Finding C reference leaks using the gc module

A while back I got a defect assigned to me complaining that clicking a button on our server backend web pages caused the server to freeze.  The link was on our “python” page, containing various tools and information on the python interpreter embedded in EVE.  The link itself was, interestingly enough, called “Leaky C++”.

Looking at the source code I saw code similar to this:

import gc
def get_leaking_objects_naive():
    all = gc.get_objects()
    result = []
    find = [all]
    for i in xrange(len(all)):
        if gc.get_referrers(all[i]) == find:
    return result

The idea is to find all objects that do not appear to be referenced by any other object and produce a report on those objects.  The problem with this code is, however, that it is O(N^2).   When there are sufficient objects in the system, this code takes forever to run.

I disabled this code and thought nothing more of it.  But recently, it occurred to me that the idea might not be too bad and whether there might be a better way to do this.  It turns out there is.  Instead of finding the referrers in this manner, we use another gc method, gc.get_referents() that returns objects immediately referred to by an object.  This is an O(1) operation and by repeately using it and eliminating objects that are such targets we can weed out everything that has referrers.  We then  end up with the list of objects that have no referrers, in one fell O(N) swoop:

def get_leaking_objects():
    #create a dict of ids to objects
    all = dict((id(i), i) for i in gc.get_objects())

    #find all the objects that aren't referred to by any other object
    ids = set(all.keys())
    for i in all.values():
        ids.difference_update(id(j) for j in gc.get_referents(i))

    #this then is our set of objects without referrers
    return [all[i] for i in ids]

This turns out to work surprisingly well.   Combined with a object hierarchy browser, this allows us to find suspicious objects, identify them and thus home in on the C code that may be causing trouble.

There is a caveat to this, and it is that gc.get_objects() and gc.get_referents() are documented to only return objects that can be part of a reference cycle.  So your leaking strings and integers won’t show up using this tool.


I just made two improvements to the code.

  1. It is faster and uses less memory to skip creating a dict out of the objects.
  2. We must make sure not to leave cyclic references lying about.  the “all” variable contains the current function frame so unless we clear it, the frame and its contents (including “all”) isn’t released immediately.
def get_leaking_objects2():
    all = gc.get_objects()
        ids = set(id(i) for i in all)
        for i in all:
            ids.difference_update(id(j) for j in gc.get_referents(i))
        #this then is our set of objects without referrers
        return [i for i in all if id(i) in ids]
        all = i = j = None #clear cyclic references to frame

Winsock timeout / closesocket()

I was working on StacklessIO for Stackless Python. When running the test_socket unittest, I came across a single failure: The testInsideTimeout would fail, with the server receiving a ECONNRESET when trying to write its “done!” string.

Normally this shouldn’t happen. Because even though the client has closed the connection, a RST packet is only sent in response to the send() call, so at the time of calling send all appears well and the call should succeed.

Investigating this further, it turned out to be due to the way I’m implementing timeout.

StacklessIO uses Winsock overlapped IO.  A request is issued and then when it is finished a thread waiting on a IOCompletion port will wake up and cause the waiting tasklet to be resumed.  To time out, for example, a recv() call, I schedule a Windows timer as well.  If it fires before the request is done, the tasklet is woken up with a timeout error.  There appears to be no way in the API to cancel a pending IO request, so at this point, the IO is still pending.

Anyway, this all is well and good, but where does the RST come from then?  Well, when the timeout occurs, the tasklet wakes up and the socket is closed.  And calling closesocket() on a connection with pending IO has at least two effects, only one of which is documented:

  1. All pending IO is canceled with the WSA_OPERATION_ABORTED error.
  2. A RST is sent to the remote party

I’ve never seen the latter behaviour documented.  But apparently then, calling closesocket() when IO is pending is equivalent to an abortive close().

I’m not sure if this is significant.  If a socket call times out, the usual recommendation is to close the connection anyway since the connection may be in an undefined state due to race conditions.  But it is a bit annoying all the same.

Using an isolated python.exe

Executive Summary:

If you want to completely control the sys.path of your copy of python.exe, do the following:

  1. Create a next to it that contains nothing but the line “import sitecustomize”
  2. place a next to it, that rewrites sys.path to your liking
  3. run your python.exe, somewhat safe in the knowledge that it won’t be affected by any other python installed on the system.

The Long Explanation:

The problem

At CCP we work with many branches of many games.  All of these games use Python to some extent.  Each branch comes complete with its own python source tree, where local patches are added to Python and which may be of different python versions.  Each branch then builds its own python2x.dll and a python.exe, in addition, perhaps, to static versions of the python core for inclusion into a game executable.

What is more, each of these branches contains a plethora of offline tools.  These may be build scripts, test scripts and so on, and most of them are written in Python.  For general harmony, of course, this python version must be the same version as the one used in the game, that is, the offline tools used in a branch should use a Python version local to that branch.  This is where things become messy.

I’ve often vented my frustration to my colleagues about how “install oriented” Python appears to be.  For embedding, until recently there wasn’t even a way for a host application to completely control Python’s sys.path.  Python.exe will, when executed, go through a series of magic moves to guess an initial sys.path.  After this it will, unless instructed not to, try to import which continues with the magic path munging process.

There is one alternative behaviour built into Python (yes, built in.)  If Python upon initialization detects that it is being run from something that looks like a build folder structure, it will initialize sys.path locally to that structure.  Otherwise, it will go ahead and set sys.path to what it thinks is the system wide sensible locations before importing

This then, is how python.exe is designed.  Either it is being built and then can live in a local, isolated, setting, or it is installed and uses machine global information for its environment.

For our branch specific tools, it was important to override this behaviour.  A buildstuff.cmd batch file in /games/foo/tools ought to be able to call ../bin/python.exe and have that particular copy of python.exe set up sys.path to, say, ../src/python27/Lib.  Further, this needs to happen without the kludgy help of environment variables or, dear I say it, registry settings.  These are a nightmare to manage in a distributed environment with gazillion developer machines, build bots, and so on.

Fortunately, there is something called  The documentation specifies that after is imported, python will try to “import sitecustomize” and this can be used to do local path adjustments.

The initial approach

When we started doing this in earnest we were using Python 2.6 both as an installed “tool” on developer machines and as the Python version in use for that particular branch.  We found that by copying python.exe out of the PCBuild build folder into a game/foo/bin folder, and placing a next to it, we could fully control sys.path the way we wanted.  The our would look something like this:

import sys
localdir = "/".join(__file__.split('\')[:-1])
root = localdir + "/../"
python = root + "src/python/python27/"
sys.path = [python+"PCBuild", python+"Lib", root + "modules"]

This works because python.exe’s directory is put in sys.path by Python built-in startup magic!  Of course, there is no reliable way to find it from the .py file, so the trick with __file__ is used.  Also, we can’t use os.path for our path manipulation since we really don’t want to import it.  Who knows what side effect is may have, importing stuff from the “default” sys.path.  But it is was good enough for our purposes.  For a while.

Switching to Python 2.7

Then we moved one branch to use Python 2.7.  Python was recompiled, and python.exe put in the bin folder as before, but suddenly, some machines (particularly the build machines) started failing.  The python tools complained that site could not be imported.

On investigation it turned out that previously all machines using this scheme had, by a happy coincidence, had Python 2.6 installed on them, and our local python.exe had been importing from c:Python26Lib.  Now, python was looking for in, among other places, c:Python27Lib (one of the magic path entries set up by python.exe and which it is impossible to override.)

To fix this, I placed an empty next to and python.exe in the bin folder, hoping that would work.  Indeed, the build machines now succeeded in finding a, but now wasn’t being run.

It wasn’t until I actually looked at pythonrun.c that I realized that is being imported and executed by the in python’s standard library!.  So, it is’s responsibility to call (and something called that I had previously not known about.)

The solution then:  Instead of an empty, have a containing this code:

import sitecustomize
del sitecustomize


So, we have found that to have an isolated python.exe for which you control it’s sys.path absolutely with no external influences, you need a to override your sys.path.  But for that to run, you must provide your own, in case a system-wide isn’t found.

It is annoying that if a system-wide is found, than this is run.  There, already, you have lost some control over your python.exe.  Who knows what a malicious system administrator may do in such a file?  So even with our approach, there is no absolute control.

It’s also annoying that you need two files to accomplish this task.  It would be nice if python.exe could be instructed to not do any automatic path guessing and just take its initial sys.path from a startup file.  The fact that python.exe has a built-in mechanism to set a different initial sys.path if it detects that it is being run out of a build folder, indicates that someone sometime recognized the need for this, but only took it half the way.

My suggestion would be this:  If a (or site.pyc) is found in an initial place, e.g. next to the executable, then set the initial sys.path to only that place and skip all other magic.

This could then be used to great effect in the build system.  Instead of building into python.exe a separate folder structure for built environments, just create a in the PCBuild directory (or the equivalent platform place) and set it up there.  Similarly, a could be put in place in c:Python27bin and the entire ugly logic of initial path setting could be removed from python.exe.

As a side note, I have always thought that the initial path-guessing should be a feature of python.exe and not python27.dll as such.  python.exe should, in my opinion, call something like Py_Guess_Path() before calling Py_Initialize(), since it is a very specific behaviour of that particular embedding application.

selectmodule on PS3

As part of a game that we are developing on the Sony PS3, we are porting Stackless Python 2.7 to run on it.  What would be more natural?

Python is to do what it does best, act as a supervising puppetmaster, running high-level logic that you don’t want to code using something primitive such as C++.

While there are many issues that we have come across and addressed (most are minor), I’m just going to mention a particular issue with sockets.

An important role of Python will be to manage network connection using sockets.  We are using the Stacklesssocket module with Stackless Python do do this.  For this to work, we need not only the socketmodule but also the selectmodule.

The PS3 networking api is mostly BSD compliant with a few quirks.  Porting these modules to use it is mostly a straightforward affair of providing #defines for some API calls that have different names, dealing with APIs that are missing (return NotImplementedError and such) and mapping error values to something sensible.  For the most part, it behaves exactly as you would expect.

We ran into one error though, prompting me to write special handling code for select() and poll().  the Sony implementation of these functions not only returns with an error if they themselves fail (which would be serious) but they also indicate a error return if a socket error is pending on one of the sockets.  For example, if a socket receives a ECONNRESET, while you are waiting for data to arrive, select() will return with an ECONNRESET error indicator.  Not what you would expect.

The workaround is to simply filter the error values from select() and poll() and ignore the unexpected socket errors.  Rather, such a return must be considered a successful select()/poll() and for the latter function, ‘n’, the number of valid file descriptors, having been set as -1, must be recreated by walking the list of file descriptors.

Embedding Python and sys.path

When embedding a Python interpreter in another application, such as a game, a tricky parts is to get it to start up and find the right modules.  You typically want Python to:

  • Find your version of the standard library
  • Find your application modules
  • Not be confused by any other Python system that may be installed on the machine.

The application has absolute knowledge of the location of the python modules.  It has been installed in a known location and it knows where its resources are.

Unfortunately, Python often appears to be designed for the specific needs of python.exe, the “canonical embedding application”.  When one calls Py_Initialize(), a number of magic steps are invoked whereby the Python runtime tries to guess the initial setting for sys.path.  This may involve finding the program location, looking at the PYTHONPATH environment variable, and so on.  When Py_Initialize() returns, it may be too late to modify sys.path because in the mean time, module imports could have occured, such as that of copy_reg.

I have found that circumventing this involves patching pythoncore itself.  What we do in EVE before calling Py_Initialize() is to call a custom API, Py_SetPath() with an application-crafted semicolon-separated path string.  This will turn off any path-guessing in pythoncore and gives us absolute control.

Before we started doing this, for example, we could not encourage developers to have Python installed on their workstations, for example.  We would invariably run into conflicts where the embedded python picked up modules from the installed python and mysterious things would happen.  Now there is no need, and the embedded Python and the installed Python can coexsist without conflict.

I’ve recently contributed this patch to