I had to debug C code on a smartphone

A few days ago someone contacted me about an issue they had with nissy - a project of mine that I have talked about in my last blog post.

I was happy to look into it, but I could not reproduce the error in any way, while this person ran into it consistently every time they tried to use a certain functionality.

They were using a Mac M1, which has an ARM-based CPU. So I guessed the error was caused by me relying on some undefined behavior of C that resulted in different compiled code on x86 and on ARM. But I had no ARM-based machine to debug this.


Everyone has an ARM computer

Most (if not all) smartphones have and ARM-based CPU. This means, at least in theory, that if this bug was really related to this different CPU architecture, I could reproduce it on my phone.

Nissy is a command line application. To compile it you just need a C compiler + standard library and a terminal emulator. On Android there is termux, that I already use to ssh into my personal server in case I need to check something on the go and to play around. So I installed git, clang and gdb on it, and I was ready to go!

A screenshot of my phone running termux, debugging nissy

This was not the most pleasant experience. Yes, I could have installed vim or some other text editor instead of using ed, but I don’t think this would have improved things all that much. I mostly edited the code on my laptop and transferred my changes to my phone with quick git push & pulls, keeping text editing on the phone to a minimum.

And it worked! I was able to reproduce the bug on the first try in this environment. In hindsight, I should have tried building nissy with a different compiler first, which would have saved me the hassle of working on a 5-inch screen. I tried afterwards, but I could not reproduce the error this way.

The actual bug

The bug itself was just a classic out-of-bounds error. Simplifying a bit, at the beginning of a file I had a bunch static arrays that looked pretty much like this:

#define N 10000
static int a[N];
static int b[N];

The values in these arrays where written only once, in their respective initialize_a() and initialize_b() functions, both called at startup.

The second array b[] was initialized correctly, but the value b[0] changed after calling initialize_a(), which in theory did not touch b[] in any way. But, due to some wrong logic, in this function I ended up writing some value into a[N], which is out of the bounds of array a[]. Apparently, when targeting ARM the compiler decided to allocate the space for a[] and b[] in contiguous areas of memory, something that did non happen on other architectures - perhaps some padding was added between the two?

Once spotted, fixing the bug was easy: if a certain index i reached the value N, the correct thing to do was to skip that value. I had simply forgotten to check this. Adding an if (i != N) solved it.


Debugging on a smartphone is obviously not ideal, especially since nissy (at least in its current form) is not meant to run on one. This motivated me to think back and look for ways to prevent this kind of problem.


The error in the code had nothing to do with CPU architectures, it was a logic error. The algorithm I had in mind was correct, but I forgot one case and typed it out wrong. This is something that is bound to happen to everyone, so how could I have avoided it?

A good way to spot errors in your logic is to write unit tests. In this particular case, though, I cannot think off the top of my head how to write a unit test that would spot this error, at least when running on a x86 machine. In the end, the function initialize_a() achieved its goal - albeit with an undesired side effect.

Better tools

In C, the size of an array is just an indication of how much memory has to be allocated for it. There is no runtime check when accesing an element. Most compilers can check for static out-of-bound accesses, i.e. int a[10]; a[11] = 0 will result in a warning (not even an error!) at compile time. But even this would have not spotted my bug.

Tools like Valgrind can help you analyze this kind of memory-related issues, such as accessing unallocated memory areas and memory leaks. However, to my surprise, valgrind did not help here. I guess this is because the memory I ended up accessing was still reserved for my code, just for a different array - or for some padding between the two. Or perhaps I should have used more thorough settings.

There are modern languages that try prevent you from shooting yourself on the foot, like Rust. But for me C has a huge advantage over any of these better-on-paper alternatives: I know it decently well. Another good reason is ubiquity - I don’t want to force my few potential users to install a whole Rust environment just for nissy!

Update: After sharing this post, I have been advised to use the compiler option -fsanitize=address, which adds some runtime checks to detect this kind of memory errors. And it works! Compiling the pre-bugfix version of the code with this extra option and then launching nissy results in the following error:

src/coord.c:554:17: runtime error: index 70 out of bounds for type 'int [70]'
src/coord.c:554:36: runtime error: store to address 0x56383f5236b8 with insufficient space for an object of type 'int'

Sanitizers are a relatively recent compiler feature, available in clang by default and in gcc via the external libsanitizer library. The earliest reference I could find is a talk from 2011 (YouTube video, (slides). Coincidentally, I had just read about them in a blog post a week ago, but I did not think about using them. From now on, I definitely will!

Real world checks

Running your software on more platforms and making sure everything works as expected is a good way to spot errors that are architecture- or compiler-dependent. I am definitely not going to buy a Mac M1 just to test out this toy project, but I could at least test it on all the devices I have - including my phone. Since it is a command-line application, setting up a test suite that runs a bunch of commands and then checks that the outpus is as expected would be relatively easy.


Typing on a phone is painful. Nonetheless, debugging this was actually kind of fun.

Knowing some low-level stuff always helps. In this case, I was able to reproduce the issue only because I knew that different CPU architectures exists, and that a Mac M1 is similar to an Android phone in this regard.

But I also want to stress that this bug was not related to the CPU architecture: there was a logic error in my code. The fact that it was only visible on ARM is a coincidence. In the end, correct logic is the most important thing in coding.