Flux Research Group / School of Computing

Composable Multi-Level Debugging with Stackdb

David Johnson, Mike Hibler, and Eric Eide

Proceedings of the 10th ACM SIGPLAN/SIGOPS International Conference on Virtual Execution Environments (VEE) 2014.

DOI: 10.1145/2576195.2576212

Operating Systems, Languages, Security, Virtualization


Virtual machine introspection (VMI) allows users to debug software that executes within a virtual machine. To support rich, whole-system analyses, a VMI tool must inspect and control systems at multiple levels of the software stack. Traditional debuggers enable inspection and control, but they limit users to treating a whole system as just one kind of target: e.g., just a kernel, or just a process, but not both.

We created Stackdb, a debugging library with VMI support that allows one to monitor and control a whole system through multiple, coordinated targets. A target corresponds to a particular level of the system's software stack; multiple targets allow a user to observe a VM guest at several levels of abstraction simultaneously. For example, with Stackdb, one can observe a PHP script running in a Linux process in a Xen VM via three coordinated targets at the language, process, and kernel levels. Within Stackdb, higher-level targets are components that utilize lower-level targets; a key contribution of Stackdb is its API that supports multi-level and flexible “stacks” of targets. This paper describes the challenges we faced in creating Stackdb, presents the solutions we devised, and evaluates Stackdb through its application to a security-focused, whole-system case study.