Andreas Christoforou         home     posts

Introduction to Linux Kernel Debugging

Kernel Debugging

Kernel debugging is used to identify kernel bugs.

Debugging by Printing

The printk is similar with printf on C standard library and can be called from anywhere in the kernel at any time, from interrupt or process context. The printk is not used on boot process, if you want to use similar debug on boot mode you can use early_printk() unless you are writing to console you can always use printk().

The printk is having the following capabilities to specify the loglevel

Loglevels that can be used on printk are below

KERN_EMERG	0	emergency condition.System maybe hang.
KERN_ALERT	1	problem that requires immediate attention
KERN_CRIT	2	critical condition
KERN_ERR	3	error
KERN_WARNING	4	warning
KERN_NOTICE	5	normal
KERN_INFO	6	informational message
KERN_DEBUG	7	debugging message
KERN_DEFAULT	d	the default kernel loglevel
KERN_CONT		continued line of printout


printk(KERN_ERR "Error, return code: %d\n",ret);

pr_* macros

The pr_* macros (with exception of pr_debug) are simple shorthand definitions in include/linux/printk.h for their respective printk call and should probably be used in newer drivers. pr_devel and pr_debug are replaced with printk(KERN_DEBUG ... if the kernel was compiled with DEBUG, otherwise replaced with an empty statement. For drivers the pr_debug should not be used anymore (use dev_dbg instead).

pr_debug,pr_devel if DEBUG is defined.


pr_err("Error,return code: %d\n", ret);

Note that if you don’t specifying the loglevel the default is KERN_WARNING.

To determine your current console_loglevel

cat /proc/sys/kernel/printk
4	4	1	7
current	default minimum boot-time-default

To change console_loglevel

echo 8 > /proc/sys/kernel/printk

if is set to 8, all messages, including debugging ones, are displayed

Another way to change the console log level is to use dmesg with the -n parameter

 dmesg -n 7

To debug an oops and you don’t know where this happened you can use the following line

printk(KERN_ALERT "DEBUG: Passed %s %d \n",__FUNCTION__,__LINE__);

Log Buffer

Kernel messages are stored in a circular buffer of size LOG_BUF_LEN which is configurable on compile time. The default size is 16KB.

Enable Kernel debugging Option

The following options should be enabled on kernel config


Bugs on code

There are two functions that you can use on the kernel to show an oops message.


Further a more critical error is signaled via panic() which is printing the error and halt the system.


panic("%s: failed to map registers\n", __func__);

Sometimes we need stack trace and dump_stack() can be used which is dumps the contents of the registers and function back trace.



Decoding an oops message

addr2line translates addresses into file names and line numbers. Given an address in an executable it uses the debugging information to figure out which file name and line number are associated with it.


addr2line -f -e vmlinux 0xffffffff85037434

with gdb

gdb -q vmlinux
list *(0xffffffff85037434)

or with objdump to determine the offending line

cat /proc/modules

get the value of module and use it on objdump

objdump -dS --adjust-vma=0xffffffff85037434 vmlinux

Kernel Debugging with gdb

GDB can be used to debug the kernel. As you can see on the below command we are running gdb on uncompressed kernel image vmlinux. The kcore parameter is acting as a core file to let gdb peek into the memory

gdb -q vmlinux /proc/kcore

KGDB patch enables gdb to debug kernel remotely with serial cable.

How to enable KGDB on your kernel


Example kernel Debugging with GDB and QEMU

First step is to download and compile the buildroot with the following config file.

Download buildroot

cd /root/
tar xvf buildroot-2018.02.10.tar.gz
cd buildroot-2018.02.10
make menuconfig

Follow the below configuration

Target options
  Target Architecture - Aarch64 (little endian)
  Target Architecture Variant (cortex-A57)  --->
Toolchain  --->
  Toolchain type (Buildroot toolchain)  --->
  Toolchain type (External toolchain)  --->
  Toolchain (Linaro AArch64 2017.11)  ---> 
    *** Host GDB Options ***
  [*] Build cross gdb for the host                                     
  [*]   TUI support
  [*]   Python support
  [*]   Simulator support
  GDB debugger Version (gdb 8.0.x)  --->  
System configuration  ---> 
[*] Enable root login with password
    ( ) Root password ⇐= set your password using this option
[*] Run a getty (login prompt) after boot --->
    TTY port - ttyAMA0
Target packages  ---> 
  [*]   Show packages that are also provided by busybox
Networking applications
    [*] dhcpcd
    [*] iproute2
    [*] openssh
Filesystem images
    [*] ext2/3/4 root filesystem
         ext2/3/4 variant (ext4)  --->
    (120M) exact size
    [*] tar the root filesystem

Build it

make -j4

Then we will need to install the aarch64 toolchain to compile the kernel

apt install gcc-aarch64-linux-gnu

Compile the Kernel with specific config

cd /root/
git clone git://
cd linux/
mv config-aarch64 .config
ARCH=arm64 CROSS_COMPILE=aarch64-linux-gnu- make oldconfig
ARCH=arm64 CROSS_COMPILE=aarch64-linux-gnu- make -j40

Next step is to install QEMU for the architecture that we have compiled our kernel and buildroot.

sudo apt install qemu-system-arm

Boot the QEMU with following configuration

qemu-system-aarch64 \
      -machine virt \
      -cpu cortex-a57 \
      -nographic -smp 2 \
      -hda ~/buildroot-2018.02.10/output/images/rootfs.ext4 \
      -kernel ~/linux/arch/arm64/boot/Image \
      -append "console=ttyAMA0 root=/dev/vda oops=panic panic_on_warn=1 panic=-1 ftrace_dump_on_oops=orig_cpu debug earlyprintk=serial slub_debug=UZ" \
      -m 2G \
      -net user,hostfwd=tcp::10023-:22 -net nic \
      -pidfile -s \
       2>&1 | tee vm.log

Run the gdb and verify that everything is configured correctly by checking symbols

gdb-multiarch vmlinux
(gdb) add-auto-load-safe-path ~/linux/scripts/gdb/
(gdb) info address vmalloc_user

Now on QEMU type the follow to compare with the address from the gdb

grep 'T vmalloc_user' /proc/kallsyms

The addresses should match exactly

Attach to the booted guest:

(gdb) target remote :1234

To see the source context

(gdb) info source
(gdb) list

We can see the backtrace with the following command

(gdb) bt full

Use c to continue execution, and Control-C to halt execution. Use n to step over, s to single-step, and finish to finish the current stack frame. Remember that we’re running a build with optimizations, so sometimes variables will be optimized out or the source line may change unexpectedly.

(gdb) b printk
(gdb) c