Tricks for getting the most out of your minidumps: Including specific memory regions in a dump

If you’ve ever worked on any sort of crash reporting mechanism, one of the constraints that you are probably familiar with is the size of the dump file created by your reporting mechanism. Obviously, as developers, we’d really love to write a full dump including the entire memory image of the process, full data about all threads and handles (and the like), but this is often less than possible in the real world (particularly if you are dealing with some sort of automated crash submission system, which needs to be as un-intrusive as possible, including not requiring the transfer of 50MB .dmp files).

One way you can improve the quality of the dumps your program creates without making the resulting .dmp unacceptably large is to just use a bit of intelligence as to what parts of memory you’re interested in. After all, while certainly potentially useful, chances are you probably won’t really need the entire address space of the process at the time of a crash to track down the issue. Often enough, simply a stack trace (+ listing of threads) is enough, which is more along the lines of what you see when you make a fairly minimalistic minidump.

However, there are lots of times where that little piece of state information that might explain how your program got into its crashed state isn’t on the stack, leaving you stuck without some additional information. An approach that can sometimes help is to include specific, “high-value” regions of memory in a memory dump. For example, something that can often be helpful (especially in the days of custom calling conventions that try to avoid using the stack where-ever possible) is to include a small portion of memory around each register in-memory.

The idea here is that when you’re going to write a dump, check each register in the faulting context to see if it points to a valid location in the address space of the crashed process. If so, you can include a bit of memory (say, +/- 128 bytes [or some other small amount] from the register’s value) in the dump. On x86, you can actually optimize this a bit further and typically leave out eip/esp/ebp (and any register that points into an executable section of an image section, on the assumption that you’ll probably be able to grab any relevant images from the symbol server (you are using a symbol repository with your own binaries included, aren’t you?) and don’t need to waste space with that code in the dump).

One class of problem that this can be rather helpful in debugging is a crash where you have some sort of structure or class that is getting used in some partially valid state and you need the contents of the struct/class to figure out just what happened. In many cases, you can probably infer the state of your mystery class/struct from what other threads in a program were doing, but sometimes this isn’t possible. In those cases, having access to the class/struct that was being ‘operated upon’ is a great help, and often times you’ll find code where there is a `this’ pointer to an address on the heap that is tantalyzingly present in the current register context. If you were using a typical minimalistic dump, then you would probably not have access to heap memory (due to size constraints) and might find yourself out of luck. If you included a bit of memory around each register when the crash occured, however, that just might get you the extra data points needed to figure out the problem. (Determining which registers “look” like a pointer is something easily accomplished with several calls to VirtualQueryEx on the target, taking each crash-context register value as an address in the target process and checking to see if it refers to a committed region.)

Another good use case for this technique is to include information about your program state in the form of including the contents of various key heap- (or global- ) based objects that wouldn’t normally be included in the dump. In that case, you probably need to set up some mechanism to convey “interesting” addresses to the crash reporting mechanism before a crash occurs, so that it can simply include them in the dump without having to worry about trying to grovel around in the target’s memory trying to pick out interesting things after-the-fact (something that is generally not practical in an automated fashion, especially without symbols). For example, if you’ve got some kind of server application, you could include pointers to particularly useful per-session-state data (or portions thereof, size constraints considered). The need for this can be reduced somewhat by including useful verbose logging data, but you might not always want to have verbose logging on all the time (for various reasons), which might result in an initial repro of a problem being less than useful for uncovering a root cause.

Assuming that you are following the recommended approach of not writing dumps in-process, the easiest way to handle this sort of communication between the program and the (hopefully isolated in a different process) crash reporting mechanism is to use something like a file mapping that contains a list (or fixed-size array) of pointers and sizes to record in the dump. This can make adding or removing “interesting” pointers from the list to be included as simple as adding or removing an entry in a flat array.

As far as including additional memory regions in a minidump goes, this is accomplished by including a MiniDumpCallback function in your call to MiniDumpWriteDump (via the CallbackParam parameter). The minidump callback is essentially a way to perform advanced customizations on how your dump is processed, beyond a set of general behaviors supplied by the DumpType parameter. Specifically, the minidump callback lets you do things like include/exclude all sorts of things from the dump – threads, handle data, PEB/TEB data, memory locations, and more – in a programmatic fashion. The way it works is that as MiniDumpWriteDump is writing the dump, it will call the callback function you supply a number of times to query you for any data you want to add or subtract from the dump. There’s a huge amount of customization you can do with the minidump callback; too much for just this post, so I’ll simply describe how to use it to include specific memory regions.

As far as including memory regions go, you need to wait for the MemoryCallback event being passed to your minidump callback. The way the MemoryCallback event works is that you are called back repeatedly, until your callback returns FALSE. Each time you are called back (and return TRUE), you are expected to have updated the CallbackOutput->MemoryBase and CallbackOutput->MemorySize output parameter fields with the base address and length of a region that is to be included in the dump. When your callback finally returns FALSE, MiniDumpWriteDump assumes that you’re done specifying additional memory regions to include and continues on to the rest of the steps involved in writing the dump.

So, to provide a quick example, assuming you had a DumpWriter class containing an array of address / length pairs, you might use a minidump callback that looks something like this to include those addresses in the dump:

BOOL CALLBACK DumpWriter::MiniDumpCallback(
 PVOID CallbackParam,
 const PMINIDUMP_CALLBACK_INPUT CallbackInput,
 PMINIDUMP_CALLBACK_OUTPUT CallbackOutput
 )
{
 DumpWriter *Writer;
 BOOL        Status;

 Status = FALSE;

 Writer = reinterpret_cast<DumpWriter*>(CallbackParam);

 switch (CallbackInput->CallbackType)
 {

/*
 ... handle other events ...
 */

 case MemoryCallback:
  //
  // If we have some memory regions left to include then
  // store the next. Otherwise, indicate that we're finished.
  //

  if (Writer->Index == DumpWriter->Count)
   Status = FALSE;
  else
  {
   CallbackOutput->MemoryBase =
     Writer->Addresses[ Writer->Index ].Base;
   CallbackOutput->MemorySize =
     Writer->Addresses[ Writer->Index ].Length;

   Writer->Index += 1;
   Status = TRUE;
  }
  break;

/*
 ... handle other events ...
 */
 }

 return Status;
}

In a future posting, I’ll likely revisit some of the other neat things that you can do with the minidump callback function (as well as other things you can do to make your minidumps more useful to work with). In the mean time, Oleg Starodumov also has some great documentation (beyond that in MSDN) about just what all the other minidump callback events do, so if you’re finding MSDN a little bit lacking in that department, I’d encourage you to check his article out.

2 Responses to “Tricks for getting the most out of your minidumps: Including specific memory regions in a dump”

  1. Stas says:

    Hi.

    Great article.

    Is there a limit to number of memory regions that you can include?

  2. Skywing says:

    Not that I know of, other than built-in limitations to the dump file format (older DbgHelp only supported dump files <4GB, for instance).

    Of course it would be to your advantage to consolidate your memory regions if possible as it does incur overhead in the dump file to denote the start and end of each memory region you specify. This overhead begins to become significant if you have a vast number of very small memory regions.

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