Last update: 14-Dec-2020
Author: R. Koucha
Thread crash because of an untouched local variable

Let's consider the following program which creates a thread and waits until it terminates. The thread's entry point merely defines a huge table and terminates immediately.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <pthread.h>

void *function(void *arg)
  int picture[4096][4096]; // 4096x4096xsizeof(int) = 67108864 bytes = 64 MB

int main(void)
  pthread_t tid;
  pthread_create(&tid,NULL, function, NULL);
  return 0;

The execution causes a crash:

$ gcc thd.c -lpthread
$ ./a.out 
Segmentation fault (core dumped)

Let's investigate the root cause...

Thread stack layout

The default stack size for a thread in the GLIBC/pthread is 8 MB. At thread creation time, the thread descriptor also called Task Control Block (TCB), is stored at the bottom of the stack and a red zone (guard page of 4 KB without read/write permission is set at the top of the stack). The stack grows from the high to low addresses (on most systems at least!).
The following is the display when the program is launched under the control of strace tool:

$ strace -f ./a.out
prlimit64(0, RLIMIT_STACK, NULL, {rlim_cur=8192*1024, rlim_max=RLIM64_INFINITY}) = 0
mmap(NULL, 8392704, PROT_NONE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS|MAP_STACK, -1, 0) = 0x7fee8d4dc000
mprotect(0x7fee8d4dd000, 8388608, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE) = 0
brk(NULL)                               = 0x556cf1b72000
brk(0x556cf1b93000)                     = 0x556cf1b93000
, parent_tid=[3338], tls=0x7fee8dcdc700, child_tidptr=0x7fee8dcdc9d0) = 3338
[pid  3338] set_robust_list(0x7fee8dcdc9e0, 24 
[pid  3337] futex(0x7fee8dcdc9d0, FUTEX_WAIT, 3338, NULL 
[pid  3338] <... set_robust_list resumed>) = 0
[pid  3338] --- SIGSEGV {si_signo=SIGSEGV, si_code=SEGV_ACCERR, si_addr=0x7fee8d4dcef0} ---
[pid  3337] <... futex resumed>)        = ?
[pid  3338] +++ killed by SIGSEGV (core dumped) +++
+++ killed by SIGSEGV (core dumped) +++
Segmentation fault (core dumped)

In the preceding:

Hence the memory space layout:

Why the program crashed

The thread entry point defines a table of `4096x4096x4` bytes which is equal to 64 MB. This is too much for the 8 MB long stack area. However, we could expect no crash at all as the function defines a huge local table but there is no read/write access into it. So, no crash should occur.

The strace logs show that the crash occurs upon access at address 0x7fee8d4dcef0 which is above the stack area in the allocated memory zone:

[pid 3338] --- SIGSEGV {si_signo=SIGSEGV, si_code=SEGV_ACCERR, si_addr=0x7fee8d4dcef0} ---

It is actually in the guard page:


The core dump analysis under gdb provides the following location for the crash:

$ gdb a.out core
(gdb) where
#0  0x00005594eb9461a0 in function (arg=<error reading variable: Cannot access memory at address 0x7fe95459ded8>) at p.c:56
#1  0x00007fe95879d609 in start_thread (arg=<optimized out>) at pthread_create.c:477
#2  0x00007fe9586c4293 in clone () at ../sysdeps/unix/sysv/linux/x86_64/clone.S:95
(gdb) disas /m
Dump of assembler code for function function:
56	void *function(void *arg){
   0x00005594eb946189 <+0>:	endbr64 
   0x00005594eb94618d <+4>:	push   %rbp
   0x00005594eb94618e <+5>:	mov    %rsp,%rbp
   0x00005594eb946191 <+8>:	lea    -0x4000000(%rsp),%r11
   0x00005594eb946199 <+16>:	sub    $0x1000,%rsp
=> 0x00005594eb9461a0 <+23>:	orq    $0x0,(%rsp)
   0x00005594eb9461a5 <+28>:	cmp    %r11,%rsp
   0x00005594eb9461a8 <+31>:	jne    0x5594eb946199 
   0x00005594eb9461aa <+33>:	sub    $0x20,%rsp
   0x00005594eb9461ae <+37>:	mov    %rdi,-0x4000018(%rbp)
   0x00005594eb9461b5 <+44>:	mov    %fs:0x28,%rax
   0x00005594eb9461be <+53>:	mov    %rax,-0x8(%rbp)
   0x00005594eb9461c2 <+57>:	xor    %eax,%eax

57	  int picture[4096][4096];
58	}

The above disassembly code of the thread entry point shows that gcc generates stack accesses every 4 KB (memory page size). It first sets R11 register with the address of the beginning of the local table (0x4000000 is 4096x4096xsizeof(int) = 67108864 bytes):

   0x00005594eb946191 <+8>:	lea    -0x4000000(%rsp),%r11

Then, it loops "oring" the content of the stack with 0 every 4096 bytes (0x1000):

   0x00005594eb946199 <+16>:	sub    $0x1000,%rsp
=> 0x00005594eb9461a0 <+23>:	orq    $0x0,(%rsp)
   0x00005594eb9461a5 <+28>:	cmp    %r11,%rsp
   0x00005594eb9461a8 <+31>:	jne    0x5594eb946199 

Hence, the crash because at some point, the orq instruction occurs in the guard page of the stack!

N.B.: The reason for the "apparently useless" generated code is the protection against the Stack Clash class of vulnerabilities as explained in this answer on StackOverflow web site.

Of course, the build of the same source code with some optimization options would not trigger any crash as function() (the thread's entry point) would be empty:

$ gcc p.c -lpthread -O2
$ ./a.out

As a consequence, the optimization option hides a coding bug as the disassembly code of function() shows that it turned into a simple "return":

$ objdump -S a.out
00000000000011f0 <function>:
    11f0:   f3 0f 1e fa             endbr64 
    11f4:   c3                      retq
    11f5:   66 2e 0f 1f 84 00 00    nopw   %cs:0x0(%rax,%rax,1)
    11fc:   00 00 00 
    11ff:   90                      nop
To make the program work in any compilation conditions, the stack of the thread must be increased to contain the local variable (actually, the designer should avoid defining such huge variables in the stack! But this error is the opportunity to study the thread stack layout and protection).
How to set a bigger stack for the thread

As seen above, by default, the GLIBC/pthread library allocates a default stack of 8 MB. But it also provides the ability to set a stack allocated by the user or simply define the stack size with the following steps:

Here is an enhanced version of the program which defines a stack of 65 MB for the thread:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <pthread.h>

void *function(void *arg)
  int picture[4096][4096];    // 4096*4096*sizeof(int) = 67108864 bytes = 64 MB

int main(void)
  pthread_t pids[10];
  pthread_attr_t attr;

  pthread_attr_setstacksize(&attr, 65*1024*1024);  // Stack of 65 MB
  pthread_create(&pids[0], &attr, function, NULL);
  pthread_join(pids[0], NULL);

  return 0;

The build and the execution no longer lead to a crash:

$ gcc thd2.c -lpthread
$ ./a.out

With strace, we can verify the behavior:

$ strace ./a.out
prlimit64(0, RLIMIT_STACK, NULL, {rlim_cur=8192*1024, rlim_max=RLIM64_INFINITY}) = 0
mmap(NULL, 68161536, PROT_NONE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS|MAP_STACK, -1, 0) = 0x7fe55afd3000
mprotect(0x7fe55afd4000, 68157440, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE) = 0
brk(NULL)                               = 0x55b9d7ade000
brk(0x55b9d7aff000)                     = 0x55b9d7aff000
clone(child_stack=0x7fe55f0d2fb0, flags=CLONE_VM|CLONE_FS|CLONE_FILES|CLONE_SIGHAND|CLONE_THREAD|CLONE_SYSVSEM|CLONE_SETTLS|CLONE_PARENT_SETTID|CLONE_CHILD_CLEARTID, parent_tid=[5199], tls=0x7fe55f0d3700, child_tidptr=0x7fe55f0d39d0) = 5199
futex(0x7fe55f0d39d0, FUTEX_WAIT, 5199, NULL) = 0
munmap(0x7fe55afd3000, 68161536)        = 0
exit_group(0)                           = ?
+++ exited with 0 +++

We can see in the above traces:

Hence the new memory space layout:


From a simple program ending into a strange crash, we took the opportunity to study the thread's stack layout in the GLIBC/pthread library as well as the protection mechanism against the stack overflows and the stack size configuration.
However, from a program design point of view, we should never allocate so huge variables in the stack. In the current program, the table should be dynamically allocated or defined globally in Thread Local Storage or as a static variable in the entry point for examples. But it is another story...

About the author

The author is an engineer in computer sciences located in France. He can be contacted here.