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Debugging Memory Corruption in Game Development
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Debugging Memory Corruption in Game Development

October 16, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

Block Corruption

Block corruption is where a group of words in memory are corrupted more or less together. The block can be any size, but we are generally talking anything from four bytes to 1024 bytes.

The corruption data in the block may contain any combination of the types of corruption data found in a single word, as discussed previously. There are a few situations specific to block corruption.

Partial corruption

When the data in the block of memory covered is not entirely corrupt, just say every few bytes or words has been changed, then this is a good indication that we are dealing with a pointer to a data structure (a structure or class) that has gone astray.

The most likely explanation is a dangling pointer. The code is continuing to update some data structure that has already been freed.

Full corruption

If the block of corruption is contiguous and no byte within it remains unchanged (except for a few common bytes, like zero, that might exist frequently in both corrupt and correct data), then it seems like the data structure has either been initialized, reset, or copied from somewhere else.

Unit Vectors

A common arrangement of three floats is in a vector, and a common sub-group of vectors is the unit vector. Unit vectors are quite recognizable in memory, since they consist of three small floating point numbers (in the range -1.0 to +1.0), and so they frequently start with the hex digit 3 or B.

Here's an example of a unit vector sitting incongruously in the middle of a string.

Looking at the hexadecimal, it is not immediately obvious that anything is wrong. We can see however from the text display column that there seems to be some garbage bytes in the middle of the path name.

Looking more closely at the garbage bytes, viewed as words, we can see that two of then start with 3, and one starts with B - a very good indication that we are dealing with a vector of small numbers, possibly a unit vector.

We can then switch to a floating point view, which gives us:

This confirms the nature of the corruption. We have three floating point numbers in the range -1.0 to +1.0, we can do a quick calculation to confirm that if we square the numbers and add them it comes out at about 1.0, so the length of the vector is 1.0, a unit vector.

Causes and Effects of Corruption

Once you have determined the likely nature of the corruption, you need to identify the piece of code that caused the corruption. If you are not able to directly observe the corruption taking place, you may have to selectively instrument suspicious pieces of code.

To narrow down the field of pieces of code that might be considered, we should have a look at the most common direct causes of corruption, and examine how each cause manifests itself.

Buffer Overruns

A Buffer overrun is perhaps the most common type of bug. You often hear about “buffer exploits” in the hacking world. Here a programmer has neglected to check that the size of the input data fits into the destination space. The data overruns the buffer, and possibly overwrites some space used for code. By adding some appropriate code to the end of the data, an industrious hacker can inject some of his own code into an application and take control of it.

Buffer exploits are less of a security problem for game developers, unless they are accepting data over the internet. However buffer overflows are still a very significant cause of bugs.

Bad Pointers

If the value of a pointer is incorrect, then it can corrupt memory (as well as providing bad data to whoever uses that pointer). The value in a pointer can become “bad” in a number of ways.

Dangling Pointer - If a memory block is de-allocated or freed, yet some pointer still references that block (or an object within that block), then that pointer is said to be a “Dangling Pointer”. The value of the pointer has not changed, however the pointer has become bad since it no longer points to valid data.

Incorrect Pointer Calculation - The pointer could be generated using incorrect pointer arithmetic, or using other values that are themselves incorrect, causing the value of the pointer to be calculated incorrectly. Pointer arithmetic might also return a pointer out of range of the target buffer - a form of buffer overflow.

Corrupt Pointers - The memory in which the pointer is stored may itself have become corrupted due to some unrelated cause. Thus corruption can cause corruption, extending the chain of causes.

Bad Local Pointers

If a pointer is created to an object that has local scope, then that pointer will only be valid while that object is in scope. See Listing 1

Listing 1

void CheckThing(CThing *p_x)
CThing p_thing;
p_thing = *p_x;
if (ThingCheck(p_thing))

Here a local variable p_thing is being used for some temporary purpose. However, during the course of the function the variable is added to some global list, then the function returns.

The result is that there is now a pointer in some list somewhere that points to memory that is used by the stack. This will not be an immediate problem, since when the function returns, then the stack pointer will recede higher in memory, leaving the instance of p_thing safely below the stack. Then one of two things might happen.

Object gets corrupted - the object pointer to by p_thing now no longer legally exists, however its binary image is still in memory, and code can continue to use it without problems until the stack once more descends below that location in memory. At that point the object may get corrupted. This, in a sense, is not a memory corruption bug, since the writes are legal, and in the correct place. But it behaves very like a corruption bug.

Stack gets corrupted - the object is in a list, and presumably some operations are going to be carried out with it. When the stack descends past this point in memory, then if that object is updated via the list, then updating the object will corrupt some memory that is legally being used by the stack. This could be a return address, it could be a saved register value, or it could be local variables in some routine higher up the call stack. Whichever it is, the effects will be deferred until the function call stack returns to that point, which could be quite distant from the cause of the problems.

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