Sunday, June 26, 2016

snprintf: bug detector or bug preventer?

Pop quiz time!

When you use snprintf() instead of sprintf(), are you:
   A. Writing code that proactively detects bugs.
   B. Writing code that proactively prevents bugs.

Did you answer "B"?  TRICK QUESTION!  The correct answer is:
  C. Writing code that proactively hides bugs.

Here's a short program that takes a directory name as an argument and prints the first line of the file "tst.c" in that directory:
#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
int main(int argc, char **argv)
  char path[20];
  char iline[4];
  snprintf(path, sizeof(path), "%s/tst.c", argv[1]);
  FILE *fp = fopen(path, "r");
  fgets(iline, sizeof(iline), fp);
  printf("iline='%s'\n", iline);
  return 0;
Nice and safe, right?  Both snprintf() and fgets() do a great job of not overflowing their buffers.  Let's run it:

$ ./tst .

Hmm ... didn't get the full input line.  I guess my iline array was too small.  But hey, at least it didn't seg fault, like it might have if I had just used scanf() or something dangerous like that!  No seg faults for me.

$ ./tst ././././././././.
Segmentation fault: 11

Um ... oh, silly me.  My path array was too small.  fopen() failed, and I didn't check its return status.

So I could, and should, check fopen()'s return status.  But that just gives me a more user-friendly error message.  It doesn't tell my *why* the file name is wrong.  Imagine the snprintf() being in a completely different area of the code.  Yes, you discover there's a bug by checking fopen(), but it's nowhere near where the bug actually is.  Same thing, by the way, with the fgets() not reading the entire line.  Who knows how much more code is going to be executed before the program misbehaves because it didn't get the entire line?

And that is my point.  Most of these "safe" functions work the same way: you pass in the size of your buffer, and the functions guarantee that they won't overrun your buffer, but give you *NO* indication that they truncated. I.e. they don't tell you when your buffer is too small.  It's not until later that something visibly misbehaves, and that wastes time and effort working your way back to the root cause.

Now I'm not suggesting that we throw away snprintf() in favor of sprintf().  I'm suggesting that using snprintf() is only half the job.  How about this:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <assert.h>
#define BUF2SMALL(_s) do {\
  assert(strnlen(_s, sizeof(_s)) < sizeof(_s)-1);\
} while (0)

int main(int argc, char **argv)
  char path[21];
  char iline[5];
  snprintf(path, sizeof(path), "%s/tst.c", argv[1]); BUF2SMALL(path);
  FILE *fp = fopen(path, "r");  assert(fp != NULL);
  fgets(iline, sizeof(iline), fp); BUF2SMALL(iline);
  printf("iline='%s'\n", iline);
  return 0;

Now let's run it:

$ ./tst ./.
Assertion failed: (strnlen(iline, sizeof(iline)) < sizeof(iline)-1), function main, file tst.c, line 15.
Abort trap: 6
$ ./tst ././././././././.
Assertion failed: (strnlen(path, sizeof(path)) < sizeof(path)-1), function main, file tst.c, line 13.
Abort trap: 6

There.  My bugs are reported *much* closer to where they really are.

The essence of the BUF2SMALL() macro is that you should use a buffer which is at least one character larger than the maximum size you think you need.  So if you want an answer string to be able to hold either "yes" or "no", don't make it "char ans[4]", make it at least "char ans[5]".  BUF2SMALL() asserts an error if the string consumes the whole array.

One final warning.  Note that in BUF2SMALL() I use "strnlen()" instead of "strlen()".   I wrote BUF2SMALL() to be a general-purpose error checker after a variety of "safe" functions.  For example, maybe I want to use it after a "strncpy()".  Look at what the man page for "strncpy()" says:
Warning:  If there is no null byte among the first n bytes of src, the string placed in dest will not be null-terminated.
If you use "strncpy()" to copy a string, the string might not be null-terminated, and  strlen() has a good chance of segfaulting.  So I used strnlen(), which is only "safe" in that it won't segfault.  But it doesn't tell me that the string isn't null-terminated!  So I still need my macro to tell me that the buffer is too small.  The "safe" functions only make the fuse a little longer on the stick of dynamite in your program.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Of compiler warnings and asserts in a throw-away society

Many people despair at today's "throw away" society.  If you don't want it, just throw it away.

Programmers know this is not a recent phenomenon; they've been throwing stuff away since the dawn of high-level languages.

Actual line from code I'm doing some work on:
    write(fd, str_gpio, len);

The "write" function returns a value, which the programmer threw away.  And I know why without even asking him.  If you were to challenge him, he would probably say, "I don't need the return value, and as for prudent error checking, this program has been running without a glitch for years."

Ugh.  It's never a *good* idea to throw away return values, but I've been known to do it.  But I really REALLY don't like compiler warnings:
warning: ignoring return value of 'write', declared with attribute warn_unused_result [-Wunused-result]
     write(fd, str_gpio, len);

Well, I didn't feel like analyzing the code to see how errors *should* be handled, so I just cast "write" to void to get rid of the compile warning:
    (void)write(fd, str_gpio, len);

Hmm ... still same warning.  Apparently over 10 years ago, glibc decided to make a whole lot of functions have an attribute that makes them throw that warning if the return value is ignored, and GCC decided that functions with that attribute will throw the warning *even if cast to void*.  If you like reading flame wars, the Interwebs are chock full of arguments over this.

And you know what?  Even though I'm not sure I agree with that GCC policy, it did cause me to re-visit the code and add some actual error checking.  I figured that if write() returning an error was something that "could never happen", then let's enshrine that fact in the code:
    s = write(fd, str_gpio, len);  assert(s == len);

Hmm ... different warning:
warning: unused variable 's' [-Wunused-variable]
     s = write(fd, str_gpio, len);  assert(s == len);

Huh?  I'm using it right there!  Back to Google.  Apparently, you can define a preprocessor variable to inhibit the assert code.  Some programmers like to have their asserts enabled during testing, but disabled for production for improved efficiency.  The compiler sees that the condition testing code is conditionally compiled, and decides to play it safe and throw the warning that "s" isn't used, even if the condition code is compiled in.  And yes, this also featured in the same flame wars over void casting.  I wasn't the first person to use exactly this technique to try to get rid of warnings.


So I ended up doing what lots of the flame war participants bemoaned having to do: writing my own assert:
#define ASSRT(cond_expr) do {\
  if (!(cond_expr)) {\
    fprintf(stderr, "ASSRT failed at %s:%d (%s)", __FILE__, __LINE__, #cond_expr);\
} } while (0)
    s = write(fd, str_gpio, len);  ASSRT(s == len);

Finally, no warnings!  And better code too (not throwing away the return value).  I just don't like creating my own assert. :-(