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5.1.2 Setting Watchpoints

You can use a watchpoint to stop execution whenever the value of an expression changes, without having to predict a particular place where this may happen. (This is sometimes called a data breakpoint.) The expression may be as simple as the value of a single variable, or as complex as many variables combined by operators. Examples include:

You can set a watchpoint on an expression even if the expression can not be evaluated yet. For instance, you can set a watchpoint on ‘*global_ptr’ before ‘global_ptr’ is initialized. GDB will stop when your program sets ‘global_ptr’ and the expression produces a valid value. If the expression becomes valid in some other way than changing a variable (e.g. if the memory pointed to by ‘*global_ptr’ becomes readable as the result of a malloc call), GDB may not stop until the next time the expression changes.

Depending on your system, watchpoints may be implemented in software or hardware. GDB does software watchpointing by single-stepping your program and testing the variable’s value each time, which is hundreds of times slower than normal execution. (But this may still be worth it, to catch errors where you have no clue what part of your program is the culprit.)

On some systems, such as most PowerPC or x86-based targets, GDB includes support for hardware watchpoints, which do not slow down the running of your program.

watch [-l|-location] expr [thread thread-id] [mask maskvalue]

Set a watchpoint for an expression. GDB will break when the expression expr is written into by the program and its value changes. The simplest (and the most popular) use of this command is to watch the value of a single variable:

(gdb) watch foo

If the command includes a [thread thread-id] argument, GDB breaks only when the thread identified by thread-id changes the value of expr. If any other threads change the value of expr, GDB will not break. Note that watchpoints restricted to a single thread in this way only work with Hardware Watchpoints.

Ordinarily a watchpoint respects the scope of variables in expr (see below). The -location argument tells GDB to instead watch the memory referred to by expr. In this case, GDB will evaluate expr, take the address of the result, and watch the memory at that address. The type of the result is used to determine the size of the watched memory. If the expression’s result does not have an address, then GDB will print an error.

The [mask maskvalue] argument allows creation of masked watchpoints, if the current architecture supports this feature (e.g., PowerPC Embedded architecture, see PowerPC Embedded.) A masked watchpoint specifies a mask in addition to an address to watch. The mask specifies that some bits of an address (the bits which are reset in the mask) should be ignored when matching the address accessed by the inferior against the watchpoint address. Thus, a masked watchpoint watches many addresses simultaneously—those addresses whose unmasked bits are identical to the unmasked bits in the watchpoint address. The mask argument implies -location. Examples:

(gdb) watch foo mask 0xffff00ff
(gdb) watch *0xdeadbeef mask 0xffffff00
rwatch [-l|-location] expr [thread thread-id] [mask maskvalue]

Set a watchpoint that will break when the value of expr is read by the program.

awatch [-l|-location] expr [thread thread-id] [mask maskvalue]

Set a watchpoint that will break when expr is either read from or written into by the program.

info watchpoints [list]

This command prints a list of watchpoints, using the same format as info break (see Set Breaks).

If you watch for a change in a numerically entered address you need to dereference it, as the address itself is just a constant number which will never change. GDB refuses to create a watchpoint that watches a never-changing value:

(gdb) watch 0x600850
Cannot watch constant value 0x600850.
(gdb) watch *(int *) 0x600850
Watchpoint 1: *(int *) 6293584

GDB sets a hardware watchpoint if possible. Hardware watchpoints execute very quickly, and the debugger reports a change in value at the exact instruction where the change occurs. If GDB cannot set a hardware watchpoint, it sets a software watchpoint, which executes more slowly and reports the change in value at the next statement, not the instruction, after the change occurs.

You can force GDB to use only software watchpoints with the set can-use-hw-watchpoints 0 command. With this variable set to zero, GDB will never try to use hardware watchpoints, even if the underlying system supports them. (Note that hardware-assisted watchpoints that were set before setting can-use-hw-watchpoints to zero will still use the hardware mechanism of watching expression values.)

set can-use-hw-watchpoints

Set whether or not to use hardware watchpoints.

show can-use-hw-watchpoints

Show the current mode of using hardware watchpoints.

For remote targets, you can restrict the number of hardware watchpoints GDB will use, see set remote hardware-breakpoint-limit.

When you issue the watch command, GDB reports

Hardware watchpoint num: expr

if it was able to set a hardware watchpoint.

Currently, the awatch and rwatch commands can only set hardware watchpoints, because accesses to data that don’t change the value of the watched expression cannot be detected without examining every instruction as it is being executed, and GDB does not do that currently. If GDB finds that it is unable to set a hardware breakpoint with the awatch or rwatch command, it will print a message like this:

Expression cannot be implemented with read/access watchpoint.

Sometimes, GDB cannot set a hardware watchpoint because the data type of the watched expression is wider than what a hardware watchpoint on the target machine can handle. For example, some systems can only watch regions that are up to 4 bytes wide; on such systems you cannot set hardware watchpoints for an expression that yields a double-precision floating-point number (which is typically 8 bytes wide). As a work-around, it might be possible to break the large region into a series of smaller ones and watch them with separate watchpoints.

If you set too many hardware watchpoints, GDB might be unable to insert all of them when you resume the execution of your program. Since the precise number of active watchpoints is unknown until such time as the program is about to be resumed, GDB might not be able to warn you about this when you set the watchpoints, and the warning will be printed only when the program is resumed:

Hardware watchpoint num: Could not insert watchpoint

If this happens, delete or disable some of the watchpoints.

Watching complex expressions that reference many variables can also exhaust the resources available for hardware-assisted watchpoints. That’s because GDB needs to watch every variable in the expression with separately allocated resources.

If you call a function interactively using print or call, any watchpoints you have set will be inactive until GDB reaches another kind of breakpoint or the call completes.

GDB automatically deletes watchpoints that watch local (automatic) variables, or expressions that involve such variables, when they go out of scope, that is, when the execution leaves the block in which these variables were defined. In particular, when the program being debugged terminates, all local variables go out of scope, and so only watchpoints that watch global variables remain set. If you rerun the program, you will need to set all such watchpoints again. One way of doing that would be to set a code breakpoint at the entry to the main function and when it breaks, set all the watchpoints.

In multi-threaded programs, watchpoints will detect changes to the watched expression from every thread.

Warning: In multi-threaded programs, software watchpoints have only limited usefulness. If GDB creates a software watchpoint, it can only watch the value of an expression in a single thread. If you are confident that the expression can only change due to the current thread’s activity (and if you are also confident that no other thread can become current), then you can use software watchpoints as usual. However, GDB may not notice when a non-current thread’s activity changes the expression. (Hardware watchpoints, in contrast, watch an expression in all threads.)

See set remote hardware-watchpoint-limit.

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