Development tools are much more than just a text editor and a compiler. Correct use of the right tools can drastically ease debugging and tracking down of complex problems with memory allocation and system calls, amongst other things. Some of the most commonly used tools are described below; other tools exist for more specialized use cases, and should be used when appropriate.

An overarching principle to use when developing is to always have as many debugging options enabled as possible, rather than keeping them disabled until near release time. By constantly testing code with all available debug tooling, bugs can be caught early on, before they become ingrained in code and thus harder to remove.

Practically, this means having all compiler and other tool warnings enabled and set to fail the build process with an error if they are emitted.


  • Compile frequently with a second compiler. (GCC and Clang)

  • Enable a large selection of compiler warnings and make them fatal. (GCC and Clang)

  • Use GDB to debug and step through code. (GDB)

  • Use Valgrind to analyze memory usage, memory errors, cache and CPU performance and threading errors. (Valgrind)

  • Use gcov and lcov to analyze unit test coverage. (gcov and lcov)

  • Use compiler sanitizers to analyze memory, thread and undefined behavior problems. (Address, Thread and Undefined Behavior Sanitizers)

  • Submit to Coverity as a cronjob and eliminate static analysis errors as they appear. (Coverity)

  • Use Clang static analyzer and Tartan regularly to eliminate statically analysable errors locally. (Clang Static Analyzer)

GCC and Clang

GCC is the standard C compiler for Linux. An alternative exists in the form of Clang, with comparable functionality. Choose one (probably GCC) to use as a main compiler, but occasionally use the other to compile the code, as the two detect slightly different sets of errors and warnings in code. Clang also comes with a static analyzer tool which can be used to detect errors in code without compiling or running it; see Clang Static Analyzer.

Both compilers should be used with as many warning flags enabled as possible. Although compiler warnings do occasionally provide false positives, most warnings legitimately point to problems in the code, and hence should be fixed rather than ignored. A development policy of enabling all warning flags and also specifying the -Werror flag (which makes all warnings fatal to compilation) promotes fixing warnings as soon as they are introduced. This helps code quality. The alternative of ignoring warnings leads to long debugging sessions to track down bugs caused by issues which would have been flagged up by the warnings. Similarly, ignoring warnings until the end of the development cycle, then spending a block of time enabling and fixing them all wastes time.

Both GCC and Clang support a wide range of compiler flags, only some of which are related to modern, multi-purpose code (for example, others are outdated or architecture-specific). Finding a reasonable set of flags to enable can be tricky, and hence the AX_COMPILER_FLAGS macro exists.

AX_COMPILER_FLAGS enables a consistent set of compiler warnings, and also tests that the compiler supports each flag before enabling it. This accounts for differences in the set of flags supported by GCC and Clang. To use it, add AX_COMPILER_FLAGS to If you are using in-tree copies of autoconf-archive macros, copy ax_compiler_flags.m4 to the m4/ directory of your project. Note that it depends on the following autoconf-archive macros which are GPL-licensed so potentially cannot be copied in-tree. They may have to remain in autoconf-archive, with that as a build time dependency of the project:

  • ax_append_compile_flags.m4

  • ax_append_flag.m4

  • ax_check_compile_flag.m4

  • ax_require_defined.m4

AX_COMPILER_FLAGS supports disabling -Werror for release builds, so that releases may always be built against newer compilers which have introduced more warnings. Set its third parameter to ‘yes’ for release builds (and only release builds) to enable this functionality. Development and CI builds should always have -Werror enabled.

Release builds can be detected using the AX_IS_RELEASE macro, the result of which can be passed directly to AX_COMPILER_FLAGS:


The choice of release stability policy (the first argument to AX_IS_RELEASE) should be made per project, taking the project’s versioning stability into account.


GDB is the standard debugger for C on Linux. Its most common uses are for debugging crashes, and for stepping through code as it executes. A full tutorial for using GDB is given here.

To run GDB on a program from within the source tree, use: libtool exec gdb --args ./program-name --some --arguments --here

This is necessary due to libtool wrapping each compiled binary in the source tree in a shell script which sets up some libtool variables. It is not necessary for debugging installed executables.

GDB has many advanced features which can be combined to essentially create small debugging scripts, triggered by different breakpoints in code. Sometimes this is a useful approach (for example, for reference count debugging), but sometimes simply using g_debug() to output a debug message is simpler.


Valgrind is a suite of tools for instrumenting and profiling programs. Its most famous tool is memcheck, but it has several other powerful and useful tools too. They are covered separately in the sections below.

A useful way of running Valgrind is to run a program’s unit test suite under Valgrind, setting Valgrind to return a status code indicating the number of errors it encountered. When run as part of make check, this will cause the checks to succeed if Valgrind finds no problems, and fail otherwise. However, running make check under Valgrind is not trivial to do on the command line. A macro, AX_VALGRIND_CHECK can be used which adds a new make check-valgrind target to automate this. To use it:

  1. Copy ax_valgrind_check.m4 to the m4/ directory of your project.


  3. Add @VALGRIND_CHECK_RULES@ to the in each directory which contains unit tests.

When make check-valgrind is run, it will save its results in test-suite-*.log, one log file per tool. Note that you will need to run it from the directory containing the unit tests.

Valgrind has a way to suppress false positives, by using suppression files. These list patterns which may match error stack traces. If a stack trace from an error matches part of a suppression entry, it is not reported. For various reasons, GLib currently causes a number of false positives in memcheck and helgrind and drd which must be suppressed by default for Valgrind to be useful. For this reason, every project should use a standard GLib suppression file as well as a project specific one.

Suppression files are supported by the AX_VALGRIND_CHECK macro:

VALGRIND_SUPPRESSIONS_FILES = my-project.supp glib.supp


memcheck is a memory usage and allocation analyzer. It detects problems with memory accesses and modifications of the heap (allocations and frees). It is a highly robust and mature tool, and its output can be entirely trusted. If it says there is ‘definitely’ a memory leak, there is definitely a memory leak which should be fixed. If it says there is ‘potentially’ a memory leak, there may be a leak to be fixed, or it may be memory allocated at initialization time and used throughout the life of the program without needing to be freed.

To run memcheck manually on an installed program, use:

valgrind --tool=memcheck --leak-check=full my-program-name

Or, if running your program from the source directory, use the following to avoid running leak checking on the libtool helper scripts:

libtool exec valgrind --tool=memcheck --leak-check=full ./my-program-name

Valgrind lists each memory problem it detects, along with a short backtrace (if you’ve compiled your program with debug symbols), allowing the cause of the memory error to be pinpointed and fixed.

A full tutorial on using memcheck is here.

cachegrind and KCacheGrind

cachegrind is a cache performance profiler which can also measure instruction execution, and hence is very useful for profiling general performance of a program. KCacheGrind is a useful UI for it which allows visualization and exploration of the profiling data, and the two tools should rarely be used separately.

cachegrind works by simulating the processor’s memory hierarchy, so there are situations where it is not perfectly accurate. However, its results are always representative enough to be very useful in debugging performance hotspots.

A full tutorial on using cachegrind is here.

helgrind and drd

helgrind and drd are threading error detectors, checking for race conditions in memory accesses, and abuses of the POSIX pthreads API. They are similar tools, but are implemented using different techniques, so both should be used.

The kinds of errors detected by helgrind and drd are: data accessed from multiple threads without consistent locking, changes in lock acquisition order, freeing a mutex while it is locked, locking a locked mutex, unlocking an unlocked mutex, and several other errors. Each error, when detected, is printed to the console in a little report, with a separate report giving the allocation or spawning details of the mutexes or threads involved so that their definitions can be found.

helgrind and drd can produce more false positives than memcheck or cachegrind, so their output should be studied a little more carefully. However, threading problems are notoriously elusive even to experienced programmers, so helgrind and drd errors should not be dismissed lightly.

Full tutorials on using helgrind and drd are here and here.


sgcheck is an array bounds checker, which detects accesses to arrays which have overstepped the length of the array. However, it is a very young tool, still marked as experimental, and hence may produce more false positives than other tools.

As it is experimental, sgcheck must be run by passing --tool=exp-sgcheck to Valgrind, rather than --tool=sgcheck.

A full tutorial on using sgcheck is here.

gcov and lcov

gcov is a profiling tool built into GCC, which instruments code by adding extra instructions at compile time. When the program is run, this code generates .gcda and .gcno profiling output files. These files can be analyzed by the lcov tool, which generates visual reports of code coverage at runtime, highlighting lines of code in the project which are run more than others.

A critical use for this code coverage data collection is when running the unit tests: if the amount of code covered (for example, which particular lines were run) by the unit tests is known, it can be used to guide further expansion of the unit tests. By regularly checking the code coverage attained by the unit tests, and expanding them towards 100%, you can be sure that the entire project is being tested. Often it is the case that a unit test exercises most of the code, but not a particular control flow path, which then harbours residual bugs.

lcov supports branch coverage measurement, so is not suitable for demonstrating coverage of safety critical code. It is perfectly suitable for non-safety critical code.

As code coverage has to be enabled at both compile time and run time, a macro is provided to make things simpler. The AX_CODE_COVERAGE macro adds a make check-code-coverage target to the build system, which runs the unit tests with code coverage enabled, and generates a report using lcov.

To add AX_CODE_COVERAGE support to a project:

  1. Copy ax_code_coverage.m4 to the m4/ directory of your project.


  3. Add @CODE_COVERAGE_RULES to the top-level

  4. Add $(CODE_COVERAGE_CFLAGS) to the automake *_CFLAGS variable for each target you want coverage for, for example for all libraries but no unit test code. Do the same for $(CODE_COVERAGE_LDFLAGS) and *_LDFLAGS.

Documentation on using gcov and lcov is here.

Address, Thread and Undefined Behavior Sanitizers

GCC and Clang both support several sanitizers: sets of extra code and checks which can be optionally compiled in to an application and used to flag various incorrect behaviors at runtime. They are powerful tools, but have to be enabled specially, recompiling your application to enable and disable them. They cannot be enabled at the same time as each other, or used at the same time as Valgrind. They are still young, so have little integration with other tooling.

All sanitizers are available for both GCC and Clang, accepting the same set of compiler options.

Address Sanitizer

The address sanitizer (‘asan’) detects use-after-free and buffer overflow bugs in C and C++ programs. A full tutorial on using asan is available for Clang — the same instructions should work for GCC.

Thread Sanitizer

The thread sanitizer (‘tsan’) detects data races on memory locations, plus a variety of invalid uses of POSIX threading APIs. A full tutorial on using tsan is available for Clang — the same instructions should work for GCC.

Undefined Behavior Sanitizer

The undefined behavior sanitizer (‘ubsan’) is a collection of smaller instrumentations which detect various potentially undefined behaviors in C programs. A set of instructions for enabling ubsan is available for Clang — the same instructions should work for GCC.


Coverity is one of the most popular and biggest commercial static analyzer tools available. However, it is available to use free for Open Source projects, and any project is encouraged to sign up. Analysis is performed by running some analysis tools locally, then uploading the source code and results as a tarball to Coverity’s site. The results are then visible online to members of the project, as annotations on the project’s source code (similarly to how lcov presents its results).

As Coverity cannot be run entirely locally, it cannot be integrated properly into the build system. However, scripts do exist to automatically scan a project and upload the tarball to Coverity regularly. The recommended approach is to run these scripts regularly on a server (typically as a cronjob), using a clean checkout of the project’s git repository. Coverity automatically e-mails project members about new static analysis problems it finds, so the same approach as for compiler warnings can be taken: eliminate all the static analysis warnings, then eliminate new ones as they are detected.

Coverity is good, but it is not perfect, and it does produce a number of false positives. These should be marked as ignored in the online interface.

Clang Static Analyzer

One tool which can be used to perform static analysis locally is the Clang static analyzer, which is a tool co-developed with the Clang compiler. It detects a variety of problems in C code which compilers cannot, and which would otherwise only be detectable at run time (using unit tests).

Clang produces some false positives, and there is no easy way to ignore them. The recommended thing to do is to file a bug report against the static analyzer, so that the false positive can be fixed in future.

A full tutorial on using Clang is here.


However, for all the power of the Clang static analyzer, it cannot detect problems with specific libraries, such as GLib. This is a problem if a project uses GLib exclusively, and rarely uses POSIX APIs (which Clang does understand). There is a plugin available for the Clang static analyzer, called Tartan, which extends Clang to support checks against some of the common GLib APIs.

Tartan is still young software, and will produce false positives and may crash when run on some code. However, it can find legitimate bugs quite quickly, and is worth running over a code base frequently to detect new errors in the use of GLib in the code. Please report any problems with Tartan.

A full tutorial on enabling Tartan for use with the Clang static analyzer is here. If set up correctly, the output from Tartan will be mixed together with the normal static analyzer output.