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DSDP/DD/DSF WhitePaper

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Debugger Services Framework (DSF) White Paper

Version 1.0 Pawel Piech © 2006, Wind River Systems. Release under EPL version 1.0.


DSF is a service framework for implementing the model and communication layers of Eclipse debuggers. The framework itself is actually very small in terms of lines of code, because it mostly builds on top of existing standard frameworks of OSGI services and Java 5.0 concurrency features. The value of DSF is the set of utilities, patterns, and guidelines that together help solve some of the more difficult problems we have with existing Eclipse debugger implementations.

Design goals

The primary design goal is to overcome the problems with existing Eclipse debuggers. These problems are:

  1. Poor performance when debugging a remote target (over a slow connection).
    • Synchronous debugger communication, which results in poor throughput of data.
    • Amount of data that is retrieved from target is based on the data model, rather than on what's visible to the user on the screen.
    • No ability to filter, or to choose update policies, which could allow user to control what is retrieved from the target.
  2. No modularity in APIs or debugger implementations.
    • Specialized debuggers must use forking and duplication of common code to provide unique features.
    • Degenerate debuggers (with a subset of functionality of conventional debuggers) must implement a lot of interfaces that are meaningless to their users. #* It's difficult to modify or selectively replace interfaces, because all interfaces have references to each other.
  3. Difficulty in customizing data presentation for different types of debugging.


The DSF features described below, more-or-less correspond one-to-one to the problems in the Design Goals section.

Concurrency Model

It may be a surprise that simply adopting a threading model would solve performance problems with debugger communication, but indirectly, it actually does. The primary reason for poor performance with remote targets in debuggers such as CDT is the synchronous nature of target communication. When a request is made at the UI level that results in a command being sent to the target, then the client thread is blocked while the command is being processed. After the result if finally retrieved, the client makes the next request for data and is blocked again. In this pattern the responsiveness of the UI is slow, yet the majority of this performance hit is due to the latency of the communication channel to the debugger back end.

There is one major improvement to this pattern implemented in the platform already. The platform debugger views have been re-written so that they spin off a separate thread for each separable call to the debug model. The multiple threads each result in individual requests being sent to the target, and each thread is blocked waiting for the result. Overall the responsiveness of the view is improved because all the request threads execute in parallel. However, there is one obvious limitation of this approach: creating a lot of new threads, even when using a thread pool, is an expensive operation and can in itself degrade performance, therefore this solution doesn't scale well to programs that for example have thousands of threads, or threads, or variables.

There is also a more subtle limitation of using jobs. Most debuggers have a very lopsided performance characteristic, where it takes a long time to initiate a query for the target, but once a query is run, it takes relatively little extra time to retrieve larger amounts of data. Therefore, to better optimize the performance of communicating with a remote target, it is important to coalesce individual requests into queries for larger chunks of data. This is a rather complicated problem, mostly because the commands available in debugger back ends vary depending on the type of data being retrieved. Also different types of data require different types of coalescing. For example, where it might be possible to retrieve memory in arbitrarily sized chunks, registers may be retrievable only in groups. There is one thing all coalescing solutions will have in common, though: they need to convert the calls that are made to the service into objects, which can be compared, sorted, and pooled together. Management of such objects requires a lot of state information to be tracked by the service, and managing the cache of the request results requires even more state information.

Managing a lot of state information, which coalescing optimization requires, is exceedingly difficult in a free multi-threaded environment. This is because the more state information there is in the system, the more semaphores are needed to avoid race conditions. The more semaphores are used, the greater the chance that deadlocks will occur. There are many methods for managing concurrency in systems with a lot of state information, and they all have some drawbacks. One such example is the Eclipse resource system use of ISchedulingRule and jobs. Unfortunately this concurrency model would not work well for the debugger because the resource system has a clearly defined hierarchy to its data: Workspace/Projects/File, so it’s easy to lock a portion of the tree and still allow other clients to interact with it. For debugger services, the relationship between state data is not clearly defined and often very complicated, so if scheduling rules were applied in a debugger implementation they would likely degrade performance, because each request would probably need to lock the entire system.

For its concurrency model, DSF imposes a strict threading model. All services that make up a debugger implementation must talk to each other using a single dispatch thread, and no service can make a blocking call while in the dispatch thread. Conceptually this rule can be interpreted as: all communication between services is accomplished by runnables in a thread pool, where the thread pool size is just one. The effect of this policy is that the dispatch thread acts as a single global semaphore, and when executing on the dispatch thread, a client or a service can perform arbitrarily complex operations, and can poll the sate of as many services as necessary without worrying about the state of the system changing concurrently. The single threading rule only applies to the service interfaces, and does not preclude multi-threading in the service implementations. In fact multi-threading is utilized more in this architecture because many blocking operations that would normally be performed on shared threads, possibly slowing the UI responsiveness, now need to be performed using background threads.

In summary, a restrictive threading model combined with asynchronous interfaces, is the DSF solution to communication performance problems because it allows debugger implementations to have highly complex logic that handles coalescing and cancelling of requests, intelligent caching of debugger requests, and other advanced features such as filtering and configurable update policies.

Services Model

Fortunately it's easier to see the connection between a services model and addressing modularity problems.

Most current debugger implementations don't make an effort to separate out different components that make up the data model and communication layers. It is true that UI components usually interact with clearly defined data model interfaces, and in case of CDT the data model is somewhat separated from the communication layer using the CDI interface. However within the CDT data model and communication layer interfaces, there are enough references between the various objects to make all of them essentially inter-dependent. Furthermore, in the implementation of these layers, components use internal knowledge of other components. This is perfectly acceptable if we assume that the debugger implementation is going to be used as a single module, and any extensions can be built on top of it. But, it is important that vendors be able to selectively pick and choose components which they would like to reuse "as is" and which components they would like to extend, modify, replace, or not use at all. In order to achieve that kind of modularity, a lot of design work has to go into interfaces not just between the major layers of implementation, but also between various components that make up these layers.

To help build a modular architecture, DSF builds on the OSGI services framework, by providing additional functionality of:

  • organizing services into sessions,
  • managing start-up and shut-down processes,
  • managing events between services.

Additionally, DSF includes an initial draft of service interfaces designed to build a modular debugger implementation. These interfaces must be validated, and this can only be realistically accomplished by implementing several full-featured and diverse debuggers. We are seeking additional debug tool vendors from the community to port to these interfaces in addition to Wind River.

Data Model

The problems of the data model are perhaps less severe than problems of performance and modularity, but this is an area with a lot of room for innovation. We are used to thinking of the debug data model in a rather rigid terms, where there is a defined hierarchy of debug targets, threads, stack frames, variables, sub-expressions, etc. We are also used to seeing standard debug views of threads, stack frames, locals, and watch. These expectations seem to be pretty accurately reflected in the platform debug model, on top of which all of the current Eclipse debuggers are based. This is a problem for two reasons:

  1. The direct references between different types of objects prevent the debug model implementation from being modular.
  2. Extensions to the debug model are limited to additions in functionality of the basic platform objects and some additional object types.

Fortunately in release 3.2, the Eclipse platform introduced a way to circumvent the standard platform model and to drive the content of most of the standard debugger views using a completely custom data model and a set of viewer adapters. DSF aims to take advantage of this new capability to address the above problems, as well as to provide the additional benefits of:

  1. Improving performance by using the DSF dispatch thread model and asynchronous methods.
  2. Giving the user ability to fully customize at runtime the content and layout of debugger views.

Points 1, 2, and 3 are a side effect of DSF's Threading Model and Services Model used in conjunction with the platform's flexible hierarchy interfaces. Point 4 is an innovative and exciting feature that naturally builds on top of the service model and flexible hierarchy. In the first release of DSF to open source, we have not yet implemented the capability described in point 4. The design for this feature calls for data driven, configurable views, where the configuration data drives the content and label providers to retrieve appropriate information from the data model. On the service side, there needs to be a published data model schema and a query language interpreter, which will retrieve the data for clients. We expect community discussion and design work to help solve this problem, and we intend to present implementations from our commercial product as one possible solution.

One final point is that although the DSF data model is fundamentally different than the platform debug model and the CDT extensions, a DSF debugger could easily be adapted to provide any of these API’s. This may require considerable effort, especially for extensive API’s like CDI, but is desirable and necessary to support the existing CDT community.

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