Omniscient Debugging

7/22/2007 12:26:12 PM

Omniscient Debugging

Bill Lewis of Tufts University, who is a computer scientist who has worked on natural language processing, gave a fascinating Google TechTalks lecture on "Debugging Back in Time." He also has a page dedicated to this new idea of Omniscient Debugging, where the debugger knows everything.

The omniscient debugger records every state change in the entire run of the program. Bill states that omniscient debugging gives the programmer a unique view of the program that eliminates the worst aspects of breakpoints:

  • No guessing where to put breakpoints
  • No extra steps to debugging
    • Set breapoints, start, examine, continue
  • No fatal mistakes... (no, "Whoops, I went too far")
  • No non-deterministic problems
  • Customers can email a debugging session to developers

An omniscient debugger can be extremely effective in understanding and fixing bugs. Bill's description and walkthrough of his prototype omniscient debugger (which in his words is more already more effective than any commercial debugger) seems to offer a genuine "silver bullet" approach to debugging.

His approach to omniscient debugging logs every state change to the program. This has the obvious disadvantage of slowing down execution runs and consuming disk space. Bill claims to have a found a practical way of doing this. The disadvantages are similar to those a profiler, but even more so, because each state change is logged, not just function calls.

I noticed a long time ago that my own analysis tool, which uses a completely symbolic representation of a program's abstract state space, could in theory be able to recreate the entire run of a program with just a compact set of critical assumptions.

This could be even more effective than logging, because of the superior time and space savings of my approach. NStatic can execute a long series of nested lengthy loops in less than a millisecond; it can allocate a gigabyte-size array and fill it up with values from any algorithm, and it would still take just the few K of memory that is needed to represent the algorithm itself.

There might even be some benefit to combining my "symbolic" debugger with Mike Stall's C#/IL managed debugger sample, so that I can retroactively incorporate symbolic reasoning to an actual just-in-time debugging session. One developer actually created Deblector, which uses Reflector to decompiling and debugging IL on the fly.

I did consider at one time being able to step forward and backward through the execution history. In NStatic Directions, I did mentioned making static analysis more into a debugger than a static analysis tool.

Making C# feel more like a dynamic, interpreted, REPL language through the use of a symbolic interpreter. Code is always live and can be statically debugged. As Erik states, programming will “shake of the yoke of the dreaded (edit, compile, run, debug)* loop and replace it with a lightweight (edit=compile=run=debug) experience.”

NStatic does already feel like a debugger with ability to watch and execute code immediately, as well as the ability to apply new assumptions.

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Net Undocumented is a blog about the internals of .NET including Xamarin implementations. Other topics include managed and web languages (C#, C++, Javascript), computer science theory, software engineering and software entrepreneurship.

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