BinNavi 3.0 Preview: Improved Differential Debugging

One of the most popular features of BinNavi is what we call Differential Debugging.  Differential Debugging is the ability to create trace logs of debugged processes and to analyze these logs later.  Although BinNavi has had this feature since version 1.5, the functionality of Differential Debugging was rather limited and remained almost unimproved for the last two years. All it did so far was to record the addresses of the instructions executed during a trace. For BinNavi 3.0 we have improved Differential Debugging significantly.

Data Recording

The first improvement we made is to log more information about the state of the debugged program. For each executed instruction, BinNavi 3.0 is not only recording the address of the instruction but the values of all CPU registers when that instruction was executed. If any of the registers point to valid memory, up to 128 bytes starting from where the register is pointing to are recorded too. All of this information is stored in the database and can later be analyzed by the user.

Recording register values and memory chunks is useful but it quickly became clear that even small trace logs contain a lot of data that can easily overwhelm the user. To make the data more accessible to the user we added ways to search through lists of trace events. It is possible to display only those trace events that contain registers of a given value or only those trace events whose memory chunks contain a given byte sequence. This is very useful to quickly find exactly those trace events that access critical data.

Switching Traces

The next improvement we made is to give the user the option to create a new trace record while the debugger is already in trace mode. In the past it was only possible to start trace mode for a given graph and to turn it off again later. In BinNavi 3.0 it is possible to switch the trace log which receives recorded events on the fly. This is very useful in any situation where you want to discard all trace events before a given moment or to sort trace events into different trace logs.

Imagine you want to record how an instant messenger program sends a message. You can start the instant messenger program and begin to record a trace. At first, all the breakpoints of the random background noise (like GUI handlers) are hit. These events are not important and go into the first log which is later discarded. Once all unimportant breakpoints have been hit you can tell BinNavi to put all further trace events into a new trace log. Then you can send an IM message. The trace events triggered by the message sending code are all put into the second list. To find the code that processes a received message you can do the same again. Tell BinNavi to put all trace events that arrive from now on into a new trace list, then send a message to your IM client.

The result of all of this is shown in the following screenshot which shows the results of a Pidgin debugging session. What I did to produce these trace logs was to start Pidgin and switch the attached debugger to trace mode. The first trace log (Background Noise) contains all the breakpoint events that were triggered immediately or when I did unrelated things like move my mouse over the Pidgin window. Once the background noise events stopped I spawned off a new trace (Opening the chat window) and opened a chat window. This second trace contains only those events that were triggered while the chat window was opened. Then I spawned off another  trace (Sending message) and sent a message to someone. Afterwards I waited for an incoming chat message from the person I was chatting with.

BinNavi 3.0 trace mode demonstration

Differential Debugging of Pidgin message sending

In the end I had four neatly separated trace logs which contain trace events for exactly those functions that are responsible for opening a chat window (second log), for sending a message (third log), and for receiving a message (fourth log).

Combining Trace Logs

While the ability to sort trace events into different trace logs on the fly is incredibly useful, it is not really useful in situations where the user does not know when exactly to create a new log. To make it more comfortable to find pieces of code in these situations, we have added the option to combine recorded traces. It is now possible to combine previously recorded traces using set-union, set-intersection, and set-difference operations.

Especially the set-difference operation is very useful in practice. Imagine you have a program that accepts input and performs a sanity check on the input. Now you can simply record a trace of a program execution where you give the program well-formed input and another trace where you give the program malformed input. Doing a set-difference on the two recorded traces shows you exactly where the program traces deviate and you can easily find the part of the code that checks whether the input was wellformed or not.

The last improvement we made to Differential Debugging is to give the user the option to configure how often trace events at individual addresses are recorded. In the past, each address was only recorded once. This was useful to get a quick overview of the executed code but in other situations this was simply not good enough. We have had users who wanted to generate more complex trace logs that record trace events every time an instruction is executed. This is useful if you want to profile code for speed or if you want to do code coverage that considers how often an instruction is executed. Using Differential Debugging in BinNavi 3.0 this is now possible.

That’s it for Differential Debugging in BinNavi 3.0. These improvements should make it much easier for users to find exactly those parts of a debugged program they are looking for.

6 Responses to “BinNavi 3.0 Preview: Improved Differential Debugging”

  1. Ange says:

    Nice! makes you hungry for more screenshots or videos.

  2. wishi says:

    where are the free licenses for humble students? 😉

    • cblichmann says:

      Send us a proposal for a student research project (e-mail to info (at) and we’ll work something out… 🙂

  3. […] disassembly to isolating important functions in less than four minutes By Sebastian Porst My earlier blog post about the improved Differential Debugging feature of BinNavi 3.0 generated a lot of interest so I […]

  4. […] have already written two posts on this blog dedicated to this new feature (see here and here). In essence, we have found a great way to help you find relevant code while debugging. […]

  5. […] all the powerful features of our Differential Debugging technology. Please see Sebastian’s post from a few weeks ago to understand why we are so excited to bring this technology to […]