4.5. Python Pretty-Printers

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The GDB command print outputs comprehensive debugging information for a target application. GDB aims to provide as much debugging data as it can to users; however, this means that for highly complex programs the amount of data can become very cryptic.
In addition, GDB does not provide any tools that help decipher GDB print output. GDB does not even empower users to easily create tools that can help decipher program data. This makes the practice of reading and understanding debugging data quite arcane, particularly for large, complex projects.
For most developers, the only way to customize GDB print output (and make it more meaningful) is to revise and recompile GDB. However, very few developers can actually do this. Further, this practice will not scale well, particularly if the developer must also debug other programs that are heterogeneous and contain equally complex debugging data.
To address this, the Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 version of GDB is now compatible with Python pretty-printers. This allows the retrieval of more meaningful debugging data by leaving the introspection, printing, and formatting logic to a third-party Python script.
Compatibility with Python pretty-printers gives you the chance to truly customize GDB output as you see fit. This makes GDB a more viable debugging solution to a wider range of projects, since you now have the flexibility to adapt GDB output as required, and with greater ease. Further, developers with intimate knowledge of a project and a specific programming language are best qualified in deciding what kind of output is meaningful, allowing them to improve the usefulness of that output.
The Python pretty-printers implementation allows users to automatically inspect, format, and print program data according to specification. These specifications are written as rules implemented via Python scripts. This offers the following benefits:

To pass program data to a set of registered Python pretty-printers, the GDB development team added hooks to the GDB printing code. These hooks were implemented with safety in mind: the built-in GDB printing code is still intact, allowing it to serve as a default fallback printing logic. As such, if no specialized printers are available, GDB will still print debugging data the way it always did. This ensures that GDB is backwards-compatible; users who do not require pretty-printers can still continue using GDB.

Highly Customizable

This new "Python-scripted" approach allows users to distill as much knowledge as required into specific printers. As such, a project can have an entire library of printer scripts that parses program data in a unique manner specific to its user's requirements. There is no limit to the number of printers a user can build for a specific project; what's more, being able to customize debugging data script by script offers users an easier way to re-use and re-purpose printer scripts — or even a whole library of them.

Easy to Learn

The best part about this approach is its lower barrier to entry. Python scripting is comparatively easy to learn and has a large library of free documentation available online. In addition, most programmers already have basic to intermediate experience in Python scripting, or in scripting in general.

Here is a small example of a pretty printer. Consider the following C++ program:

enum Fruits {Orange, Apple, Banana};

class Fruit
  int fruit;

  Fruit (int f)
      fruit = f;

int main()
  Fruit myFruit(Apple);
  return 0;             // line 17                               

This is compiled with the command g++ -g -o fruit. Now, examine this program with GDB.
gdb ./fruit 
(gdb) break 17
Breakpoint 1 at 0x40056d: file, line 17.
(gdb) run

Breakpoint 1, main () at
17	  return 0;             // line 17
(gdb) print myFruit 
$1 = {fruit = 1}
The output of {fruit = 1} is correct because that is the internal representation of 'fruit' in the data structure 'Fruit'. However, this is not easily read by humans as it is difficult to tell which fruit the integer 1 represents.
To solve this problem, write the following pretty printer:

class FruitPrinter:
    def __init__(self, val):
        self.val = val

    def to_string (self):
        fruit = self.val['fruit']
        if (fruit == 0):
            name = "Orange"
        elif (fruit == 1):
            name = "Apple"
        elif (fruit == 2):
            name = "Banana"
            name = "unknown"
        return "Our fruit is " + name

def lookup_type (val):
    if str(val.type) == 'Fruit':
        return FruitPrinter(val)
    return None

gdb.pretty_printers.append (lookup_type)
Examine this printer from the bottom up.
The line gdb.pretty_printers.append (lookup_type) adds the function lookup_type to GDB's list of printer lookup functions.
The function lookup_type is responsible for examining the type of object to be printed, and returning an appropriate pretty printer. The object is passed by GDB in the parameter val. val.type is an attribute which represents the type of the pretty printer.
FruitPrinter is where the actual work is done. More specifically in the to_string function of that Class. In this function, the integer fruit is retrieved using the python dictionary syntax self.val['fruit']. Then the name is determined using that value. The string returned by this function is the string that will be printed to the user.
After creating, it must then be loaded into GDB with the following command:
(gdb) python execfile("")
The GDB and Python Pretty-Printers whitepaper provides more details on this feature. This whitepaper also includes details and examples on how to write your own Python pretty-printer as well as how to import it into GDB. See the following link for more information:
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