Reverse Engineering Graphviz's Architecture by Profiling

Reverse Engineering Graphviz's Architecture by Profiling

This post shows how to reverse engineer the high-level architecture of a Linux application by profiling it to find the high-level components taking up the program's execution time, and the common call-graphs through the app.

In my previous "Profiler UI Roundup" post, I showed a variety of Profiler UIs, settling on Firefox Profiler as my favourite. In this post we will apply Firefox Profiler to analyse a real-world binary.

Lately, I've been working on improving Graphviz's docs, but I don't really have a good idea of Graphviz's high-level architecture, where it spends time, and how it ticks. I hoped that profiling Graphviz might yield some insights and understanding.

In this example I'm profiling an old version of Graphviz – v2.43.0, because that's what I have pre-installed on my Ubuntu Focal machine. This should be good enough for figuring out Graphviz's high-level architecture, because it hasn't changed much lately.

My First Profiling Attempt

Record at 4000Hz -F 4000, with stack frames -g, outputting to, running Graphviz dot on the "Ninja build system" example:

$ sudo perf record -F 4000 -g -o dot -Tsvg

Then convert the output, filtering to only processes with command-line equal to dot (to get rid of perf profiling itself), outputting to a txt file with PIDs as per the instructions for importing perf profiles into Firefox Profiler:

$ sudo perf script --comms=dot -F +pid -i > perf_ninja.txt

The sudo is a bit naughty; I shouldn't really need to run Graphviz as root, but I need to run perf with elevated permissions. It's a little risky running an C program like Graphviz as root, but I couldn't be bothered dropping permissions, and I trust the input. Oh well.

This profile output had a lot of [unknown] stack frames with no function names, but the frames did give a clue, pointing to which shared libraries they came from:

The shared libraries that couldn't resolve function names in the profile

Installing Debug Symbols

I could resolve many of these by installing "debug symbols", which is fairly straightforward on Ubuntu. To find the symbol package, I Googled for [library name Ubuntu package],then suffixed the package name with -dbgsym:

sudo apt install \
  graphviz-dbgsym \
  libpango-1.0-0-dbgsym \
  libexpat1-dbgsym \
  libpangoft2-1.0-0-dbgsym \
  libgvc6-dbgsym \
Thanks to Ubuntu packagers for making it so simple to install debug symbols!

After installing symbols, the profile started showing function names for many libraries. But I still had the 'root' of the stack having a lot of [unknown] symbols:

Working around lack of Frame Pointers

I suspected, from reading Brendan Gregg's perf examples, that the Graphviz binary was compiled with -fomit-frame-pointer, which ruins stack trace reconstruction by overwriting the "frame pointer" register used by stack unwinding, by using the frame pointer register as another general-purpose register. This optimisation is commonly used by -O2 optimisations in C compilers (see GCC Manual).

To track down the C Compiler flags used, I found the package on Ubuntu Launchpad (kind of like Ubuntu's GitHub – where all their source lives): Clicking the package for Ubuntu "Focal Fossa" gives me the build for my OS, and you can click through the amd64 build to get the build logs.

The build logs indeed seem to be setting -O2 with GCC:

CFLAGS=-g -O2 -fdebug-prefix-map=/<<PKGBUILDDIR>>=. -fstack-protector-strong -Wformat -Werror=format-security

And there is no mention of -fno-omit-frame-pointer, so I think frame pointers are gone in this binary.

Brendan Gregg's perf examples page recommends trying a workaround if there are no frame pointers: using perf record --call-graph dwarf, to unwind the stack using DWARF debugging information. I don't really know what this means, but let's try it:

$ sudo perf record -F 4000 -g --call-graph dwarf -o dot -Tsvg
$ sudo perf script --comms=dot -F +pid -i > perf_ninja.txt

This worked! We now see detailed function names:

Firefox Profiler open to Call Tree view, showing main calling gvLayoutJobs calling dot_layout (instead of "unknown" for every frame).
main calls gvLayoutJobs calls dot_layout... it worked! Open in Firefox Profiler

Interpreting the Profile

Open the output yourself in Firefox Profiler: and you can play along.

Let's see what we can learn from Graphviz's architecture from this profile:

Open in Firefox Profiler

Let's look at some of the top-level "towers" in this Flame Graph:

2ms in _dl_start

This is loading dynamic libraries, I think:

Open in Firefox Profiler

I think this is just a normal thing that C programs do on systems like Ubuntu that ship with a lot of dynamic libraries? Anyway, it's not that interesting.

6ms in gvContextPlugins

This is also loading dynamic libraries, but here I think the libraries are Graphviz output formats, perhaps?

Open in Firefox Profiler

2ms in aagparse

Open in Firefox Profiler

I think this is parsing the dot language input? I see lexing, and a bunch of [unknown] frames, so I suppose my stack unwinding isn't perfect.

12ms in _FcConfigParse

I think this is loading "Font Configs". Right-click and "Focus on Function" zooms in:

Open in Firefox Profiler

Most of the time is spent in XML_ParseBuffer, which surprisingly (to me) calls prologProcessor, in libexpat. At first I thought this might be the PROLOG logic language (that would be fun), but it's probably just the XML "Prologue".

3ms in get_font_mapping

This seems to be doing something to do with fonts, and there's some caching of fonts happening – see the big FcDirCacheRead block.

Open in Firefox Profiler

7ms in pango_textlayout

Pango is a library for rendering text. Even though I'm using SVG output, which doesn't really render text to pixels, I assume Graphviz here is measuring the text for layout?

The root of the stack here is [unknown] which is a little frustrating; I'd love to know what function is calling this.

Open in Firefox Profiler

There are some tall [unknown] towers, which hovering shows as "libfreetype" which I didn't bother installing debugging symbols for.

14ms in gvLayoutJobs

This is the real 'business logic' of Graphviz: laying out a graph, with nodes and edges, on a 2D space. We see:

Open in Firefox Profiler
  • several tall dfs towers (recursive depth-first searches). Maybe it's worth turning these into iteration; we might blow the stack on arbitrary graphs
  • rerank and inter_tree_edge_search also look like recursive algorithms
  • A few unknown symbols in libcdt which show as ... I should probably install debugging symbols for
  • The mincross and _routesplines algorithms look important – perhaps this layout is trying to minimise crossing lines.

11ms in gvRenderJobs

Once layout has finished, it's up to the output format plugin (in this case, SVG) to render the nodes and edges:

Open in Firefox Profiler

Here we see:

  • Generic methods like emit_edge and emit_node calling output-format-specific methods like svg_bezier, svg_polygon, and svg_textspan. This gives a clue to the structure of Graphviz's output format plugin architecture.
  • A lot of time spent in _IO methods, which top out at write syscalls. This shouldn't be surprising, I suppose – this is writing to the filesystem. Although perhaps there are some buffering opportunities to reduce time in these syscalls?
  • The SVG output plugin leans heavily on snprintf.

Conclusions / Further Work

Reading a profile that shows you the important "hot" areas of the code can be a lot easier than figuring it out by reading the code.

You could use this technique to learn the high-level architecture of any native app, not just Graphviz, as long as you can install debug symbols.

This was a fairly short profile, taking only about 78ms. A more complex input example would allow the sampling profiler to sample more of the methods, giving a better overview. But at 4000Hz we still got a 312 samples and enough to get an idea of the app architecture.

The Firefox Profiler has wide applicability for profiling many apps, not just Firefox.

Mark Hansen

Mark Hansen

I'm a Software Engineering Manager working on Google Maps in Sydney, Australia. I write about software {engineering, management, profiling}, data visualisation, and transport.
Sydney, Australia