memory leaks in ubuntu: episode III, fixing

Appy polly loggies for the super long delay between episodes, but I finally carved out some time for our exciting dénouement in the memory leak detection series. Past episodes included detection and analysis.

As a gentle reminder, during analysis, we saw the following block of code:

 874                 GSList *dupes = NULL;
 875                 const char *path;
 877                 dupes = g_object_get_data (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes");
 878                 path = nm_object_get_path (NM_OBJECT (ap));
 879                 dupes = g_slist_prepend (dupes, g_strdup (path));
 880 #endif
 881                 return NULL;

And we concluded with:

Is it safe to just return NULL without doing anything to dupes? maybe that’s our leak?
We can definitively say that it is not safe to return NULL without doing anything to dupes. We definitely allocated memory, stuck it into dupes, and then threw dupes away. This is our smoking gun.

But there’s a twist! Eagle-eyed reader Dave Jackson (a former colleague of mine from HP, natch) spotted a second leak! It turns out that line 879 was exceptionally leaky during its inception. As Dave points out, the call to g_slist_prepend() passes g_strdup() as an argument. And as the documentation says:

Duplicates a string. If str is NULL it returns NULL. The returned string should be freed with g_free() when no longer needed.

In memory-managed languages like python, the above idiom of passing a function as an argument to another function is quite common. However, one needs to be more careful about doing so in C and C++, taking great care to observe if your function-as-argument allocates memory and returns it. There is no mechanism in the language itself to automatically free memory in the above situation, and thus the call to g_strdup() seems like it also leaks memory. Yowza!

So, what to do about it?

The basic goal here is that we don’t want to throw dupes away. We need to actually do something with it. Here again are the 3 most pertinent lines.

 877                 dupes = g_object_get_data (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes");
 878                 path = nm_object_get_path (NM_OBJECT (ap));
 879                 dupes = g_slist_prepend (dupes, g_strdup (path));
 881                 return NULL;

Let’s break these lines down.

  1. On line 877, we retrieve the dupes list from the dup_data.found object
  2. Line 878 gets a path to the duplicate wifi access point
  3. Finally, line 879 adds the duplicate access point to the old dupes list
  4. Line 881 throws it all away!

To me, the obvious thing to do is to change the code between lines 879 and 881, so that after we modify the duplicates list, we save it back into the dup_data object. That way, the next time around, the list stored inside of dup_data will have our updated list. Makes sense, right?

As long as you agree with me conceptually (and I hope you do), I’m going to take a quick shortcut and show you the end result of how to store the new list back into the dup_data object. The reason for the shortcut is that we are now deep in the details of how to program using the glib API, and like many powerful APIs, the key is to know which functions are necessary to accomplish your goal. Since this is a memory leak tutorial and not a glib API tutorial, just trust me that the patch hunk will properly store the dupes list back into the dup_data object. And if it’s confusing, as always, read the documentation for g_object_steal_data and g_object_set_data_full.

@@ -706,14 +706,15 @@
 +		GSList *dupes = NULL;
 +		const char *path;
-+		dupes = g_object_get_data (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes");
++		dupes = g_object_steal_data (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes");
 +		path = nm_object_get_path (NM_OBJECT (ap));
 +		dupes = g_slist_prepend (dupes, g_strdup (path));
++		g_object_set_data_full (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes", (gpointer) dupes, (GDestroyNotify) clear_dupes_list);
  		return NULL;

If the above patch format looks funny to you, it’s because we are changing a patch.

-+		dupes = g_object_get_data (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes");
++		dupes = g_object_steal_data (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes");

This means the old patch had the line calling g_object_get_data() and the refreshed patch now calls g_object_steal_data() instead. Likewise…

++		g_object_set_data_full (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes", (gpointer) dupes, (GDestroyNotify) clear_dupes_list);

The above call to g_object_set_data_full is a brand new line in the new and improved patch.

Totally clear, right? Don’t worry, the more sitting and contemplating of the above you do, the fuller and more awesomer your neckbeard grows. Don’t forget to check it every once in a while for small woodland creatures who may have taken up residence there.

And thus concludes our series on how to detect, analyze, and fix memory leaks. All good? Good.


I can hear the observant readers out there already frantically scratching their necks and getting ready to point out the mistake I made. After all, our newly refreshed patch still contains this line:

 +		dupes = g_slist_prepend (dupes, g_strdup (path));

And as we determined earlier, that’s our incepted memory leak, right? RIGHT!?‽

Not so fast. Take a look at the new line in our updated patch:

++		g_object_set_data_full (G_OBJECT (dup_data.found), "dupes", (gpointer) dupes, (GDestroyNotify) clear_dupes_list);

See that? The last argument to g_object_set_data_full() looks quite interesting indeed. It is in fact, a cleanup function named clear_dupes_list(), which according to the documentation, will be called

when the association is destroyed, either by setting it to a different value or when the object is destroyed.

In other words, when we are ready to get rid of the dup_data.found object, as part of cleaning up that object, we’ll call the clear_dupes_list() function. And what does clear_dupes_list() do, praytell? Why, let me show you!

static void
clear_dupes_list (GSList *list)
	g_slist_foreach (list, (GFunc) g_free, NULL);
	g_slist_free (list);

Trés interesante! You can see that we iterate across the dupes list, and call g_free on each of the strings we did a g_strdup() on before. So there wasn’t an inception leak after all. Tricky tricky.

A quick digression is warranted here. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to write object oriented code in plain old C, with inheritance, method overrides, and even some level of “automatic” memory management. You don’t need to use C++ or python or whatever the web programmers are using these days. It’s just that in C, you build the OO features you want yourself, using primitives such as structs and function pointers and smart interface design.

Notice above we have specified that whenever the dup_data object is destroyed, it will free the memory that was stuffed into it. Yes, we had to specify the cleanup function manually, but we are thinking of our data structures in terms of objects.

In fact, the fancy features of many dynamic languages are implemented just this way, with the language keeping track of your objects for you, allocating them when you need, and freeing them when you’re done with them.

Because at the end of the day, it is decidedly not turtles all the way down to the CPU. When you touch memory in in python or ruby or javascript, I guarantee that something is doing the bookkeeping on your memory, and since CPUs only understand assembly language, and C is really just pretty assembly, you now have a decent idea of how those fancy languages actually manage memory on your behalf.

And finally now that you’ve seen just how tedious and verbose it is to track all this memory, it should no longer be a surprise to you that most fancy languages are slower than C. Paperwork. It’s always paperwork.

And here we come to the upshot, which is, tracking down memory leaks can be slow and time consuming and trickier than first imagined (sorry for the early head fake). But with the judicious application of science and taking good field notes, it’s ultimately just like putting a delicious pork butt in the slow cooker for 24 hours. Worth the wait, worth the effort, and it has a delicious smoky sweet payoff.

Happy hunting!

kalua pork + homemade mayo and cabbage