Writing an IronPython Debugger: Adding Interactivity

Now that ipydbg can set a breakpoint, it’s time to add some interactivity to the app. MDbg supports dozens of commands and currently ipydbg supports none. I’d love for ipydbg to support a wide range of commands like MDbg does, but for now let’s keep it simple and start with two: Continue and Quit. These aren’t very interesting as commands go, but that lets me focus this blog post on adding basic interactivity and future posts on specific commands.

First off, we have to understand how the CorDebug managed API supports interactivity. As we’ve seen, callbacks into the debugger are surfaced as managed events. If we look at the base class for all the debugger event arguments, we see that it exposes a Continue property. If you want the debugger to automatically continue after the event handler finishes running, you set the Continue property to true (which is the default). If you want the debugger to stay paused while you provide the developer a chance to poke around, you set Continue to false. In that case, the debugger stays paused until call process.Continue explicitly.

Once we set the Continue property to false, we need a mechanism to signal the main thread of execution that it’s time to wake up and ask the user what they want to do next. Of course, that’s what WaitHandle and it’s descendents are for. In fact, we’re already using an AutoResetEvent in OnProcessExit to signal that the debugged app has exited so we should exit the debugger. However, now we have two different signals that we want to send: exit the debugger or enter the input loop. I decided to differentiate by using two separate AutoResetEvents:

terminate_event = AutoResetEvent(False)  
break_event = AutoResetEvent(False)  

def OnProcessExit(s,e):  
  print "OnProcessExit"  

def OnBreakpoint(s,e):  
  print "OnBreakpoint", get_location(  
    symbol_readers[e.Thread.ActiveFrame.Function.Module], e.Thread)  
  e.Continue = False  

#code to create debugger and process omitted for clarity

handles = Array.CreateInstance(WaitHandle, 2)  
handles[0] = terminate_event  
handles[1] = break_event  

while True:  

  i = WaitHandle.WaitAny(handles)  
  if i == 0:  


Instead of a single call to process.Continue I had before, I’ve created an infinite “while True” loop that calls Continue, waits for one of the events to signal, then either exits the loop of enters the input loop (via the input function). Since there are two AutoResetEvents, I need to use the WaitAny method to wait for one of them to signal. WaitAny takes an array, which is kind of clunky to use from IronPython since the array has to be strongly typed. It would be much more pythonic if I could call WaitHandle.WaitAny([terminate_event, break_event]). WaitAny then returns an index into the array indicating which one received the signal. If it was the terminate_event that signaled, I exit the loop (and the application). Otherwise, I enter the input loop. Notice, by the way, in OnBreakpoint that I’m both setting Continue to false and signaling the break_event.

The “input loop” needs to be a loop because the user may want to type in multiple commands before letting the debugged app continue to execute. This means that the input function is implemented as another “while True” loop. When the user does chooses a command that implies the process should continue, I simply exit out of the input function and the outer “while True” loop above executes the continue and waits for a signal.

Here’s what the input function looks like right now with our two basic commands:

def input():
  while True:
    Console.Write("» ")
    k = Console.ReadKey()

    if k.Key == ConsoleKey.Spacebar:
    elif k.Key == ConsoleKey.Q:
      Console.WriteLine("n Please enter a valid command")

I’ve mapped “q” to quit the debugger and spacebar to continue. Since I’m using Console ReadKey, you only have to type the key in question – no return needed. For continue, we don’t do anything but exit the input loop by returning. Continue gets called as part of the other loop and since we haven’t/can’t add additional breakpoints the debugged app will run until it ends. For quit, I call the Terminate method on process, hard coding the return value to 255. However, Terminate implicitly continues the debugged process. Since you can’t continue a running process, the call to Continue in the outer loop throws an exception. I avoid this exception by adding the call to Stop before Terminate. As per the Stop docs, the debugger maintains a “stop counter” and only resumes the debugged process when the counter reaches zero.  Calling Stop increases the stop counter by one, calling Terminate decreases it by one, then the outer loop Continue  call decreases it to zero and the process continues, terminates and fires the OnProcessExit event handler as usual.

Now that we have a basic interactive loop, I’ll be able to add more interesting commands. I’m guessing at some point, I’ll need to refactor input a bit – I’m guessing a huge if/elif/else statement is going to get ugly fast, but I’ll worry about that when it gets out of hand. As usual, the latest ipydbg source is up on GitHub.