Accelerating Debug Runs, Part 2: _ITERATOR_DEBUG_LEVEL

A previous post discussed the Windows Debug Heap – with the main motivation being how to avoid it, as it is just empty, expensive overhead, and it isn’t clear why it is on by default in the first place. Remarkably, 3 weeks after posting here the VC team announced that from VC “14” (now in CTP) onwards the WDH will be opt-in and not opt-out, as it should be. So hopefully in ~2 years the recommendations in the last post will be largely obsolete. Anyway, I’m often facing unworkably slow run times in debug even after disabling the WDH, and further measures are in order.

In debug builds the VC++ CRT implementation runs a hefty load of iterator-validation tests on all STL containers – the simplest example being raising an assertion when an std::vector subscript is out of range. This leads to the unfortunate reality wherein if someone writes C++ code ‘by the book’, using standard containers for everything, s/he often ends up writing code that is utterly unusable in debug.  In one of our projects image classes were coded with std::vector as the container for the image bits. The product code is very intensive in iteration on pixels of many images, and as a result debug builds completed a typical job in ~4 hours, whereas a release build completed in ~4 minutes. For a long while debugging that project was reduced to logging and stepping in disassembly, as debug builds were completely useless.

Now for some good news and some bad news. The good news is that this behavior is customizable via the _ITERATOR_DEBUGGING_LEVEL macro: #define it to 0 (or 1, if you have a particular need for it) early in the compilation – say in the project properties or the top of a precompiled header– and this disproportional computational overhead is gone.

The bad news is that this doesn’t work.

MSVCMRTD.lib(locale0_implib.obj) : error LNK2022: metadata operation failed (8013118D) : Inconsistent layout information in duplicated types (std.basic_string<char,std::char_traits<char>,std::allocator<char> >): (0x0200004e).

Well that was a tad dramatic – it doesn’t always work, and in /clr builds in particular.

<rant>Now /clr projects will probably forever be second class citizens in the VC universe. Features will forever be coded for mainstream native code and will trickle down to /clr code as time and priorities permit (two notable examples are data breakpoints and debugger visualizers that are still unsupported in mixed debugging, but trust me – there are plenty more). </rant> Anyhow, as far as _ITERATOR_DEBUG_LEVEL goes – this is much more a bug than something resembling a decision. The venerable Stephan T. Lavavej elaborates (3rd reply from the bottom):

…The underlying problem is that _ITERATOR_DEBUG_LEVEL affects the representations of STL containers, and C++ (both native and especially managed) really hates it when code can’t agree on the representation of an object.  When _SECURE_SCL/_HAS_ITERATOR_DEBUGGING were added in VC8, we should have created 5 variants of the CRT/STL binaries (including DLLs).  Unfortunately we didn’t (this was before my time, otherwise I would have spoken up), and having only debug and release DLLs causes headaches.  We suffered from longstanding problems in VC8/9 until we overhauled how this worked in VC10.  During VC10 we untangled the worst of the problems by making std::string header-only.  With invasive surgery we were able to get native code working correctly in every case except one very obscure one that nobody has noticed or complained about yet.  (We now have 5 static libs, which solves the case of static linking absolutely 100% perfectly, but still only 2 DLLs.)  But managed code is structured differently, and the tricks that work in native don’t work for it.  As a result, customizing _ITERATOR_DEBUG_LEVEL basically doesn’t work under /clr[:pure].  Very few customers have encountered this (you’re one of the first) because we changed the release mode default to IDL=0 (which everyone wants), and few people want to modify debug mode’s default of IDL=2.

The thread is from Jan 2011 and this particular issue was resolved in VS2013. Similar issues remain, and I’m not sure /clr code would ever make it into routine test matrices in MS – so as the CRT code evolves, these issues would probably keep popping.

Bottom line: if – like me – you’re debugging C++ code that is both managed and makes extensive use of STL – your mileage may seriously vary when trying to customize iterator debug level. If you do develop purely native code and are trying to accelerate debug runs, I do recommend judiciously setting _ITERATOR_DEBUG_LEVEL to zero – and raising it back only when you’re tracking concrete iterator issues.

In the same reply Stephan offers an alternative:

Have you considered making your “debug build” compile in release mode with no optimizations?  Release mode versus debug mode affects what CRT/STL/etc. you link to (and whether you can effectively debug into them) and as a side effect affects your IDL default, but it’s not inherently tied to whether your own code is compiled with optimizations or not, and that’s what affects the debuggability of your own code.  The IDE pairs release mode with optimizations and debug mode without optimizations, but there’s no fundamental reason linking the two.

This makes sense and I briefly experimented with this approach. Sorry to report, still no success. While I still can’t pinpoint the root cause, even when compiling release builds with /Od (optimizations disabled) the debugging experience is severely crippled. (and yes, of course I raised the proper PDB generation switches in both the compiler and the linker). Local variable watch and single-steps seemed highly erratic, ‘this’ pointer for class methods seemed to stick with $rcx throughout the method and thus give rubbish on member watch – etc. etc.

However, this is a step in a better direction. More on that in the next post.

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One Response to Accelerating Debug Runs, Part 2: _ITERATOR_DEBUG_LEVEL

  1. Aviv Hurvitz says:

    Good posts. We contended with the same problems of slow debugging when we started our projects, and arrived at the same solutions.. It’s a sacred bit of Tribal knowledge that I imagine many C++ shops pass from generation to generation – because MS didn’t care enough to set the right defaults.

    Regarding turning of optimizations in Release builds – in our case doing so makes a product is both perfectly debuggable and runs very fast, as S.T.Lavavej said. We rarely need to do any debugging in the Debug build.

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