“Flash of unstyled base class”

This week I ran into an interesting bug in the unit tests for some multithreaded code. The setup for the test involved a “process status daemon” that (in production) polled some global state once per second, and also provided some auxiliary functions that we wanted to test. The “once per second” code came from an old and widely-used internal helper library. In this retelling, I’ve taken the liberty of updating it for C++20:

class OncePerSecond {
    std::thread t_;
    std::binary_semaphore sem_{0};
    bool stopped_ = false;

    virtual void do_action() { }

    explicit OncePerSecond() {
        t_ = std::thread([this]() {
            do {
            } while (!sem_.try_acquire_for(std::chrono::seconds(1)));
    void stop() {
        if (!std::exchange(stopped_, true)) {
    virtual ~OncePerSecond() { stop(); }

To use this OncePerSecond gadget, you derive from it and override the do_action method to do whatever-it-is that you want to do. For example:

int *production_state;

class StatusDaemon : public OncePerSecond {
    std::map<int, int> config_;
    void do_action() override {
        printf("The global state is %d\n", *production_state);
    int config_size() const { return config_.size(); }

Creating an instance of StatusDaemon kicks off a background thread that prints “The global state is…” every second. (In production, of course, you’d initialize production_state to point to something before you created your StatusDaemon object.) Destroying the StatusDaemon object cleans up its thread.

The segfaulting unit test

Now, one of the GTest unit tests for this component was segfaulting. So I took a look at it:

class NeuteredStatusDaemon : public StatusDaemon {
    void do_action() override { }

TEST(StatusDaemon, config_starts_empty) {
    NeuteredStatusDaemon sd;
    EXPECT_EQ(sd.config_size(), 0);

Maybe one in every 100 or 1000 times, this test segfaults! Do you see the problem?

The diagnosis

The author of this unit test clearly knew that StatusDaemon::do_action() was going to be problematic. That function depends on production_state to be initialized to its production value, which in our case we have not got. So the author added NeuteredStatusDaemon, which is just like StatusDaemon except that its do_action is a no-op.

But gdb shows that the segfault is happening inside StatusDaemon::do_action()! See, even though StatusDaemon’s do_action was overridden, there are still a couple of points where that overridden virtual method is still callable:

  • During construction: while the object under construction is still constructing its StatusDaemon base, but before it’s begun constructing its NeuteredStatusDaemon parts.

  • During destruction: after it’s already destroyed its NeuteredStatusDaemon parts, but before it’s begun destroying its OncePerSecond parts.

Observe that stop is called only from the OncePerSecond destructor. This is a fatal flaw! It means that the worker thread (the one who runs do_action) is not told to stop until after most parts of the NeuteredStatusDaemon have already been destroyed. So, the worker thread may in fact access the vptr of sd during the brief window of time in which sd (dynamically speaking) is no longer a NeuteredStatusDaemon, and is not yet a OncePerSecond, but is — very briefly and fatally — a production StatusDaemon.

Sidebar: OncePerSecond implements do_action as a no-op, so if the worker thread happens to call do_action during the relatively larger window during which sd is (dynamically speaking) a OncePerSecond object, that’s not likely to cause a problem in practice. But it is still a data race on the vptr, and therefore still undefined behavior!

If a method must be overridden in every derived class, make it pure virtual. Don’t violate this guideline just to “fix a segfault”; understand the segfault first!

The bug is easier to reproduce if we make OncePerSecond::do_action pure virtual.

The solution

The solution to our crashing unit test is to make sure that NeuteredStatusDaemon calls stop from its destructor, before starting to destroy its members and bases.

class NeuteredStatusDaemon : public StatusDaemon {
    void do_action() override { }
    ~NeuteredStatusDaemon() override { stop(); }

In fact, we must audit every class derived from OncePerSecond to make sure that the most-derived class’s destructor calls stop. For example, even though our production StatusDaemon generally works in practice, it still has undefined behavior as far as C++ is concerned, because of the data race between ~StatusDaemon()’s write to the vptr and the worker thread’s read from the vptr. We should explicitly define ~StatusDaemon() to call stop, as well.

I have not figured out any clever pattern to enforce “you must always override X in the most-derived class.” Honestly, I suspect that OncePerSecond is simply a bad fit for classical inheritance.

Explain the title please

The UB here is essentially a C++ version of the web-design phenomenon known as “Flash of Unstyled Text” (FOUT). In a FOUT, the browser might start rendering the text of a page (one might say the “base functionality” of the page) before having loaded all the necessary JavaScript and fonts and so on (one might say the “more derived” parts). This might result in a brief window of time during which the base functionality is visible — producing potentially surprising and unintended results for anyone who happens to glance at their screen right then.

Web pages usually care about such a “flash” happening during the web equivalent of construction. The serious problem we observed with NeuteredStatusDaemon surfaced during destruction.

UPDATE, 2020-12-10: Reddit commenter “goranlepuz” points out that our constructor also has UB: the first call to do_action races with the construction of the StatusDaemon parts of the object. This is partly because I oversimplified — our real code uses a separate start method to kick off the thread — but to be honest, (1) I didn’t realize that my rewrite was introducing that extra bug, and (2) it’s not obvious who should be responsible for calling start! Probably the best way to fix our issue in this case is to pull out a start method and then ensure that our unit test does not call it.

Putting it all together

The complete code for this example (including a C++14-friendly rewrite of OncePerSecond) is here.

Compile with -std=c++14 (or -std=c++20 -DUSE_CXX20 if your compiler provides the <semaphore> header already), and -lgtest -lgtest_main plus whatever -I -L options you need for your local install of GTest.

Running with ./a.out --gtest_repeat=-1 should eventually reproduce the segfault — at least it does on my machine!

Posted 2020-12-09