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    Ongoing observations by End Point Dev people

    Debugging obscure Postgres problems with strace

    Greg Sabino Mullane

    By Greg Sabino Mullane
    June 20, 2013

    One of the nice things about being a Postgres consultant is the sheer variety of interesting problems you get to solve. Here’s one that recently popped up, and a walkthrough of how I solved it. One of our clients had this strange error pop up when they were trying to start Postgres:

    FATAL:  too many private dirs demanded

    This is a very rare and esoteric error. A peek at the source code showed that this error only appears in src/backend/storage/file/fd.c, like so:

    DIR *
    AllocateDir(const char *dirname)
        DIR        *dir;
        DO_DB(elog(LOG, "AllocateDir: Allocated %d (%s)",
                   numAllocatedDescs, dirname));
         * The test against MAX_ALLOCATED_DESCS prevents us from overflowing
         * allocatedDescs[]; the test against max_safe_fds prevents AllocateDir
         * from hogging every one of the available FDs, which’d lead to infinite
         * looping.
        if (numAllocatedDescs >= MAX_ALLOCATED_DESCS ||
            numAllocatedDescs >= max_safe_fds - 1)
            elog(ERROR, "too many private dirs demanded");

    So it appeared as if we ran into some sort of safety valve that was meant to bail out before too many directories were opened. A strange error to suddenly have appear (this client’s Postgres worked just fine a few days ago—​luckily, this was not on a production system!).

    The client was using Postgres 8.3. In version 9.1, the source code was changed to give a much less mysterious message, including outputting the name of the troublesome directory in question as a debugging clue:

        if (numAllocatedDescs >= MAX_ALLOCATED_DESCS ||
            numAllocatedDescs >= max_safe_fds - 1)
            elog(ERROR, "exceeded MAX_ALLOCATED_DESCS while trying to open directory \"%s\"",

    However, I had no such clue. What to do? This was definitely a job for the strace program. Its job is to show a trace of all system calls that a process is making. In this way, you can see at a very low level what a particular program is doing. In this case, the program was PostgreSQL, or to be precise, the “postmaster” program.

    While it’s possible to have strace attach to an already running process, that was not possible in this case as Postgres errored out immediately after being invoked. The invocation looked like this:

    pg_ctl start -D /var/lib/pgsql/data -l /tmp/postgres.startup.log

    To run strace, we can simply add “strace” to the start of the command above. However, this will dump the system calls to the screen for the pg_ctl command. We need a few flags to make things easier.

    The first flag is “-f”, which tells strace to follow forked processes. Without this, we would simply strace pg_ctl itself—​and we need to strace the postmaster process instead. As we want to be able to look at the output in an editor, we also add the “-o” flag to send all strace output to an output file. We also take the opportunity to upgrade “-f” to “-ff”, which tells strace to send each forked process to a separate file. Very handy, that. Finally, we add a “-t” flag, which prepends each line with a timestamp. Not strictly needed in this case, but it’s a nice flag to always use. The final command looked like this:

    strace -o gregtest -ff -t pg_ctl start -D /var/lib/pgsql/data -l /tmp/postgres.startup.log

    When I actually ran the command, pg_ctl did not return as before. Examining the created files showed me why:

    -rw-r--r--  1 postgres postgres     8383 Jun  7 13:44 gregtest.26664
    -rw-r--r--  1 postgres postgres     9372 Jun  7 13:44 gregtest.26668
    -rw-r--r--  1 postgres postgres     3191 Jun  7 13:44 gregtest.26667
    -rw-r--r--  1 postgres postgres     3053 Jun  7 13:44 gregtest.26669
    -rw-r--r--  1 postgres postgres    10628 Jun  7 13:44 gregtest.26666
    -rw-r--r--  1 postgres postgres 17311855 Jun  7 13:44 gregtest.26670

    The first PID (26664) is pg_ctl itself, and the rest are the various postgres processes that are created. What we need is the main postmaster one, which is obvious in this case: not only is it the highest PID, but the file size is very large (and growing fast). A peek at the file data/postmaster.pid confirmed that the main postmaster PID is indeed 26670.

    Why did pg_ctl not return, and not give the expected error? The reason is that the strace process adds enough overhead that it takes a lot longer to reach the “too many private dirs demanded” error. As I suspected this error was related to entering an infinite loop of file openings, that delay makes sense.

    Taking a peek at the tail end of the giant strace output gives us the solution right away. Repeating over and over were calls like this:

    19:37:38 open("/usr/share/zoneinfo/zoneinfo/zoneinfo/zoneinfo", 

    The actual call was 16 directories deep, I’m just showing three for brevity! So the problem was definitely with the /usr/share/zoneinfo file. A look at the file system showed that /usr/share/zoneinfo was a directory, which contained a symlink named “zoneinfo” inside of it. Where did that symlink point to?

    lrwxrwxrwx  1 root root    19 Jun  3 05:45 zoneinfo -> /usr/share/zoneinfo

    Whoops! That explains the problem. Postgres was trying to walk through all the subdirectories in the /usr/share/zoneinfo file. Unfortunately, this meant an infinite loop as the zoneinfo symlink kept looping back to the current directory.

    So the solution was to simply remove that faulty symlink. Once that was done, Postgres started without a hitch. Once again, the invaluable strace saves the day.

    postgres sysadmin