For a University assignment for a course called Real-Time Systems we had to implement a prototype for timing analysis by tracing instructions.

The idea is that when executing a program, ptrace controls the execution and stops after each instruction. After this the actual instruction in the memory can be fetched. Knowing which instruction is executed you could associate this with a certain time, add all times together for each instruction and you could dynamically determine how long a program would run: profit!

I made a prototype that can be viewed on GitHub.


ptrace is a tool that can control processes. It is usually used in debuggers, to trace calls, stop at breakpoints, change variables and such.

With PTRACE_SINGLESTEP you can also stop at after each instruction. If you like to know how many instructions are executed when executing your program you can simply add a counter.

int counter = 0;

// the child is finished; wait_val != 1407
while (WIFSTOPPED(wait_val)) {

	// increase instruction counter

	/* Make the child execute another instruction */
	if (ptrace(PTRACE_SINGLESTEP, pid, 0, 0) != 0) {

printf("instructions executed: %d\n", counter);

It’s not only possible to step trough the instructions, once the program is stopped at some instruction, you can read the registers, including the instruction pointer.

The registers are read with ptrace(PTRACE_GETREGS, pid, NULL, &regs). The regs variable is a user_regs_struct. In this struct the rip contains the instruction pointer (for 64 bit, for 32 bit it’s called eip).

Once you know the address of the instruction, why not read the actual data at that address? Sure, why not! That is exactly what PTRACE_PEEKTEXT does. According to man ptrace:

Read a word at the address addr in the tracee’s memory, returning the word as the result of the ptrace() call.

unsigned long data = ptrace(PTRACE_PEEKTEXT, pid, addr, NULL);

Unfortunately the result, something like c3c74880cd, didn’t say me very much. Neither did I want to read through the entire Intel documentation to figure out what it could mean. I needed something like objdump which could disassemble a compiled binary…


After searching the internet and GitHub I found udis86. Udis86 is a disassembler Library for x86 and x86-64. With the help of some examples over the internet I ended up with something like:

int disas(int pid, unsigned long addr)
	ud_t ud_obj;
	unsigned char buff[4];

	if (read_data(pid, addr, buff) == -1) {
		printf("(Can't read)\n");
		return -1;

	ud_set_input_buffer(&ud_obj, buff, 32);
	ud_set_mode(&ud_obj, 64);
	ud_set_syntax(&ud_obj, UD_SYN_INTEL);

	// ud_disassemble fills the ud_obj struct with data
	if (ud_disassemble(&ud_obj) != 0) {
		printf("%016lx %-20s %s\n", addr,
		       ud_insn_hex(&ud_obj), ud_insn_asm(&ud_obj));

	return (int)ud_insn_len(&ud_obj);

With the code above the instructions are printed, which is pretty nice. If we compile and disassemble the following assembly:

section .text
    global _start

   mov     rdx,len
   mov     rcx,msg
   mov     rbx,1
   mov     rax,4
   int     0x80
   mov     rbx,0
   mov     rax,1
   int     0x80

section .data
msg     db      "Hello, world!",0xa
len     equ     $ - msg

We get the following output already:

00000000004000b0 48ba0e00000000009c66 mov rdx, 0x669c00000000000e
00000000004000ba 48c7c1e4006000       mov rcx, 0x6000e4
00000000004000c1 48c7c301000000       mov rbx, 0x1
00000000004000c8 48c7c004000000       mov rax, 0x4
00000000004000cf cd80                 int 0x80
Hello, world!
00000000004000d1 48c7c300000000       mov rbx, 0x0
00000000004000d8 48c7c001000000       mov rax, 0x1
00000000004000df cd80                 int 0x80

Our final goal however was to know the execution time of the program. Inspecting the ud_t struct we find that it has a mnemonic field. This is the perfect candidate to be used in a simple case statement, because all possible values are constants like UD_Imov.

For the hello world assembly code, which has only mov and int instructions the following code is already enough:

int unsigned lookup_instruction_time(ud_mnemonic_code_t mnemonic)
	// See itab.h for all different types of instruction mnemonic constants
	switch (mnemonic) {
	case UD_Imov:		// mov
		return 1;
	case UD_Iint:		// int
		return 2;
		return 0;


Of course the values are just made up, because you’d have to correctly measure or look into the documentation how long the instruction would take.


I think this quite cool that it’s possible. It is a combination of dynamic and static execution time analysis. If you want to know the Worst Case Execution Time (WCET), static analysis is always more than the actual WCET and dynamic is always less. This combination would thus maybe be more or less the correct value.

Unfortunately it’s probably not as straightforward with modern hardware to exactly determine the execution time. Modern hardware has many features (e.g. piping and caching) to improve the Average Execution Time. This is what 99% of the users want. In case you’re doing such an analysis you are probably not only interested in the average, but more in the boundaries: the worst or best cases.

If the program contains enough instructions, it’s probably possible to say something but you can’t prove it. When you’re building a hard real-time system that might be necessary though.