Showing Variables Using the Windows Debugging API

Showing Variables Using the Windows Debugging API

By Roger Orr

Overload, 29(165):4-12, October 2021

Debuggers use deep magic to help us out. Roger Orr explores how this magic is performed.

In previous articles [Orr11, Orr12], I demonstrated the basic principles of using the Windows Debugging API to manage a program being debugged and to produce a simple stack trace.

This article looks in more detail about what is needed to access variables in the program using the debugging interface and additionally discusses some of the issues with optimised code that make debugging it a challenge. While the techniques may be useful in their owfn right, they are described principally to try and help explain what interactive debuggers, such as Visual Studio or WinDbg, are doing for us ‘under the hood’ to achieve some of their functionality.

While the article is written explicitly using the Windows Debug API targeting x64 programs, many of the principles apply to other environments even though the precise details will differ.

Presenting the example code

The code in this article works through varying levels of detail in viewing the local variables in the following, deliberately fairly simple, piece of code. For this example I am using an ‘invasive’ explicit call to stackWalk, which I will gradually expand to obtain information about the local variables (Listing 1).

void process(Source &source) {
  int local_i = printf("This ");
  int local_j = printf("is ");
  int local_k = printf("a test\n");
  int local_l = source();

  printStack(); // << Here is our 'invasive'
                // function call
  if (local_i != 5 || local_j != 3 ||
      local_k != 7) {
    std::cerr << "Something odd happened\n";
int test() {
  Source source;
  int return_value = source();
  return return_value;
int main() { return test(); }
Listing 1

The printStack function simply creates a separate thread to perform the actual stack trace, and then joins this thread. This technique allows the program to print its own stack trace; in the previous articles cited in the introduction I used a separate debugging process to control the target process. Both techniques have their uses!

We would like to programmatically obtain the values of the local variables and the return value of the calling function. Most of us will have done this sort of thing before, but using an interactive debugger.

We will start out compiling the example code without optimisation, and then later on look at the issues that result from turning on optimisation.

The first step in our quest is to walk the call stack. This basic code was described in the earlier articles, and is also relatively well known, so I provide a quick summary of the principles and the sample stack walking code.

Quick summary of stack tracing with the Win32 debugging API

The mechanism used by DbgHelp for Win32 stack tracing revolves around the function StackWalk64. The programmer sets up the stackFrame and context data for the start point on the stack and then calls StackWalk64 in a loop until either it returns false or the frames of interest have all been processed.

The reason for there being two structures involved is that the stackFrame structure is portable and is passed as a pointer to a STACKFRAME64, but the context structure contains environment-specific values – this argument is passed by void* and it is up to the programmer to provide a pointer to the correct structure for the environment being debugged.

While the basic operation is the same for each platform supported by Win32, there are slight differences. For the purposes of simplifying this article, I am only supporting the x64 platform. In this scenario the Windows headers set up the CONTEXT typedef to refer to the default, x64, context record and we must pass the MachineType of IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_AMD64 as the first argument to StackWalk64. Other use cases, such as debugging an x86 process, would need to populate the appropriate actual context structure name and set the corresponding value for MachineType.

The code for walking the stack starting from the ‘current location’ of the target thread looks like Listing 2.

void SimpleStackWalker::stackTrace(
    HANDLE hThread, std::ostream &os) {
  CONTEXT context = {0};
  STACKFRAME64 stackFrame = {0};
  context.ContextFlags = CONTEXT_FULL;
  GetThreadContext(hThread, &context);
  stackFrame.AddrPC.Offset = context.Rip;
  stackFrame.AddrPC.Mode = AddrModeFlat;
  stackFrame.AddrFrame.Offset = context.Rbp;
  stackFrame.AddrFrame.Mode = AddrModeFlat;
  stackFrame.AddrStack.Offset = context.Rsp;
  stackFrame.AddrStack.Mode = AddrModeFlat;
  os << "Frame               Code "
  while (::StackWalk64(
      IMAGE_FILE_MACHINE_AMD64, hProcess,
      hThread, &stackFrame, &context, nullptr,
      ::SymGetModuleBase64, nullptr)) {
    DWORD64 pc = stackFrame.AddrPC.Offset;
    DWORD64 frame =
    if (pc == 0) {
      os << "Null address\n";
    os << "0x" << (PVOID)frame << "  "
       << addressToString(pc) << "\n";
Listing 2

The addressToString function is unchanged from the earlier articles cited above and, as its implementation is not relevant to this article, will therefore not be explained further here.

Printing the basic call stack

If we compile the example program with no optimising and with debug symbols ("/Zi") from the command line then, with the stackTrace function shown above, printStack produces output like Listing 3.

Frame               Code address
0x0000007CF88FE0A0  0x00007FFD554CCEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x0000007CF88FE140  0x00007FFD530B19CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x0000007CF88FE180  0x00007FFD38672E24 Thrd_join + 36
0x0000007CF88FE1E0  0x00007FF67DB85C2F std::thread::join + 95   C:\Program Files (x86)\...\include\thread(130) + 32 bytes
0x0000007CF88FE380  0x00007FF67DB81C60 printStack + 112   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(65)
0x0000007CF88FE3C0  0x00007FF67DB81D2C process + 76   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(76)
0x0000007CF88FF7A0  0x00007FF67DB81DB1 test + 65   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(87)
0x0000007CF88FF7D0  0x00007FF67DB81DE9 main + 9   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(90) + 9 bytes
0x0000007CF88FF820  0x00007FF67DB8AEA9 invoke_main + 57   d:\agent\_work\4\s\src\vctools\crt\vcstartup\src\startup\exe_common.inl(79)
0x0000007CF88FF890  0x00007FF67DB8AD4E __scrt_common_main_seh + 302   d:\agent\_work\4\s\src\vctools\crt\vcstartup\src\startup\exe_common.inl(288) + 5 bytes
0x0000007CF88FF8C0  0x00007FF67DB8AC0E __scrt_common_main + 14   d:\agent\_work\4\s\src\vctools\crt\vcstartup\src\startup\exe_common.inl(331)
0x0000007CF88FF8F0  0x00007FF67DB8AF3E mainCRTStartup + 14   d:\agent\_work\4\s\src\vctools\crt\vcstartup\src\startup\exe_main.cpp(17)
0x0000007CF88FF920  0x00007FFD53B07034 BaseThreadInitThunk + 20
0x0000007CF88FF9A0  0x00007FFD55482651 RtlUserThreadStart + 33
Listing 3

(Note: to make the output easier to read I’ve shortened long paths by replacing the middle of the path with ....)

While printing a call stack like is extremely useful for debugging problems and getting clearer ideas of the flow of the program, it is possible to enrich the information provided.

But how does it work ?

In the x64 world, stack walking uses the same logic that is used to support exception handling. The compiler generates some metadata (tagged as “xdata” and “pdata”) which is bound into the executable image and is available at runtime.

You can dump out this data with the dumpbin program supplied with Visual Studio (see, for example, Listing 4).

C:> dumpbin /unwindinfo TestStackWalker.exe
           Begin    End      Info      Function Name
  0000000C 00001EF0 00001F69 000188D4  ?process@@YAXAEAVSource@@@Z (void __cdecl process(class Source &))
    Unwind version: 1
    Unwind flags: None
    Size of prologue: 0x09
    Count of codes: 1
    Unwind codes:
      09: ALLOC_SMALL, size=0x3
Listing 4

The function SymFunctionTableAccess64 is the one used by the stack walker to obtain the address of the function table entry metadata for the various code addresses found during stack unwinding. This data provides, among other things, information about the size of the current stack frame and the offset of the return address. The stack walking logic uses this data on each iteration to work up the stack to the calling frame and to update the stackFrame and context data to reflect this new frame.

This logic does not require any additional debug information that might be present in the PDB file, it simply uses the read-only tables in the binary.

What is in the PDB file?

If we delete the PDB file and re-run the program, it is easy to see what information from the PDB file is used by the stack trace code: the same number of stack frames is produced with the same addresses (subject to any relocations performed by Address Storage Layout Randomisation) but the names for the functions inside the executable and the source file information are no longer printed; these are being obtained from the PDB file.

The Microsoft PDB files contain a lot of data. For the example program, I have a PDB file that is over 17 times larger than the executable! All we have used so far is a small part of the overall data – to map addresses to function names and source file information.

However, there is also a huge amount of detail available for the types and variables inside the program. There is enough detail that we can, for instance, generate the full definition of the data members and class hierarchy for the C++ classes used by the program or, as we do next, to introspect on the variables within the program. Note that the full type information is not always available – for example Microsoft’s public symbol files for the Windows binaries normally only expose function names.

The PDB file format is not, to the best of my knowledge, publicly documented but there are various public APIs to read the data. However, I have found that the documentation is often quite thin on detail and this can make it quite slow to successfully make use of the API in your own programs. See, for example, the [dbghelp.h] documentation.

Getting the names of local variables at each point in the call stack

The first step we take towards our goal is to use the DbgHelp function SymEnumSymbols to enumerate the local variables at each point in the call stack and then simply printing the names of these variables to demonstrate the enumeration works.

We add this functionality by writing a new function, showVariablesAt, which is called on each iteration of the main loop in the stackTrace function. This function first calls SymSetContext (which requires populating a slightly different stack frame structure: IMAGEHLP_STACK_FRAME) to ensure the subsequent call to SymEnumSymbols will search at the location of the call site. For each variable found, a callback function we provide is called by the symbol engine, passing us a pointer to the symbol information and a user-supplied value.

(Note that the callback function is also passed a SymbolSize, which we ignore here because the information is also available in the Size field of the SYMBOL_INFO structure.)

The SymEnumSymbols function operates in a variety of modes – you can, for instance, use it to enumerate all symbols within a binary file matching a specified filter string. The callback function invoked for each symbol found allows the option of terminating early if the item sought has been found. In our use case, we want to enumerate all the local symbols in scope at a given call site, so we provide "*" as the filter and always return TRUE from our callback function to ensure we continue to enumerate.

This user-supplied value can be used to pass arbitrary data to the callback; here we use the common technique when calling such a C API from C++ and pass a pointer to an instance of a user defined structure as the user defined value, dereference this in the callback function, and finally call its operator() (see Listing 5).

struct EnumLocalCallBack {
  // Called by the Symbol Engine
  enumSymbolsProc(PSYMBOL_INFO pSymInfo,
                  ULONG /*SymbolSize*/,
                  PVOID UserContext) {
    auto &self =
        *(EnumLocalCallBack *)UserContext;
    return TRUE;
      const SimpleStackWalker &eng,
      std::ostream &os,
      const STACKFRAME64 &stackFrame,
      const CONTEXT &context)
      : eng(eng), os(os),
        context(context) {}
  void operator()(
      const SYMBOL_INFO &symInfo) const;
  const SimpleStackWalker &eng;
  std::ostream &os;
  const STACKFRAME64& stackFrame;
  const CONTEXT &context;
Listing 5

The SYMBOL_INFO structure that we are passed in the callback contains a number of fields obtained from the PDB information for the module being examined. We will need several of these fields in order to successfully decode the values of the variables we are interested in. The first pair we are interested in are Name and NameLen, as these provide us with the name of each variable found.

However, we should also consider the Flags field. We are only interested in symbols where SYMFLAG_LOCAL is set and we should also exclude any symbols marked with SYMFLAG_NULL. We will be using other flags in the Flags field in due course.

We will enrich the contents of the EnumLocalCallBack function call operator as we proceed, but the first implementation is quite simple (see Listing 6).

// Simplest useful implementation
void EnumLocalCallBack::
operator()(const SYMBOL_INFO &symInfo) const {
  if (!(symInfo.Flags & SYMFLAG_LOCAL)) {
    // Ignore anything not a local variable
  if (symInfo.Flags & SYMFLAG_NULL) {
    // Ignore 'NULL' objects
  std::string name(symInfo.Name, symInfo.NameLen);
  os << "  " << name << '\n';
Listing 6

The showVariablesAt function (Listing 7) populates the structures and invokes SymEnumSymbols.

void SimpleStackWalker::showVariablesAt(
    std::ostream &os,
    const STACKFRAME64 &stackFrame,
    const CONTEXT &context) const {
  EnumLocalCallBack callback(
      *this, os, stackFrame, context);
  IMAGEHLP_STACK_FRAME imghlp_frame = {0};
  imghlp_frame.InstructionOffset =
  SymSetContext(hProcess, &imghlp_frame, nullptr);
      hProcess, 0, "*",
Listing 7

Finally we must add a call to this function to the end of the main loop in stackTrace:

  showVariablesAt(os, stackFame, context);

With all this in place we now get a list (Listing 8) of the local variables at each function in the stack trace (or at least, those for which the debug information is available).

0x000000BBDEAFE0E0  0x00007FFD554CCEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x000000BBDEAFE180  0x00007FFD530B19CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x000000BBDEAFE1C0  0x00007FFD38672E24 Thrd_join + 36
0x000000BBDEAFE220  0x00007FF7CF505C2F std::thread::join + 95   C:\Program Files (x86)\...\include\thread(130) + 32 bytes
0x000000BBDEAFE3C0  0x00007FF7CF501C60 printStack + 112   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(65)
0x000000BBDEAFE400  0x00007FF7CF501D2C process + 76   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(76)
0x000000BBDEAFF7E0  0x00007FF7CF501DB1 test + 65   c:\projects\articles\2021-09-
Listing 8

Note that the order in which the local variables are enumerated does not match declaration order in the source code.

How to identify the types of these variables

The PDB information for each symbol also includes type information. This information is held by index (since multiple variables can have the same type) and the index to this information is provided in the TypeIndex field of the SYMBOL_INFO structure.

We add a new function to the SimpleStackWalker to encapsulate adding the type to the variable name:

  void decorateName(std::string &name,
                    DWORD64 ModBase,
                    DWORD TypeIndex) const;

We call this with the name to add type information before printing it – note that the function needs to modify the name because the declaration rules in C and C++ may result in embedding the variable name in the complete declaration (for example void (*func)()).

The decorateName function makes use of another function in the symbol library, SymGetTypeInfo. This function provides access to various attributes of the type, selected by the IMAGEHLP_SYMBOL_TYPE_INFO enumeration type passed as the fourth argument. The actual data is returned in the final argument, where the format of the data depends on the value of the GetType parameter.

We provide a member function, GetTypeInfo(), that adds hProcess as the first argument to avoid having to specify this everywhere.

There are many different classes of symbol information, all accessed using this method and the type index. We pass TI_GET_SYMTAG to SymGetTypeInfo to provide the tag type of the corresponding symbol information. These tag values are defined in the enumeration SymTagEnum in cvconst.h (found in the DIA SDK\include subdirectory of Visual Studio, which is not by default in the include path) or alternatively from DbgHelp.h, if you define the symbol _NO_CVCONST_H.

Since each tag holds different information the tag is used as the condition for a switch statement. For the purposes of this article, only four types are of interest and I describe each in turn and show the code for that case statement.

1. Built-in data types

The value SymTagBaseType is used for ‘built-in’ data types, such as int and double. The TI_GET_BASETYPE and TI_GET_LENGTH arguments to SymGetTypeInfo provide the underlying type (taken from the BasicType enumeration, for example btUInt) and the data length (for example, 4).

The code uses a helper function, std::string getBaseType(DWORD baseType, ULONG64 length), to convert the data to C++ data types such as unsigned short.

The getBaseType function uses a data structure holding type, length, and corresponding C++ type name, for example:

  {btUInt, sizeof(unsigned short), 
    "unsigned short"},
  {btUInt, sizeof(unsigned int), "unsigned int"}

In action, getBaseType just returns the name found in the matching element of this structure. The complete case statement is then this:

  case SymTagBaseType: {
    DWORD baseType{};
    ULONG64 length{};
    getTypeInfo(modBase, typeIndex,
                TI_GET_BASETYPE, &baseType);
    getTypeInfo(modBase, typeIndex,
                TI_GET_LENGTH, &length);
    name.insert(0, " ");
        0, getBaseType(baseType, length));

2. User defined types

The value SymTagUDT is used for user defined types, such as Source in our example code.

The first call we make in the function uses TI_GET_SYMNAME value, which retrieves the full type name as a wide character string, where strFromWchar simply creates an std::string from a WCHAR*:

  case SymTagUDT: {
    WCHAR *typeName{};
    if (getTypeInfo(modBase, typeIndex,
                    &typeName)) {
      name.insert(0, " ");
      name.insert(0, strFromWchar(typeName));

      // We must free typeName

3. Pointers and arrays

Pointers and arrays are identified by the SymTagPointerType and SymTagArrayType, respectively. In both cases the dependent type is obtained using TI_GET_TYPEID and we recursively call decorateName on this type index. (See Listing 9.)

case SymTagPointerType: {
  name.insert(0, "*");
  recurse = true;
case SymTagArrayType: {
  if (name[0] == '*') {
    name.insert(0, "(");
    name += ")";
  DWORD Count{};
  getTypeInfo(modBase, typeIndex,
              TI_GET_COUNT, &Count);
  name += "[";
  if (Count) {
    name += std::to_string(Count);
  name += "]";
  recurse = true;
Listing 9

The recurse logic is common and is at the end of the decorateName function:

  if (recurse) {
    DWORD ti{};
    if (getTypeInfo(modBase, typeIndex,
                    TI_GET_TYPEID, &ti)) {
      decorateName(name, modBase, ti);

Listing 10 is a stack trace with the names and types of local variables.

Frame               Code address
0x000000CD0F6FE110  0x00007FFD554CCEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x000000CD0F6FE1B0  0x00007FFD530B19CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x000000CD0F6FE1F0  0x00007FFD36972E24 Thrd_join + 36
0x000000CD0F6FE250  0x00007FF61B674F4F std::thread::join + 95   C:\Program Files (x86)\...\include\thread(130) + 32 bytes
  std::thread *this
0x000000CD0F6FE3F0  0x00007FF61B671E40 printStack + 112   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(64)
  std::basic_stringstream<char,std::char_traits<char>,std::allocator<char> > ss
  void *hThread
  std::thread thr
0x000000CD0F6FE430  0x00007FF61B671F0C process + 76   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(75)
  Source *source
  int local_k
  int local_i
  int local_l
  int local_j
0x000000CD0F6FF810  0x00007FF61B671F81 test + 49   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(85)
Listing 10

Note that the type of source in the process function is shown as Source * although the argument is actually passed by reference. In the PDB file, the distinction in the C++ code between pointers and references is lost.

Showing the actual *values* for local variables

We now know the name and the type of our local variables, what about their value?

In an unoptimised program, local variables are held in the stack frame; if we look at the assembly output from compiling the program we can see this (produced when we add /Fasc to the command line):

local_i$ = 32
?process@@YAXAEAVSource@@@Z PROC			; process
  00015	89 44 24 20	 mov	 DWORD PTR local_i$[rsp], eax

The compiler output uses a symbolic name for the variable and uses this value as an offset from the stack pointer (rsp).

In the symbol engine, this is indicated in the SYMBOL_INFO by a flag value of SYMFLAG_REGREL. The base register is provided in the Register field and the offset (32 for local_i, in this example) is supplied in the Address field.

There is a large enumeration in cvconst.h listing all the various register values – the one we want here for local_i is CV_AMD64_RSP (which is 335).

We can encapsulate the access to the register value by creating a struct and a helper function:

  struct RegInfo {
    RegInfo(std::string name, DWORD64 value)
        : name(std::move(name)), value(value) {}
    std::string name;
    DWORD64 value;
  RegInfo getRegInfo(ULONG reg,
                     const CONTEXT &context);

This function returns the correct name and value for the supplied reg; at this point the ‘Minimal viable product’ is:

  RegInfo getRegInfo(ULONG reg,
                     const CONTEXT &context) {
    switch (reg) {
    case  CV_AMD64_RSP:
      return RegInfo("rsp", context.Rsp);
    return RegInfo("", 0);

We will come back to this function before we have finished....

So the steps we need to obtain the value of the variable are:

  • detect it is a register relative value
  • add the offset to the corresponding register value
  • read Size bytes from the resulting address.

In code this looks like Listing 11, where eng.readMemory is a simple wrapper for ReadProcessMemory that adds the current hProcess. Listing 12 shows the stack trace with names, types, and values of local variables.

if (symInfo.Flags & SYMFLAG_REGREL) {
  const RegInfo reg_info =
      getRegInfo(symInfo.Register, context);
  if ( {
    opf << " [register '"
        << symInfo.Register << "']";
  } else {
    opf << std::hex
        << " [" << << " + "
        << symInfo.Address << "]";
    if (symInfo.Size != 0 &&
        symInfo.Size <= 8) {
      DWORD64 data{};
          (PVOID)(reg_info.value +
          &data, symInfo.Size);
      opf << " = 0x" << data;
    opf << std::dec;
Listing 11
Frame               Code address
0x00000097900FE570  0x00007FFD554CCEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x00000097900FE610  0x00007FFD530B19CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x00000097900FE650  0x00007FFD2E512E24 Thrd_join + 36
0x00000097900FE6B0  0x00007FF7196A62CF std::thread::join + 95   C:\Program Files (x86)\...\include\thread(130) + 32 bytes
  std::thread *this [rsp+60] = 0x97900fe6f8
0x00000097900FE850  0x00007FF7196A1E70 printStack + 112   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(64)
  std::basic_stringstream<char,std::char_traits<char>,std::allocator<char> > ss [rsp+60]
  void *hThread [rsp+20] = 0xc4
  std::thread thr [rsp+38]
0x00000097900FE890  0x00007FF7196A1F3C process + 76   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(75)
  Source *source [rsp+40] = 0x97900fe8d0
  int local_k [rsp+28] = 0x7
  int local_i [rsp+20] = 0x5
  int local_l [rsp+2c] = 0xfda93c3e
  int local_j [rsp+24] = 0x3
0x00000097900FFC70  0x00007FF7196A1FB1 test + 65   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(85)
  int return_value [rsp+20] = 0x799c244e
  Source source [rsp+30]
Listing 12

Hurrah! We have successfully walked the stack and printed the values of the (simple) local variables we find. We could, if we wished, expand the code further to print out the contents of C++ classes by reflecting on the fields and their offsets.

However, the code so far has been demonstrated against an unoptimised program.

What happens when we start to optimise the code?

As many readers are likely to be already aware, it is usually harder to debug optimised code because of the changes made to the executable code during optimisation.

Here are a few of the troublesome optimisations:

  • code movement, so things no longer occur in the order of the source code syntax
  • heavy use of registers rather than storing values on the stack
  • elimination of ‘dead stores’ (values stored but not subsequently loaded)
  • inline function calls.

We can some see these at work in the example program if we enable /O1 – the local variables displayed in the stack trace for the process function are shown as:

  Source *source
  int local_k
  int local_i
  int local_j

The compiler has eliminated local_l which you might have noticed was written to but not read. The compiler noticed too – a debug build gives a warning:

  C4189: 'local_l': local variable is initialized  but not referenced

The optimised build elides storing the return value into local_l, and doesn’t even write any information for the variable into the pdb.

Secondly, the values are no longer shown. This is because the optimiser is now using registers to store the values – they do not need to be stored on the stack in the function.

If we examine the assembly output from the compiler we see:

  lea    rcx, OFFSET FLAT:??_C@_05PFHNGCBD@This?5@
  call   printf

; 69   :   int local_j = printf("is ");

  lea    rcx, OFFSET FLAT:??_C@_03FLKGGKMB@is?5@
  mov    ebx, eax

The complier is using the 32bit register ebx to hold the value of local_i.

On the x86 instruction set, a general purpose register can be treated as a 64-bit, a 32-bit, a 16-bit, or an 8-bit value. Writing to the 32-bit value, for instance, modifies only the lower 32 bits of the full 64-bit register value. Hence, the context at this point will have the ebx value as the low 32 bits of the value in context.Rbx.

To see this information in the symbol engine we check another flag in the Flags field: SYMFLAG_REGISTER.This flag indicates that the value of the variable is held in a register (and the field Register holds the register used – in this case CV_AMD64_EBX).

The first thing we need to do is to implement a fuller version of the getRegInfo() function we used to decode the values of the stack based variables in the unoptimised case.

There are two things we need to do to this function; the first one is to add the other general purpose registers to the switch statement and the other thing we need to do is to mask the values for the registers which are using only part of the 64bit general purpose register.

So, when processing local_i, the line in the switch statement that will be executed is:

  case CV_AMD64_EBX:
    return RegInfo("ebx", context.Rbx & ~0u);

We then add handling for the SYMFLAG_REGISTER flag to the function call operator of EnumLocalCallBack, just after the existing code for the SYMFLAG_REGREL flag, like Listing 13.

} else if (symInfo.Flags &
           SYMFLAG_REGISTER) {
  opf << "  " << name;
  const RegInfo reg_info =
      getRegInfo(symInfo.Register, context);
  if ( {
    opf << " (register '"
        << symInfo.Register << "\')";
  } else {
    opf << " (" << << ") = 0x"
        << std::hex << reg_info.value
        << std::dec;
Listing 13

With these changes we now get values printed for the local variables in the optimised build too. Listing 14 shows the stack trace with the names, types, and values of local variables in an optimised build.

Frame               Code address
0x000000A0EA72E390  0x00007FFD554CCEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x000000A0EA72E430  0x00007FFD530B19CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x000000A0EA72E460  0x00007FFD4B2E2DFF Thrd_join + 31
0x000000A0EA72E5F0  0x00007FF72B7A3Df2 printStack + 2f2   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(62) + 47 bytes
  std::basic_stringstream<char,std::char_traits<char>,std::allocator<char> > ss [rsp + 50]
  void *hThread [rsp + 40]
  std::thread thr [rsp + 30]
0x000000A0EA72E620  0x00007FF72B7A3F4F process + 79   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(75)
  Source *source (rdi) = 0xa0ea72e650
  int local_k (esi) = 0x7
  int local_i (ebx) = 0x5
  int local_j (ebp) = 0x3
0x000000A0EA72F9F0  0x00007FF72B7A440F test + 115   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(85)
  int return_value (ebx) = 0x673ae2c3
  Source source [rsp + 20]
Listing 14

But … what? Where does the right register value come from?

The code changes we had to make to display local variables in an optimised build were quite small. The ‘magic’ is that we were provided with the correct value of Rbx in the context record. When we read the initial thread context in the stackTrace method:

  GetThreadContext(hThread, &context);

then I see the value of Rbx as 0. Where, you might wonder, does the runtime find the value of 5 which Rbx had further up the call stack?

The ‘Register usage’ documented in [x64abi] states that the Rbx register value must be preserved when a function is called, and restored on return. The register set is basically divided into ones that must be restored – also called ‘non-volatile’ and ones that are ‘scratch’ – also called ‘volatile’.

So, if the called function wants to use the register, it must save it somewhere. There is no point using another register to save it as the called function could simply use the other register itself so the value is saved on the stack, and restored when the function returns. This of course applies to the process function as well, so the function prolog contains the instruction:

  mov    QWORD PTR [rsp+8], rbx

and the function epilog reverses this:

  mov   rbx, QWORD PTR [rsp+48]

(The stack offsets are different because the function manipulates the stack pointer during its prolog and epilog, and the ordering in the epilog is not the reverse of that in the prolog.)

This works well during normal flow, but what if an exception is thrown somewhere? The runtime needs to ensure the register convention is maintained otherwise the code catching the exception might find a local variable, held in a register, had suddenly changed value!

However it would be expensive (and hard!) for the runtime to try and do this by disassembling the code in each function as it unwinds in order to work out which registers were saved and what frame offset should be used to restore them.

This information is also saved in the unwind meta-data I touched on briefly in the discussion of stack tracing (‘But how does it work?’)

We can examine this data for the process function as before using dumpbin, but this time on the optimised program (Listing 15).

C:> dumpbin /unwindinfo TestStackWalker.exe
           Begin    End      Info      Function Name
  00000264 00003F00 00003F86 0001095C  ?process@@YAXAEAVSource@@@Z (void __cdecl process(class Source &))
    Unwind version: 1
    Unwind flags: None
    Size of prologue: 0x14
    Count of codes: 8
    Unwind codes:
      14: SAVE_NONVOL, register=rsi offset=0x40
      14: SAVE_NONVOL, register=rbp offset=0x38
      14: SAVE_NONVOL, register=rbx offset=0x30
      14: ALLOC_SMALL, size=0x20
      10: PUSH_NONVOL, register=rdi
Listing 15

The table contains the information for each non-volatile register and how it should be restored. At runtime the unwind logic uses this information as it works up the stack to restore the register values at each level. The symbol engine code does exactly the same thing when you produce a stack trace – it reads the unwind metadata to update the context with the register values that were currently at each call site.

More extreme optimisation

It's not possible to undo the effect on debugging of all optimisations. As we saw, even in our simple example, local_l is not saved. The return value from source() is returned in the Eax register, but this is a volatile register and here the fourth instruction in printStack overwrites the Rax register and this value is lost forever.

A particular problem is debugging inlined functions. Inlining not only removes the function prolog and epilog, but it also allows the compiler to further optimise the instructions in the called function as part of the body of the caller. This results in code where the assembly instructions executed may toggle back and forth between logically different functions.

Windows debuggers are able to make use of additional data in the PDB file which identifies where the various parts of the inlined functions end up in the binary. This allows the debugger in Visual Studio to make a reasonable stab at debugging even quite heavily optimised code.

I'm not going to attempt to do this here.

How can we debug and get performance?

As a developer there is a tension between performance and debuggability.

The ideal case is where the program behaves in a sufficiently similar way with and without optimisation, so you can run an interactive debugger against an unoptimised build and get the same behaviour as with the released product.

This is the well known pattern of having separate ‘Release’ and ‘Debug’ builds.

If this works in your case, it is likely to be the easiest way to resolve problems. Of course, this pattern only works if you are able to reproduce a problem originally occurring with a Release build when using a Debug one.

More nuanced control is possible, however, with care.

The naïve approach of mixing together object files from a Debug and Release build, unfortunately, very rarely works. This is because many compiler flags differ between the two projects, which means things like structure sizes and layouts may not match.

However, you can change just the optimisation setting for individual files in the Release build and for even finer control you can change the optimisation setting for individual functions.

This can be very useful when you know roughly which functions are involved in a failure case but cannot, for whatever reason, use the full Debug build.

Let us try this out in our simple example. If we compile with full optimisation (for example with the compiler option /Ox) our stack trace is now not very useful. Listing 16 contains output from a fully optimised program.

This is a test
Frame               Code address
0x000000A72BAFE420  0x00007FFB259ACEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x000000A72BAFE4C0  0x00007FFB230619CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x000000A72BAFE4F0  0x00007FFB20272DFF Thrd_join + 31
0x000000A72BAFE6B0  0x00007FF7602F1E6A printStack + 346   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(62) + 49 bytes
  std::basic_stringstream<char,std::char_traits<char>,std::allocator<char> > ss [rsp+80]
  void *hThread [rsp+70]
  std::thread thr [rsp+40]
0x000000A72BAFFA80  0x00007FF7602F2302 main + 178   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(88) + 178 bytes
0x000000A72BAFFAC0  0x00007FF7602FA830 __scrt_common_main_seh + 268   d:\a01\...\startup\exe_common.inl(288) + 34 bytes
  bool has_cctor [rsp+20]
0x000000A72BAFFAF0  0x00007FFB24A67034 BaseThreadInitThunk + 20
0x000000A72BAFFB70  0x00007FFB25962651 RtlUserThreadStart + 33
Listing 16

Here we see that the call stack in our program has collapsed – main calls printStack directly and the intervening calls to both test and process have been inlined.

If we wrap the process function in a #pragma optimize("", off) / #pragma optimize("", on) pair then this function will not be optimised and therefore easy to debug, without affecting the optimisation elsewhere in the program. Listing 17 shows output from a fully optimised program with an unoptimised function.

This is a test
Frame               Code address
0x0000006E236FE4F0  0x00007FFB259ACEA4 NtWaitForSingleObject + 20
0x0000006E236FE590  0x00007FFB230619CE WaitForSingleObjectEx + 142
0x0000006E236FE5C0  0x00007FFB20272DFF Thrd_join + 31
0x0000006E236FE780  0x00007FF7FA041E6A printStack + 346   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(62) + 49 bytes
  std::basic_stringstream<char,std::char_traits<char>,std::allocator<char> > ss [rsp+80]
  void *hThread [rsp+70]
  std::thread thr [rsp+40]
0x0000006E236FE7C0  0x00007FF7FA0420FC process + 76   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(75)
  Source *source [rsp+40] = 0x6e236fe7f0
  int local_k [rsp+28] = 0x7
  int local_i [rsp+20] = 0x5
  int local_l [rsp+2c] = 0xd9e328d8
  int local_j [rsp+24] = 0x3
0x0000006E236FFB90  0x00007FF7FA04224D main + 125   c:\article\TestStackWalker.cpp(89) + 125 bytes
0x0000006E236FFBD0  0x00007FF7FA04A830 __scrt_common_main_seh + 268   d:\a01\...\startup\exe_common.inl(288) + 34 bytes
  bool has_cctor [rsp+20]
0x0000006E236FFC00  0x00007FFB24A67034 BaseThreadInitThunk + 20
0x0000006E236FFC80  0x00007FFB25962651 RtlUserThreadStart + 33
Listing 17


In this article, I have sketched some of the techniques used by an interactive debugger to provide values for local variables. I’ve also shown some of the ways in which more work is needed to do this when optimisations are applied.

The implementers of the various Windows debuggers have done a great job at providing a powerful environment which works amazingly well even on optimised programs.

However, there are times when if you wish to obtain debugging information at runtime you may need to compromise on the performance, at least for the parts of the program under investigation which you are focussing on.


[dbghelp.h] dbghelp.h header documentation:

[Orr11] Roger Orr, ‘Using the Windows Debugging API’, C Vu 23.1

[Orr12] Roger Orr, ‘Using the Windows Debugging API on Windows 64’, C Vu, 23.6

[x64abi] Microsoft x64 Software Conventions:

Source code

The full source code for this article can be found at:

Roger Orr has been programming for over 20 years, most recently in C++ and Java for various investment banks in Canary Wharf and the City. He joined ACCU in 1999 and the BSI C++ panel in 2002.

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