Monday, September 21, 2015

Detecting Space Leaks

Summary: Below is a technique for easily detecting space leaks. It's even found a space leak in the base library.

Every large Haskell program almost inevitably contains space leaks. Space leaks are often difficult to detect, but relatively easy to fix once detected (typically insert a !). Working with Tom Ellis, we found a fairly simple method to detect such leaks. These ideas have detected four space leaks so far, including one in the base library maximumBy function, which has now been fixed. For an introduction to space leaks, see this article.

Our approach is based around the observation that most space leaks result in an excess use of stack. If you look for the part of the program that results in the largest stack usage, that is the most likely space leak, and the one that should be investigated first.


Given a program, and a representative run (e.g. the test suite, a suitable input file):

  • Compile the program for profiling, e.g. ghc --make Main.hs -rtsopts -prof -auto-all.
  • Run the program with a specific stack size, e.g. ./Main +RTS -K100K to run with a 100Kb stack.
  • Increase/decrease the stack size until you have determined the minimum stack for which the program succeeds, e.g. -K33K.
  • Reduce the stack by a small amount and rerun with -xc, e.g. ./Main +RTS -K32K -xc.
  • The -xc run will print out the stack trace on every exception, look for the one which says stack overflow (likely the last one) and look at the stack trace to determine roughly where the leak is.
  • Attempt to fix the space leak, confirm by rerunning with -K32K.
  • Repeat until the test works with a small stack, typically -K1K.
  • Add something to your test suite to ensure that if a space leak is ever introduced then it fails, e.g. ghc-options: -with-rtsopts=-K1K in Cabal.

I have followed these steps for Shake, Hoogle and HLint, all of which now contain -K1K in the test suite or test scripts.

Example: Testing on Shake

Applying these techniques to the Shake test suite, I used the run ./shake-test self test, which compiles Shake using Shake. Initially it failed at -K32K, and the stack trace produced by -xc was:

*** Exception (reporting due to +RTS -xc): (THUNK_STATIC), stack trace:
  called from Development.Shake.Profile.writeProfile,
  called from\.\.\,
  called from\.\,
  called from Development.Shake.Database.withDatabase.\,
  called from Development.Shake.Storage.withStorage.continue.\,
  called from Development.Shake.Storage.flushThread,
  called from Development.Shake.Storage.withStorage.continue,
  called from Development.Shake.Storage.withStorage.\,
  called from General.FileLock.withLockFile.\,
  called from General.FileLock.withLockFile,
  called from Development.Shake.Storage.withStorage,
  called from Development.Shake.Database.withDatabase,
  called from\,
  called from General.Cleanup.withCleanup,
  called from Development.Shake.Core.lineBuffering,
  called from,
  called from Development.Shake.Shake.shake,
  called from Development.Shake.Args.shakeArgsWith,
  called from Test.Type.shakeWithClean,
  called from Test.Type.shaken.\,
  called from Test.Type.noTest,
  called from Test.Type.shaken,
  called from Test.Self.main,
  called from Test.main,
  called from :Main.CAF:main
stack overflow

Looking at the generateSummary function, it takes complete profile information and reduces it to a handful of summary lines. As a typical example, one line of the output is generated with the code:

let f xs = if null xs then "0s" else (\(a,b) -> showDuration a ++ " (" ++ b ++ ")") $ maximumBy (compare `on` fst) xs in
    "* The longest rule takes " ++ f (map (prfExecution &&& prfName) xs) ++
    ", and the longest traced command takes " ++ f (map (prfTime &&& prfCommand) $ concatMap prfTraces xs) ++ "."

Most of the code is map, maximum and sum in various combinations. By commenting out pieces I was able to still produce the space leak using maximumBy alone. By reimplementing maximumBy in terms of foldl', the leak went away. Small benchmarks showed this space leak was a regression in GHC 7.10, which I reported as GHC ticket 10830. To fix Shake, I added the helper:

maximumBy' cmp = foldl1' $ \x y -> if cmp x y == GT then x else y

After switching to maximumBy' I was able to reduce the stack to -K1K. While this space leak was not problematic in practice (it's rarely used code which isn't performance sensitive), it's still nice to fix. I modified the Shake test suite to pass -K1K so if I ever regress I'll get an immediate notification. (Shake actually had one additional Linux-only space leak, also now fixed, but that's a tale for a future post.)


This method has found several space leaks - two in Shake and two in Hoogle (I also ran it on HLint, which had no failures). However, there are a number of caveats:

  • GHC's strictness analyser often removes space leaks by making accumulators strict, so -O2 tends to remove some space leaks, and profiling may reinsert them by blocking optimisations. I currently check my code using -O0, but using libraries I depend on with whatever optimisation they install with by default. By ensuring optimisations do not remove space leaks, it is less likely that minor code tweaks will introduce space leaks due to missed optimisations.
  • The stack trace produced by -xc omits duplicate adjacent elements, which is often the interesting information when debugging a stack overflow. In practice, it's a little inconvenient, but not terrible. Having GHC provide repetition counts (e.g. Main.recurse *12) would be useful.
  • The stack traces don't entries for things in imported libraries, which is unfortunate, and often means the location of the error is a 20 line function instead of the exact subexpression. The lack of such information makes fixing leaks take a little longer.
  • The -xc flag prints stack information on all exceptions, which are often numerous. Lots of IO operations make use of exceptions even when they succeed. As a result, it's often easier to run without -xc to figure out the stack limit, then turn -xc on. Usually the stack overflow exception is near the end.
  • There are sometimes a handful of exceptions after the stack overflow, as various layers of the program catch and rethrow the exception. For programs that catch exceptions and rethrow them somewhat later (e.g. Shake), that can sometimes result in a large number of exceptions to wade through. It would be useful if GHC had an option to filter -xc to only certain types of exception.
  • Some functions in the base libraries are both reasonable to use and have linear stack usage - notably mapM. For the case of mapM in particular you may wish to switch to a constant stack version while investigating space leaks.
  • This technique catches a large class of space leaks, but certainly not all. As an example, given a Map Key LargeValue, if you remove a single Key but don't force the Map, it will leak a LargeValue. When the Map is forced it will take only a single stack entry, and thus not be detected as a leak. However, this technique would have detected a previous Shake space leak, as it involved repeated calls to delete.


If anyone manages to find space leaks using this technique we would be keen to know. I have previously told people that there are many advantages to lazy programming languages, but that space leaks are the big disadvantage. With the technique above, I feel confident that I can now reduce the number of space leaks in my code.


Pepe Iborra suggested two tips to make this trick even more useful:

  • Instead of -xc, I find it's much better to catch for StackOverflow exceptions in main, and then print the stack trace using GHC.Stack.currentCallStack
  • For imported libraries, you can cabal unpack them and extend the .cabal descriptor Library section with a ghc-prof-options entry that enables -auto-all.


sinelaw said...

Thanks for sharing this "one weird trick"!

I've used it to find an unrelated problem. We have this function in our code ( that does recursive IO to build a list. Turns out it does so on the stack, which in itself is (arguably) fine. But noticing this memory usage helped me realize we can fuse it with something that aggregates stuff on the result and avoid the memory usage altogether. So now our tests can run with +RTS -K1K :)

Pepe Iborra said...

Two small tips that I find make Neil's trick even more useful:

* Instead of -xc, I find it's much better to catch for StackOverflow exceptions in main, and then print the stack trace using GHC.Stack.currentCallStack

* For imported libraries, you can cabal unpack them and extend the .cabal descriptor Library section with a ghc-prof-options entry that enables -auto-all.

Neil Mitchell said...

sinelaw: I'm glad it helped! Yes, fusing mapM/sequence/list-of-IO with the results seems to be a good idea in general.

Pepe: Thanks, those are awesome ideas. In a few of my cases the stack overflow wasn't on the main thread, and thus currentCallStack wouldn't have been as useful (since it would be the call stack that moves the exception to the main thread, rather than the one that caused it). But in general, I imagine that's a far better approach. I've updated the post with those ideas, so people don't miss them.