studio profiles.

Attach to Process in Visual Studio

Thu, March 15, 2012, 01:51 PM under VisualStudio

One option for achieving step 1 in the Live Debugging process is attaching to an already running instance of the process that hosts your code, and this is a good place for me to talk about debug engines.

You can attach to a process by selecting the "Debug" menu and then the "Attach To Process…" menu in Visual Studio 11 (Ctrl+Alt+P with my keyboard bindings), and you should see something like this screenshot:


I am not going to explain this UI, besides being fairly intuitive, there is good documentation on MSDN for the Attach dialog.

I do want to focus on the row of controls that starts with the "Attach to:" label and ends with the "Select..." button. Between them is the readonly textbox that indicates the debug engine that will be used for the selected process if you click the "Attach" button. If you haven't encountered that term before, read on MSDN about debug engines.

Notice that the "Type" column shows the Code Type(s) that can be detected for the process. Typically each debug engine knows how to debug a specific code type (the two terms tend to be used interchangeably). If you click on a different process in the list with a different code type, the debug engine used will be different. However note that this is the automatic behavior. If you believe you know best, or more typically you want to choose the debug engine for a process using more than one code type, you can do so by clicking the "Select..." button, which should yield a "Select Code Type" dialog like this one:


In this dialog you can switch to the debug engine you want to use by checking the box in front of your desired one, then hit "OK", then hit "Attach" to use it.

Notice that the dialog suggests that you can select more than one. Not all combinations work (you'll get an error if you select two incompatible debug engines), but some do. Also notice in the list of debug engines one of the new players in Visual Studio 11, the GPU debug engine - I will be covering that on the C++ AMP team blog (and no, it cannot be combined with any others in this release).

Live Debugging

Tue, March 13, 2012, 07:33 PM under Random | SoftwareProcess

Based on my classification of diagnostics, you should know what live debugging is NOT about - at least according to me :-) and in this post I'll share how I think of live debugging.

These are the (outer) steps to live debugging

  1. Get the debugger in the picture.
  2. Control program execution.
  3. Inspect state.
  4. Iterate between 2 and 3 as necessary.
  5. Stop debugging (and potentially start new iteration going back to step 1).

Step 1 has two options: start with the debugger attached, or execute your binary separately and attach the debugger later. You might say there is a 3rd option, where the app notifies you that there is an issue, referred to as JIT debugging. However, that is just a variation of the attach because that is when you start the debugging session: when you attach. I'll be covering in future posts how this step works in Visual Studio.

Step 2 is about pausing (or breaking) your app so that it makes no progress and remains "frozen". A sub-variation is to pause only parts of its execution, or in other words to freeze individual threads. I'll be covering in future posts the various ways you can perform this step in Visual Studio.

Step 3, is about seeing what the state of your program is when you have paused it. Typically it involves comparing the state you are finding, with a mental picture of what you thought the state would be. Or simply checking invariants about the intended state of the app, with the actual state of the app. I'll be covering in future posts the various ways you can perform this step in Visual Studio.

Step 4 is necessary if you need to inspect more state - rinse and repeat. Self-explanatory, and will be covered as part of steps 2 & 3.

Step 5 is the most straightforward, with 3 options: Detach the debugger; terminate your binary though the normal way that it terminates (e.g. close the main window); and, terminate the debugging session through your debugger with a result that it terminates the execution of your program too. In a future post I'll cover the ways you can detach or terminate the debugger in Visual Studio.

I found an old picture I used to use to map the steps above on Visual Studio 2010. It is basically the Debug menu with colored rectangles around each menu mapping the menu to one of the first 3 steps (step 5 was merged with step 1 for that slide). Here it is in case it helps:

live debugging

Stay tuned for more...

The way I think about Diagnostic tools

Tue, March 13, 2012, 06:47 PM under Random | SoftwareProcess

Every software has issues, or as we like to call them "bugs". That is not a discussion point, just a mere fact. It follows that an important skill for developers is to be able to diagnose issues in their code. Of course we need to advance our tools and techniques so we can prevent bugs getting into the code (e.g. unit testing), but beyond designing great software, diagnosing bugs is an equally important skill.

To diagnose issues, the most important assets are good techniques, skill, experience, and maybe talent. What also helps is having good diagnostic tools and what helps further is knowing all the features that they offer and how to use them.

The following classification is how I like to think of diagnostics. Note that like with any attempt to bucketize anything, you run into overlapping areas and blurry lines. Nevertheless, I will continue sharing my generalizations ;-)

It is important to identify at the outset if you are dealing with a performance or a correctness issue.

  1. If you have a performance issue, use a profiler. I hear people saying "I am using the debugger to debug a performance issue", and that is fine, but do know that a dedicated profiler is the tool for that job. Just because you don't need them all the time and typically they cost more plus you are not as familiar with them as you are with the debugger, doesn't mean you shouldn't invest in one and instead try to exclusively use the wrong tool for the job. Visual Studio has a profiler and a concurrency visualizer (for profiling multi-threaded apps).
  2. If you have a correctness issue, then you have several options - that's next :-)

This is how I think of identifying a correctness issue

  1. Do you want a tool to find the issue for you at design time? The compiler is such a tool - it gives you an exact list of errors. Compilers now also offer warnings, which is their way of saying "this may be an error, but I am not smart enough to know for sure". There are also static analysis tools, which go a step further than the compiler in identifying issues in your code, sometimes with the aid of code annotations and other times just by pointing them at your raw source. An example is FxCop and much more in Visual Studio 11 Code Analysis.
  2. Do you want a tool to find the issue for you with code execution? Just like static tools, there are also dynamic analysis tools that instead of statically analyzing your code, they analyze what your code does dynamically at runtime. Whether you have to setup some unit tests to invoke your code at runtime, or have to manually run your app (and interact with it) under the tool, or have to use a script to execute your binary under the tool… that varies. The result is still a list of issues for you to address after the analysis is complete or a pause of the execution when the first issue is encountered. If a code path was not taken, no analysis for it will exist, obviously. An example is the GPU Race detection tool that I'll be talking about on the C++ AMP team blog. Another example is the MSR concurrency CHESS tool.
  3. Do you want you to find the issue at design time using a tool? Perform a code walkthrough on your own or with colleagues. There are code review tools that go beyond just diffing sources, and they help you with that aspect too. For example, there is a new one in Visual Studio 11 and searching with my favorite search engine yielded this article based on the Developer Preview.
  4. Do you want you to find the issue with code execution? Use a debugger - let’s break this down further next.

This is how I think of debugging:

  1. There is post mortem debugging. That means your code has executed and you did something in order to examine what happened during its execution. This can vary from manual printf and other tracing statements to trace events (e.g. ETW) to taking dumps. In all cases, you are left with some artifact that you examine after the fact (after code execution) to discern what took place hoping it will help you find the bug. Learn how to debug dump files in Visual Studio.
  2. There is live debugging. I will elaborate on this in a separate post, but this is where you inspect the state of your program during its execution, and try to find what the problem is. More from me in a separate post on live debugging.
  3. There is a hybrid of live plus post-mortem debugging. This is for example what tools like IntelliTrace offer.

If you are a tools vendor interested in the diagnostics space, it helps to understand where in the above classification your tool excels, where its primary strength is, so you can market it as such. Then it helps to see which of the other areas above your tool touches on, and how you can make it even better there. Finally, see what areas your tool doesn't help at all with, and evaluate whether it should or continue to stay clear. Even though the classification helps us think about this space, the reality is that the best tools are either extremely excellent in only one of this areas, or more often very good across a number of them. Another approach is to offer a toolset covering all areas, with appropriate integration and hand off points from one to the other.

Anyway, with that brain dump out of the way, in follow-up posts I will dive into live debugging, and specifically live debugging in Visual Studio - stay tuned if that interests you.