Monday, February 11, 2008

Bug Hunting in Big D

The people in our beta group have been really positive while sending plenty of constructive criticism about things we need to improve. It's been very satisfying working with them to track down some of the bugs that escaped us last time. One was a report about debugger performance: some people said that when debugging they found that "stepping through code was really slow."

These kinds of problems can be really difficult to reproduce and fix because there are so many variables. Only a few people were reporting the problem and it wasn't consistent. We couldn't reproduce it at all.

A lot of things can impact debugger stepping performance including the speed of the debug connection and the number of variables displayed each time, but none seemed to be a factor in this case.

As people ran into the problem we started to get more specific information: we heard that not only was stepping in the debugger slow but the entire Eclipse environment became really slow. Then someone noticed that everything on their computer was slow: every application, menu etc.

Next we heard from a developer on one of Nokia's software teams in Dallas. He could reproduce the problem but it only happened when debugging a particular project. I setup the same project and tried the same steps but couldn't reproduce the problem.

A trip to Dallas from our office here in Austin can easily occupy a long day, much of it spent in traffic, so first we tried a screen sharing session. That confirmed I was following the same repro steps with the project but getting different results: my debug session hummed along while my Dallas colleague's ground to a halt with the Java VM process sucking up 80 - 90% of the cpu. But the most interesting thing was that the application he was debugging (a music player) was sending a huge amount of text to the console view. The entire time a song was playing the console view was flooded with debug output. After playing a few songs the audio began to skip and the big slow down began.

I pulled a few long songs from my music collection and while my console view was also flooded with various debug messages I didn't see any performance hit. Time for a road trip.

When I got to Dallas we quickly reproduced the problem and all the evidence pointed to the console output. The platform debug console has a setting that limits the amount of text in a console. My first theory was that we were overloading whatever method keeps the console under this limit. Maybe we were dumping in so much text it was thrashing about trying to keep the limit enforced?

Eclipse does so much cool stuff for you automatically I assumed the console limit worked that way too. But that's built into the debug platform's ProcessConsole and for various reasons ours is built on top of MessageConsole instead. So we didn't have any limit on the amount of text in a console. Over time all the text dumped into our console consumed more and more memory.

Limiting the amount of text in the console view was simple enough and has fixed the problem. I'm still not sure why the effect of the big memory leak on my Dallas colleague's computer was so severe while my similarly configured laptop wasn't bothered. In any event the whole experience shows how initial descriptions of bugs can be misleading and that you need work closely with the people using the tools all day in order to track down difficult to reproduce problems.


Chris Aniszczyk (zx) said...

I'm usually 'Big Hurting in Big D' ;)

Symbie said...

hi Ken,
I am using carbide for symbian development.When I am debugging my application, in debug mode I am seeing all variables of Rtype in hex mode only. Is there any way to display in some readable format???