Table 205 The ptrace commands




Start execution tracing for the current process


Read a 32-bit value from the text segment


Read a 32-bit value from the data segment


Read the CPU's normal and debug registers


Write a 32-bit value into the text segment


Write a 32-bit value into the data segment


Write the CPU's normal and debug registers


Resume execution


Kill the traced process


Resume execution for a single assembly language instruction


Read privileged CPU's registers


Write privileged CPU's registers


Read floating point registers


Write floating point registers


Read MMX and XMM registers


Write MMX and XMM registers


Start execution tracing for another process


Terminate execution tracing


Modify ptrace( ) behavior

The ptrace( ) system call modifies the p_pptr field in the descriptor of the traced process so that it points to the tracing process; therefore, the tracing process becomes the effective parent of the traced one. When execution tracing terminates—i.e., when ptrace( ) is invoked with the ptrace_detach command—the system call sets p_pptr to the value of p_opptr, thus restoring the original parent of the traced process (see Section 3.2.3).

Several monitored events can be associated with a traced program:

• End of execution of a single assembly language instruction

• Entering a system call

• Exiting from a system call

• Receiving a signal

When a monitored event occurs, the traced program is stopped and a SIGCHLD signal is sent to its parent. When the parent wishes to resume the child's execution, it can use one of the ptrace_cont, ptrace_singlestep, and ptrace_syscall commands, depending on the kind of event it wants to monitor.

The ptrace_cont command just resumes execution; the child executes until it receives another signal. This kind of tracing is implemented by means of the pt ptraced flag in the ptrace field of the process descriptor, which is checked by the do_signal( ) function (see Section 10.3).

The ptrace_singlestep command forces the child process to execute the next assembly language instruction, and then stops it again. This kind of tracing is implemented on 80 x 86-based machines by means of the tf trap flag in the eflags register: when it is on, a "Debug" exception is raised right after any assembly language instruction. The corresponding exception handler just clears the flag, forces the current process to stop, and sends a sigchld signal to its parent. Notice that setting the tf flag is not a privileged operation, so User Mode processes can force single-step execution even without the ptrace( ) system call. The kernel checks the pt_dtrace flag in the process descriptor to keep track of whether the child process is being single-stepped through ptrace( ).

The ptrace_syscall command causes the traced process to resume execution until a system call is invoked. The process is stopped twice: the first time when the system call starts, and the second time when the system call terminates. This kind of tracing is implemented by means of the pt_tracesys flag in the processor descriptor, which is checked in the system_call( ) assembly language function (see Section 9.2.2).

A process can also be traced using some debugging features of the Intel Pentium processors. For example, the parent could set the values of the dr0, . . . dr7 debug registers for the child by using the ptrace_pokeusr command. When an event monitored by a debug register occurs, the CPU raises the "Debug" exception; the exception handler can then suspend the traced process and send the sigchld signal to the parent.

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20.2 Executable Formats

The standard Linux executable format is named Executable and Linking Format (ELF). It was developed by Unix System Laboratories and is now the most widely used format in the Unix world. Several well-known Unix operating systems, such as System V Release 4 and Sun's Solaris 2, have adopted ELF as their main executable format.

Older Linux versions supported another format named Assembler OUTput Format (a.out); actually, there were several versions of that format floating around the Unix world. It is seldom used now, since ELF is much more practical.

Linux supports many other different formats for executable files; in this way, it can run programs compiled for other operating systems, such as MS-DOS EXE programs or BSD Unix's COFF executables. A few executable formats, like Java or bash scripts, are platform-independent.

An executable format is described by an object of type linux_binfmt, which essentially provides three methods:


Sets up a new execution environment for the current process by reading the information stored in an executable file.


Dynamically binds a shared library to an already running process; it is activated by the uselib( ) system call.


Stores the execution context of the current process in a file named core. This file, whose format depends on the type of executable of the program being executed, is usually created when a process receives a signal whose default action is "dump" (see Section 10.1.1).

All linux_binfmt objects are included in a simply linked list, and the address of the first element is stored in the formats variable. Elements can be inserted and removed in the list by invoking the register_binfmt( ) and unregister_binfmt( ) functions. The register_binfmt( ) function is executed during system startup for each executable format compiled into the kernel. This function is also executed when a module implementing a new executable format is being loaded, while the unregister_binfmt( ) function is invoked when the module is unloaded.

The last element in the formats list is always an object describing the executable format for interpreted scripts. This format defines only the load_binary method. The corresponding load_script( ) function checks whether the executable file starts with the #! pair of characters. If so, it interprets the rest of the first line as the pathname of another executable file and tries to execute it by passing the name of the script file as a parameter. 151

[5] It is possible to execute a script file even if it doesn't start with the #!

characters, as long as the file is written in the language recognized by a command shell. In this case, however, the script is interpreted either by the shell on which the user types the command or by the default Bourne shell sh; therefore, the kernel is not directly involved.

Linux allows users to register their own custom executable formats. Each such format may be recognized either by means of a magic number stored in the first 128 bytes of the file, or by a filename extension that identifies the file type. For example, MS-DOS extensions consist of three characters separated from the filename by a dot: the .exe extension identifies executable programs, while the .bat extension identifies shell scripts.

Each custom format is associated with an interpreter program, which is automatically invoked by the kernel with the original custom executable filename as a parameter. The mechanism is similar to the script's format, but it's more powerful since it doesn't impose any restrictions on the custom format. To register a new format, the user writes into the /proc/sys/fs/binfmt_misc/register file a string with the following format:

:name:type:offset:string:mask:interpreter: where each field has the following meaning:


An identifier for the new format type

The type of recognition (M for magic number, E for extension)


The starting offset of the magic number inside the file string

The byte sequence to be matched either in the magic number or in the extension mask

The string to mask out some bits in string interpreter

The full pathname of the program interpreter

For example, the following command performed by the superuser enables the kernel to recognize the Microsoft Windows executable format:

$ echo ':DOSWin:M:0:MZ:0xff:/usr/local/bin/wine:' > /proc/sys/fs/binfmt_misc/register

A Windows executable file has the MZ magic number in the first two bytes, and it is executed by the /usr/local/bin/wine program interpreter.

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