Debugging C Code on Nerves

AKA Getting usable stack traces from core dumps

Having trouble debugging C code on Nerves? This post shows how to create, obtain and work with core dumps.

Debugging C code

Typically, when developing an application with Nerves, we like to stay inside The Beam. Occasionally, we need to interface to existing C and C++ applications and libraries. In this post, we’ll look at new Nerves tooling to simplify using core dumps generated by C programs on the device.

Getting set up

These instructions use new features in the Nerves stack, so we need to make sure we have the latest versions. Specifically, we need nerves v1.7.9 or later and Nerves systems based on nerves_system_br v1.16.1 or later. For this tutorial, we’ll create a brand new application:

mix firmware

Next up we’ll need to add the elixir_make dependency to compile our C code. Add the following to the deps() function inside mix.exs:

def deps do
  {:elixir_make, "~> 0.6", runtime: false}

and also add it to the compilers option of project():

def project do
    compilers: [:elixir_make | Mix.compilers()]

Next, we will need to instruct erlinit to set the system’s resource limits. Specifically, we need to set the core dump limits. A core dump is a file containing a process’s memory and more importantly, a stacktrace when the process terminates unexpectedly. By default core dumps are disabled. To enable collecting core dumps, open config/target.exs and find the configuration for erlinit and add the following:

config :nerves,
  erlinit: [
    hostname_pattern: "nerves-%s",
    limits: "core:unlimited:unlimited"

The :limits key works similar to the shell’s ulimit command and takes an option and the a hard and soft limit. See setrlimit(2) for a more technical description. The important part here is that the Linux kernel should not restrict the core dump size at all.

Finally, create a Makefile to build an executable called example. This file will wind up in the priv directory on your target device’s firmware.

# output and build directories. MIX_APP_PATH is supplied by elixir-make.

all: install

# This is important for enabling debug symbols
CFLAGS += -g

install: $(BUILD) $(PREFIX) $(PREFIX)/example

# ERL_CFLAGS and ERL_LDFLAGS are also set by elixir-make

# Rule for building C source
$(BUILD)/%.o: src/%.c
  $(CC) -c $(ERL_CFLAGS) $(CFLAGS) -o $@ $<

# Rule for linking to the final executable
$(PREFIX)/example: $(BUILD)/example.o
  $(CC) $^ $(ERL_LDFLAGS) $(LDFLAGS) -o $@

  mkdir -p $@

  $(RM) $(PREFIX)/example $(BUILD)/*.o

.PHONY: all clean install


Create a new c source file src/example.c:

#include <stdlib.h>

int main(int argc, char const *argv[])
  // generate a core dump
  return 0;

Now that all the pieces are in place, we can create and burn firmware:

mix firmware.burn

And load the SD Card into your device. Next, SSH into the device:

ssh nerves.local

At the console we have to perform one setup command:

iex> File.write!("/proc/sys/kernel/core_pattern", "/data/core-%e-%p-%h")

This instructs Linux to put the core dump in /data using that pattern provided.

Finally, we can execute our example program:

iex> :os.cmd(:code.priv_dir(:firmware) ++ '/example')
iex> ls("/data")

Now that the core dump exists we need to get it back onto our host machine. The simplest way to do that is using sftp:

sftp nerves.local
sftp> cd /data
sftp> get core-example-41-1622824880

Now on host to check this core dump out, we’ll use gdb. Specifically, the gdb that comes with the Nerves toolchain. There’s some tedious path and environment setup that needs to be done to make this work, so we put together a short script to do it:

mix firmware.gen.gdb

and finally, we can use that script with our dump file:

./ core-example-41-1622824880 _build/${MIX_TARGET}_dev/priv/example

From the GDB console, you can now type bt to get the backtrace of the executable. You should see something like:

(gdb) bt
#0  0x00007fdb4fadad22 in raise () from /usr/lib/
#1  0x00007fdb4fac4862 in abort () from /usr/lib/
#2  0x000055f89d40e14d in main (argc=1, argv=0x7fff1fe0a868) at src/example.c:5
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