Valgrind is a very useful tool for working with Rust.

This may surprise you. Why would a tool for detecting memory errors be useful with a memory safe language? Two reasons:

  • Valgrind is much more than a tool for detecting memory errors, and
  • Rust is not entirely memory safe.

Valgrind: more than a memory error detector

Valgrind is best known for detecting memory errors in programs written in C and C++. But it’s more than that. It’s actually a generic framework for building dynamic binary analysis tools, i.e. tools that analyze (“analysis”) your code at runtime (“dynamic”) at the level of compiled code (“binary”).

The most widely used Valgrind tool is called Memcheck. It’s the tool that detects memory errors, and it runs by default. So it’s understandable that many people say “Valgrind” when they really mean “Memcheck”. Also, in the early days, Valgrind wasn’t a generic framework, and Memcheck’s functionality was hardwired in.

Other tools that come with Valgrind include the profilers Cachegrind and Callgrind, the heap profilers DHAT and Massif, and the thread error detectors Helgrind and DRD. You can run them with Valgrind’s --tool option.

Rust: not entirely memory safe

Rust is famous for its memory safety… assuming you avoid unsafe. A lot of the time this is possible, but in certain cases using unsafe is unavoidable.

This isn’t a bad thing, though, and it’s worth remembering while a small percentage of Rust code has to be unsafe, in C and C++ programs every line of code is effectively unsafe.

Rust and Valgrind

The Valgrind tools can be divided into two main categories: the profiling tools, and the checking tools.

The profiling tools are useful for any Rust programs. I use Cachegrind and DHAT frequently, Callgrind moderately often, and Massif very occasionally.

The checking tools are potentially useful in the following cases.

  • When writing unsafe code that does low-level unsafe operations. For example, I was recently experimenting with a Vec-like structure and I used Memcheck to diagnose multiple crashes along the way.

  • When writing unsafe code due to the use of FFI. For example, if a Rust program uses a library written in C.

  • When you haven’t written any unsafe code, but you don’t entirely trust some third-party crates that you are using. (Or even the standard library!)

  • [Update] Detecting memory leaks. These aren’t common in Rust, but are possible (e.g. due to cycles in reference counted types) even in safe code. They’re not considered unsafe because they can’t result in dangerous crashes or security vulnerabilities.

Memcheck works well in these cases. Helgrind and DRD may also be useful, though I don’t have any personal experience using them this way.

Minor issues

There are currently some minor issues with using Valgrind on Rust code that could affect a small fraction of use cases.

Missing inline stack frames

Valgrind 3.18 has a bug in its handling of debug info that causes inline frames to be ignored in Rust stack traces, which reduces the quality of stack traces. This mostly affects DHAT and Massif, which rely heavily on stack frames, and also Memcheck to some extent. This bug was fixed by Mark Wielaard in November. Valgrind 3.17 and earlier versions don’t have this bug.

Incomplete v0 symbol demangling

Rust has two symbol mangling schemes. The old “legacy” scheme is the default in Rust 1.57. The new “v0” scheme, which is turned on with the -Z symbol-mangling-version=v0 option, will become the default at some point. The v0 scheme is already used for symbols within rustc itself, and so the following issues are relevant for rustc developers.

Support for v0 mangling was added to Valgrind 3.18, but unfortunately it wasn’t tested properly and a silly bug meant that the relevant code path isn’t reached. I fixed this in November.

Even with that fix, a small fraction of v0 symbols still aren’t demangled because the demangling code can’t handle suffixes that LLVM adds to some symbols. Mark Wielaard has made progress towards handling these.

Building Valgrind from source

If any of the above issues affect you, you might benefit from building Valgrind from source, particularly given that Valgrind releases occur fairly infrequently.