Exercise 20: Zed's Awesome Debug Macros

There is a constant problem in C that you have been dancing around but which I am going to solve in this exercise using a set of macros I developed. You can thank me later when you realize how insanely awesome these macros are. Right now you won't realize how awesome they are, so you'll just have to use them and then you can walk up to me one day and say, "Zed, those Debug Macros were the bomb. I owe you my first born child because you saved me a decade of heartache and prevented me from killing myself more than once. Thank you good sir, here's a million dollars and the original Snakehead Telecaster prototype signed by Leo Fender."

Yes, they are that awesome.

The C Error Handling Problem

In almost every programming language handling errors is a difficult activity. There's entire programming languages that try as hard as they can to avoid even the concept of an error. Other languages invent complex control structures like exceptions to pass error conditions around. The problem exists mostly because programmers assume errors don't happen and this optimism infects the type of languages they use and create.

C tackles the problem by returning error codes and setting a global errno value that you check. This makes for complex code that simply exists to check if something you did had an error. As you write more and more C code you'll write code with the pattern:

  • Call a function.
  • If the return value is an error (must look that up each time too).
  • Then cleanup all the resource created so far.
  • and print out an error message that hopefully helps.

This means for every function call (and yes, every function) you are potentially writing 3-4 more lines just to make sure it worked. That doesn't include the problem of cleaning up all of the junk you've built to that point. If you have 10 different structures, 3 files, and a database connection, when you get an error then you would have 14 more lines.

In the past this wasn't a problem because C programs did what you've been doing when there's an error: die. No point in bothering with cleanup when the OS will do it for you. Today though many C programs need to run for weeks, months, or years and handle errors from many different sources gracefully. You can't just have your webserver die at the slightest touch, and you definitely can't have a library you've written nuke a the program its used in. That's just rude.

Other languages solve this problem with exceptions, but those have problems in C (and in other languages too). In C you only have one return value, but exceptions are an entire stack based return system with arbitrary values. Trying to marshal exceptions up the stack in C is difficult, and no other libraries will understand it.

The Debug Macros

The solution I've been using for years is a small set of "debug macros" that implement a basic debugging and error handling system for C. This system is easy to understand, works with every library, and makes C code more solid and clearer.

It does this by adopting the convention that whenever there's an error, your function will jump to an "error:" part of the function that knows how to cleanup everything and return an error code. You use a macro called check to check return codes, print an error message, and then jump to the cleanup section. You combine that with a set of logging functions for printing out useful debug messages.

I'll now show you the entire contents of the most awesome set of brilliance you've ever seen:

#ifndef __dbg_h__
#define __dbg_h__

#include <stdio.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <string.h>

#ifdef NDEBUG
#define debug(M, ...)
#define debug(M, ...) fprintf(stderr, "DEBUG %s:%d: " M "\n", __FILE__, __LINE__, ##__VA_ARGS__)

#define clean_errno() (errno == 0 ? "None" : strerror(errno))

#define log_err(M, ...) fprintf(stderr, "[ERROR] (%s:%d: errno: %s) " M "\n", __FILE__, __LINE__, clean_errno(), ##__VA_ARGS__)

#define log_warn(M, ...) fprintf(stderr, "[WARN] (%s:%d: errno: %s) " M "\n", __FILE__, __LINE__, clean_errno(), ##__VA_ARGS__)

#define log_info(M, ...) fprintf(stderr, "[INFO] (%s:%d) " M "\n", __FILE__, __LINE__, ##__VA_ARGS__)

#define check(A, M, ...) if(!(A)) { log_err(M, ##__VA_ARGS__); errno=0; goto error; }

#define sentinel(M, ...)  { log_err(M, ##__VA_ARGS__); errno=0; goto error; }

#define check_mem(A) check((A), "Out of memory.")

#define check_debug(A, M, ...) if(!(A)) { debug(M, ##__VA_ARGS__); errno=0; goto error; }


Yes, that's it, and here's what every line does:

The usual defense against accidentally including the file twice, which you saw in the last exercise.
Includes for the functions that these macros need.
The start of a #ifdef which lets you recompile your program so that all the debug log messages are removed.
If you compile with NDEBUG defined, then "no debug" messages will remain. You can see in this case the #define debug() is just replaced with nothing (the right side is empty).
The matching #else for the above #ifdef.
The alternative #define debug that translates any use of debug("format", arg1, arg2) into an fprintf call to stderr. Many C programmers don't know, but you can create macros that actually work like printf and take variable arguments. Some C compilers (actually cpp) don't support this, but the ones that matter do. The magic here is the use of ##__VA_ARGS__ which says "put whatever they had for extra arguments (...) here". Also notice the use of __FILE__ and __LINE__ to get the current file:line for the debug message. Very helpful.
The end of the #ifdef.
The clean_errno macro that's used in the others to get a safe readable version of errno. That strange syntax in the middle is a "ternary operator" and you'll learn what it does later.
The log_err, log_warn, and log_info, macros for logging messages meant for the end user. Works like debug but can't be compiled out.
The best macro ever, check will make sure the condition A is true, and if not logs the error M (with variable arguments for log_err), then jumps to the function's error: for cleanup.
The 2nd best macro ever, sentinel is placed in any part of a function that shouldn't run, and if it does prints an error message then jumps to the error: label. You put this in if-statements and switch-statements to catch conditions that shouldn't happen, like the default:.
A short-hand macro check_mem that makes sure a pointer is valid, and if it isn't reports it as an error with "Out of memory."
An alternative macro check_debug that still checks and handles an error, but if the error is common then you don't want to bother reporting it. In this one it will use debug instead of log_err to report the message, so when you define NDEBUG the check still happens, the error jump goes off, but the message isn't printed.

Using dbg.h

Here's an example of using all of dbg.h in a small program. This doesn't actually do anything but demonstrate how to use each macro, but we'll be using these macros in all of the programs we write from now on, so be sure to understand how to use them.

#include "dbg.h"
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdio.h>

void test_debug()
    // notice you don't need the \n
    debug("I have Brown Hair.");

    // passing in arguments like printf
    debug("I am %d years old.", 37);

void test_log_err()
    log_err("I believe everything is broken.");
    log_err("There are %d problems in %s.", 0, "space");

void test_log_warn()
    log_warn("You can safely ignore this.");
    log_warn("Maybe consider looking at: %s.", "/etc/passwd");

void test_log_info()
    log_info("Well I did something mundane.");
    log_info("It happened %f times today.", 1.3f);

int test_check(char *file_name)
    FILE *input = NULL;
    char *block = NULL;

    block = malloc(100);
    check_mem(block); // should work

    input = fopen(file_name,"r");
    check(input, "Failed to open %s.", file_name);

    return 0;

    if(block) free(block);
    if(input) fclose(input);
    return -1;

int test_sentinel(int code)
    char *temp = malloc(100);

    switch(code) {
        case 1:
            log_info("It worked.");
            sentinel("I shouldn't run.");

    return 0;

    if(temp) free(temp);
    return -1;

int test_check_mem()
    char *test = NULL;

    return 1;

    return -1;

int test_check_debug()
    int i = 0;
    check_debug(i != 0, "Oops, I was 0.");

    return 0;
    return -1;

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
    check(argc == 2, "Need an argument.");


    check(test_check("ex20.c") == 0, "failed with ex20.c");
    check(test_check(argv[1]) == -1, "failed with argv");
    check(test_sentinel(1) == 0, "test_sentinel failed.");
    check(test_sentinel(100) == -1, "test_sentinel failed.");
    check(test_check_mem() == -1, "test_check_mem failed.");
    check(test_check_debug() == -1, "test_check_debug failed.");

    return 0;

    return 1;

Pay attention to how check is used, and how when it is false it will jump to the error: label to do a cleanup. The way to read those lines is, "check that A is true and if not say M and jump out."

What You Should See

When you run this, give it some bogus first parameter and you should see this:

$ make ex20
cc -Wall -g -DNDEBUG    ex20.c   -o ex20
$ ./ex20 test
[ERROR] (ex20.c:16: errno: None) I believe everything is broken.
[ERROR] (ex20.c:17: errno: None) There are 0 problems in space.
[WARN] (ex20.c:22: errno: None) You can safely ignore this.
[WARN] (ex20.c:23: errno: None) Maybe consider looking at: /etc/passwd.
[INFO] (ex20.c:28) Well I did something mundane.
[INFO] (ex20.c:29) It happened 1.300000 times today.
[ERROR] (ex20.c:38: errno: No such file or directory) Failed to open test.
[INFO] (ex20.c:57) It worked.
[ERROR] (ex20.c:60: errno: None) I shouldn't run.
[ERROR] (ex20.c:74: errno: None) Out of memory.

See how it reports the exact line number where the check failed? That's going to save you hours of debugging later. See also how it prints the error message for you when errno is set? Again, that will save you hours of debugging.

How The CPP Expands Macros

It's now time for you to get a small introduction to the CPP so that you know how these macros actually work. To do this, I'm going to break down the most complex macro from dbg.h and have you run cpp so you can see what it's actually doing.

Imagine I have a function called dosomething() that return the typical 0 for success and -1 for an error. Every time I call dosomething I have to check for this error code, so I'd write code like this:

int rc = dosomething();

if(rc != 0) {
    fprintf(stderr, "There was an error: %s\n", strerror());
    goto error;

What I want to use the CPP for is to encapsulate this if-statement I have to use all the time into a more readable and memorable line of code. I want what you've been doing in dbg.h with the check macro:

int rc = dosomething();
check(rc == 0, "There was an error.");

This is much clearer and explains exactly what's going on: check that the function worked, and if not report an error. To do this, we need some special CPP "tricks" that make the CPP useful as a code generation tool. Take a look at the check and log_err macros again:

#define log_err(M, ...) fprintf(stderr, "[ERROR] (%s:%d: errno: %s) " M "\n", __FILE__, __LINE__, clean_errno(), ##__VA_ARGS__)
#define check(A, M, ...) if(!(A)) { log_err(M, ##__VA_ARGS__); errno=0; goto error; }

The first macro, log_err is simpler and simply replace itself with a call to fprintf to stderr. The only tricky part of this macro is the use of ... in the definition log_err(M, ...). What this does is let you pass variable arguments to the macro, so you can pass in the arguments that should go to fprintf. How do they get injected into the fprintf call? Look at the end to the ##__VA_ARGS__ and that's telling the CPP to take the args entered where the ... is, and inject them at that part of the fprintf call. You can then do things like this:

log_err("Age: %d, name: %s", age, name);

The arguments age, name are the ... part of the definition, and those get injected into the fprintf output to become:

fprintf(stderr, "[ERROR] (%s:%d: errno: %s) Age %d: name %d\n",
    __FILE__, __LINE__, clean_errno(), age, name);

See the age, name at the end? That's how ... and ##__VA_ARGS__ work together, and it will work in macros that call other variable argument macros. Look at the check macro now and see it calls log_err, but check is also using the ... and ##__VA_ARGS__ to do the call. That's how you can pass full printf style format strings to check, which go to log_err, and then make both work like printf.

Next thing to study is how check crafts the if-statement for the error checking. If we strip out the log_err usage we see this:

if(!(A)) { errno=0; goto error; }

Which means, if A is false, then clear errno and goto the error label. That has check macro being replaced with the if-statement so if we manually expanded out the macro check(rc == 0, "There was an error.") we'd get:

if(!(rc == 0)) {
    log_err("There was an error.");
    goto error;

What you should be getting from this trip through these two macros is that the CPP replaces macros with the expanded version of their definition, but that it will do this recursively, expanding all the macros in macros. The CPP then is just a recursive templating system, as I mentioned before. Its power comes from its ability to generate whole blocks of parameterized code thus becoming a handy code generation tool.

That leaves one question: Why not just use a function like die? The reason is you want file:line numbers and the goto operation for an error handling exit. If you did this inside a function, you wouldn't get a line number for where the error actually happened, and the goto would be much more complicated.

Another reason is you still have to write the raw if-statement, which looks like all the other if-statements in your code, so it's not as clear that this one is an error check. By wrapping the if-statement in a macro called check you make it clear that this is just error checking, and not part of the main flow.

Finally, CPP has the ability to conditionally compile portions of code, so you can have code that's only present when you build a developer or debug version of the program. You can see this already in the dbg.h file where the debug macro has a body only if it's asked for by the compiler. Without this ability, you'd need a wasted if-statement that checks for "debug mode", and then still wastes CPU doing that check for no value.

Extra Credit

  • Put #define NDEBUG at the top of the file and check that all the debug messages go away.
  • Undo that line, and add -DNDEBUG to CFLAGS at the top of the Makefile then recompile to see the same thing.
  • Modify the logging so that it include the function name as well as the file:line.