Lesson 1.19: Debugging with GDB

The purpose of this lesson is to teach how to debug your K interpreter using the K-language support provided in GDB.


Debugging K definitions using GDB is currently only supported on Linux; the instructions in this section will not work properly on macOS. Support for debugging K using LLDB is a work in progress, and this chapter will be updated when doing so is possible.

Getting started

You will need GDB in order to complete this lesson. If you do not already have GDB installed, then do so. Steps to install GDB are outlined in this GDB Tutorial.

The first thing neccessary in order to debug a K interpreter in GDB is to build the interpreter with full debugging support enabled. This can be done relatively simply. First, make sure you have not passed -O1, -O2, or -O3 to kompile. Second, simply add the command line flags -ccopt -g -ccopt -O1 to kompile. The resulting compiled K definition will be ready to support debugging.

Note: the 'O' in -O1 is the letter 'O' not the number 0!

Once you have a compiled K definition and a program you wish to debug, you can start the debugger by passing the --debugger flag to krun. This will automatically load the program you are executing into GDB and drop you into a GDB shell ready to start executing the program.

As an example, consider the following K definition (lesson-19-a.k):

module LESSON-19-A
  imports INT

  rule I => I +Int 1
    requires I <Int 100

If we compile this definition with kompile lesson-19-a.k -ccopt -g -ccopt -O1, and run the program 0 in the debugger with krun -cPGM=0 --debugger, we will see the following output (roughly):

GNU gdb (Ubuntu 9.2-0ubuntu1~20.04) 9.2
Copyright (C) 2020 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
License GPLv3+: GNU GPL version 3 or later <http://gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html>
This is free software: you are free to change and redistribute it.
There is NO WARRANTY, to the extent permitted by law.
Type "show copying" and "show warranty" for details.
This GDB was configured as "x86_64-linux-gnu".
Type "show configuration" for configuration details.
For bug reporting instructions, please see:
Find the GDB manual and other documentation resources online at:

For help, type "help".
Type "apropos word" to search for commands related to "word"...
Reading symbols from ./lesson-19-a-kompiled/interpreter...
warning: File "/home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-a-kompiled/interpreter" auto-loading has been declined by your `auto-load safe-path' set to "$debugdir:$datadir/auto-load".
To enable execution of this file add
        add-auto-load-safe-path /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-a-kompiled/interpreter
line to your configuration file "/home/dwightguth/.gdbinit".
To completely disable this security protection add
        set auto-load safe-path /
line to your configuration file "/home/dwightguth/.gdbinit".
For more information about this security protection see the
"Auto-loading safe path" section in the GDB manual.  E.g., run from the shell:
        info "(gdb)Auto-loading safe path"

To make full advantage of the GDB features of K, you should follow the first command listed in this output message and add the corresponding add-auto-load-safe-path command to your ~/.gdbinit file as prompted. Please note that the path will be different on your machine than the one listed above. Adding directories to the "load safe path" effectively tells GDB to trust those directories. All content under a given directory will be recursively trusted, so if you want to avoid having to add paths to the "load safe path" every time you kompile a different K definition, then you can just trust a minimal directory containing all your kompiled files; however, do not choose a top-level directory containing arbitrary files as this amounts to trusting arbitrary files and is a security risk. More info on the load safe path can be found here.

Basic commands

The most basic commands you can execute in the K GDB session are to run your program or to step through it. The first can be accomplished using GDB's built-in run command. This will automatically start the program and begin executing it. It will continue until the program aborts or finishes, or the debugger is interrupted with Ctrl-C.

Sometimes you want finer-grained control over how you proceed through the program you are debugging. To step through the rule applications in your program, you can use the k start and k step GDB commands.

k start is similar to the built-in start command in that it starts the program and then immediately breaks before doing any work. However, unlike the start command which will break immediately after the main method of a program is executed, the K start program will initialize the rewriter, evaluate the initial configuration, and break immediately prior to applying any rewrite steps.

In the example above, here is what we see when we run the k start command:

Temporary breakpoint 1 at 0x239210
Starting program: /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-a-kompiled/interpreter .krun-2021-08-13-14-10-50-sMwBkbRicw/tmp.in.01aQt85TaA -1 .krun-2021-08-13-14-10-50-sMwBkbRicw/result.kore
[Thread debugging using libthread_db enabled]
Using host libthread_db library "/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libthread_db.so.1".

Temporary breakpoint 1, 0x0000000000239210 in main ()
0x0000000000231890 in step (subject=<k>
  0 ~> .

As you can see, we are stopped at the step function in the interpreter. This function is responsible for taking top-level rewrite steps. The subject parameter to this function is the current K configuration.

We can step through K rewrite steps one at a time by running the k step command. By default, this takes a single rewrite step (including any function rule applications that are part of that step).

Here is what we see when we run that command:


Temporary breakpoint -22, 0x0000000000231890 in step (subject=<k>
  1 ~> .

As we can see, we have taken a single rewrite step. We can also pass a number to the k step command which indicates the number of rewrite steps to take.

Here is what we see if we run k step 10:


Temporary breakpoint -23, 0x0000000000231890 in step (subject=<k>
  11 ~> .

As we can see, ten rewrite steps were taken.


The next important step in debugging an application in GDB is to be able to set breakpoints. Generally speaking, there are three types of breakpoints we are interested in in a K semantics: Setting a breakpoint when a particular function is called, setting a breakpoint when a particular rule is applied, and setting a breakpoint when a side condition of a rule is evaluated.

The easiest way to do the first two things is to set a breakpoint on the line of code containing the function or rule.

For example, consider the following K definition (lesson-19-b.k):

module LESSON-19-B
  imports BOOL

  syntax Bool ::= isBlue(Fruit) [function]
  syntax Fruit ::= Blueberry() | Banana()
  rule isBlue(Blueberry()) => true
  rule isBlue(Banana()) => false

  rule F:Fruit => isBlue(F)

Once this program has been compiled for debugging, we can run the program Blueberry(). We can then set a breakpoint that stops when the isBlue function is called with the following command:

break lesson-19-b.k:4

Here is what we see if we set this breakpoint and then run the interpreter:

(gdb) break lesson-19-b.k:4
Breakpoint 1 at 0x231040: file /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b.k, line 4.
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b-kompiled/interpreter .krun-2021-08-13-14-20-27-vXOQmV6lwS/tmp.in.fga98yqXlc -1 .krun-2021-08-13-14-20-27-vXOQmV6lwS/result.kore
[Thread debugging using libthread_db enabled]
Using host libthread_db library "/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libthread_db.so.1".

Breakpoint 1, LblisBlue'LParUndsRParUnds'LESSON-19-B'Unds'Bool'Unds'Fruit (_1=Blueberry ( )) at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b.k:4
4         syntax Bool ::= isBlue(Fruit) [function]

As we can see, we have stopped at the point where we are evaluating that function. The value _1 that is a parameter to that function shows the value passed to the function by the caller.

We can also break when the isBlue(Blueberry()) => true rule applies by simply changing the line number to the line number of that rule:

(gdb) break lesson-19-b.k:6
Breakpoint 1 at 0x2af710: file /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b.k, line 6.
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b-kompiled/interpreter .krun-2021-08-13-14-32-36-7kD0ic7XwD/tmp.in.8JNH5Qtmow -1 .krun-2021-08-13-14-32-36-7kD0ic7XwD/result.kore
[Thread debugging using libthread_db enabled]
Using host libthread_db library "/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libthread_db.so.1".

Breakpoint 1, apply_rule_138 () at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b.k:6
6         rule isBlue(Blueberry()) => true

We can also do the same with a top-level rule:

(gdb) break lesson-19-b.k:9
Breakpoint 1 at 0x2aefa0: lesson-19-b.k:9. (2 locations)
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b-kompiled/interpreter .krun-2021-08-13-14-33-13-9fC8Sz4aO3/tmp.in.jih1vtxSiQ -1 .krun-2021-08-13-14-33-13-9fC8Sz4aO3/result.kore
[Thread debugging using libthread_db enabled]
Using host libthread_db library "/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libthread_db.so.1".

Breakpoint 1, apply_rule_107 (Var'Unds'DotVar0=<generatedCounter>
</generatedCounter>, Var'Unds'DotVar1=., VarF=Blueberry ( )) at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-b.k:9
9         rule F:Fruit => isBlue(F)

Unlike the function rule above, we see several parameters to this function. These are the substitution that was matched for the function. Variables only appear in this substitution if they are actually used on the right-hand side of the rule.

Advanced breakpoints

Sometimes it is inconvenient to set the breakpoint based on a line number.

It is also possible to set a breakpoint based on the rule label of a particular rule. Consider the following definition (lesson-19-c.k):

module LESSON-19-C
  imports INT
  imports BOOL

  syntax Bool ::= isEven(Int) [function]
  rule [isEven]: isEven(I) => true requires I %Int 2 ==Int 0
  rule [isOdd]: isEven(I) => false requires I %Int 2 =/=Int 0


We will run the program isEven(4). We can set a breakpoint for when a rule applies by means of the MODULE-NAME.label.rhs syntax:

(gdb) break LESSON-19-C.isEven.rhs
Breakpoint 1 at 0x2afda0: file /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c.k, line 6.
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c-kompiled/interpreter .krun-2021-08-13-14-40-29-LNNT8YEZ61/tmp.in.ZG93vWCGGC -1 .krun-2021-08-13-14-40-29-LNNT8YEZ61/result.kore
[Thread debugging using libthread_db enabled]
Using host libthread_db library "/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libthread_db.so.1".

Breakpoint 1, LESSON-19-C.isEven.rhs () at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c.k:6
6         rule [isEven]: isEven(I) => true requires I %Int 2 ==Int 0

We can also set a breakpoint for when a rule's side condition is evaluated by means of the MODULE-NAME.label.sc syntax:

(gdb) break LESSON-19-C.isEven.sc
Breakpoint 1 at 0x2afd70: file /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c.k, line 6.
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c-kompiled/interpreter .krun-2021-08-13-14-41-48-1BoGfJRbYc/tmp.in.kg4F8cwfCe -1 .krun-2021-08-13-14-41-48-1BoGfJRbYc/result.kore
[Thread debugging using libthread_db enabled]
Using host libthread_db library "/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libthread_db.so.1".

Breakpoint 1, LESSON-19-C.isEven.sc (VarI=4) at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c.k:6
6         rule [isEven]: isEven(I) => true requires I %Int 2 ==Int 0
(gdb) finish
Run till exit from #0  LESSON-19-C.isEven.sc (VarI=4) at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c.k:6
0x00000000002b2662 in LblisEven'LParUndsRParUnds'LESSON-19-C'Unds'Bool'Unds'Int (_1=4) at /home/dwightguth/kframework-5.0.0/k-distribution/k-tutorial/1_basic/19_debugging/lesson-19-c.k:5
5         syntax Bool ::= isEven(Int) [function]
Value returned is $1 = true

Here we have used the built-in GDB command finish to tell us whether the side condition returned true or not. Note that once again, we see the substitution that was matched from the left-hand side. Like before, a variable will only appear here if it is used in the side condition.

Debugging rule matching

Sometimes it is useful to try to determine why a particular rule did or did not apply. K provides some basic debugging commands which make it easier to determine this.

Consider the following K definition (lesson-19-d.k):

module LESSON-19-D

  syntax Foo ::= foo(Bar)
  syntax Bar ::= bar(Baz) | bar2(Baz)
  syntax Baz ::= baz() | baz2()

  rule [baz]: foo(bar(baz())) => .K


Suppose we try to run the program foo(bar(baz2())). It is obvious from this example why the rule in this definition will not apply. However, in practice, such cases are not always obvious. You might look at a rule and not immediately spot why it didn't apply on a particular term. For this reason, it can be useful to get the debugger to provide a log about how it tried to match that term. You can do this with the k match command. If you are stopped after having run k start or k step, you can obtain this log for any rule after any step by running the command k match MODULE.label subject for a particular top-level rule label.

For example, with the baz rule above, we get the following output:

(gdb) k match LESSON-19-D.baz subject
baz2 ( )
does not match pattern:
baz ( )

As we can see, it provided the exact subterm which did not match against the rule, as well as the particular subpattern it ought to have matched against.

This command does not actually take any rewrite steps. In the event that matching actually succeeds, you will still need to run the k step command to advance to the next step.

Final notes

In addition to the functionality provided above, you have the full power of GDB at your disposal when debugging. Some features are not particularly well-adapted to K code and may require more advanced knowledge of the term representation or implementation to use effectively, but anything that can be done in GDB can in theory be done using this debugging functionality. We suggest you refer to the GDB Documentation if you want to try to do something and are unsure as to how.


  1. Compile your solution to Lesson 1.18, Problem 2 with debugging support enabled and step through several programs you have previously used to test. Then set a breakpoint on the isKResult function and observe the state of the interpreter when stopped at that breakpoint. Set a breakpoint on the rule for addition and run a program that causes it to be stopped at that breakpoint. Finally, step through the program until the addition symbol is at the top of the K cell, and then use the k match command to report the reason why the subtraction rule does not apply. You may need to modify the definition to insert some rule labels.

Next lesson

Once you have completed the above exercises, you can continue to Lesson 1.20: K Backends and the Haskell Backend.