Logs pexels photo

Arrgggh. Ever come across this in your Ruby app?

SystemStackError: stack level too deep
    /Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/options.rb:204

A SystemStackError occurs when your Ruby code encounters a stack overflow; in other words, the memory allocated to execute the program exceeded the memory available on the stack.

The most common cause of a stack overflow in application code that recursively calls itself without terminating arguments: an infinite loop in your code.

You can reproduce such an error with code like this in a terminal:

$ pry --noprompt
def foo
  foo
end
=> :foo
foo
SystemStackError: stack level too deep
from /Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/pry-0.10.3/lib/pry/pry_instance.rb:355

Note: for the examples in this post, assume I'm using Ruby 2.1 unless otherwise indicated.

$ ruby -v
ruby 2.1.6p336 (2015-04-13 revision 50298) [x86_64-darwin14.0]

Prior to Ruby 2.2 and this issue, the backtrace for SystemStackError was reduced to one line. That meant, unless that one line lead you to an obvious culprit in your source code, it would be very difficult to unravel the method calls causing the stack to overflow.

So, first step in debugging the SystemStackError is upgrade to Ruby 2.2!

In case that's not possible, there's still hope. Let's try using information from the error first. Here's the method containing the line in the backtrace:

# lib/montrose/options.rb:204

def map_arg(arg, &block)
  return nil unless arg

  Array(arg).map(&block)    # line 204
end

No obvious culprit. This method doesn't call itself and there are multiple callers of this method in this class.

Let's try rescuing from the error in a test and printing the execution stack using Kernel.caller. I can isolate the application code that produces the stack overflow in a single test and rescue there.

it "a test" do
  # given

  begin
    # when
  rescue SystemStackError
    puts caller
  end

  # then
end

Here's what I get:

$ bin/m spec/rfc_spec.rb:426
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/spec/rfc_spec.rb:434:in `block (2 levels) in <top (required)>'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:108:in `block (3 levels) in run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:205:in `capture_exceptions'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:105:in `block (2 levels) in run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:256:in `time_it'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:104:in `block in run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:334:in `on_signal'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:276:in `with_info_handler'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest/test.rb:103:in `run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:781:in `run_one_method'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:308:in `run_one_method'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:296:in `block (2 levels) in run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:295:in `each'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:295:in `block in run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:334:in `on_signal'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:321:in `with_info_handler'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:294:in `run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:155:in `block in __run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:155:in `map'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:155:in `__run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/minitest-5.8.3/lib/minitest.rb:129:in `run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/m-1.4.2/lib/m/runners/minitest_5.rb:9:in `run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/m-1.4.2/lib/m/executor.rb:26:in `execute'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/m-1.4.2/lib/m/runner.rb:17:in `run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/m-1.4.2/lib/m.rb:13:in `run'
/Users/ross/.gem/ruby/2.1.6/gems/m-1.4.2/bin/m:4:in `<top (required)>'
bin/m:16:in `load'
bin/m:16:in `<main>'

The backtrace points to lines in minitest. Since I've been running tests prior to this isssue successfully, it's unlikely minitest is the source of the stack overflow error. So rescuing from SytemStackError doesn't help us either.

Luckily, we have this gist from @jbgo who highlighted a special feature in Ruby for tracing function events: Kernel.set_trace_func.

Here's the example from the docs:

class Test
  def test
    a = 1
    b = 2
  end
end

set_trace_func proc { |event, file, line, id, binding, classname|
  printf "%8s %s:%-2d %10s %8s\n", event, file, line, id, classname
}
t = Test.new
t.test

    line prog.rb:11               false
  c-call prog.rb:11        new    Class
  c-call prog.rb:11 initialize   Object
c-return prog.rb:11 initialize   Object
c-return prog.rb:11        new    Class
    line prog.rb:12               false
    call prog.rb:2        test     Test
    line prog.rb:3        test     Test
    line prog.rb:4        test     Test
  return prog.rb:4        test     Test

The method set_trace_func sets a global proc to be invoked in response to runtime events including the following:

  • c-call a C-language routine
  • c-return return from a C-language routine
  • call a Ruby method
  • class start a class or module definition
  • end finish a class or module definition
  • line execute code on a new line
  • raise raise an exception
  • return return from a Ruby method

Since we want to isolate the Ruby method causing the infinite loop in our stack, we'll log the line info for call events:

# spec/spec_helper.rb

$trace_out = open("trace.txt")

set_trace_func proc { |event, file, line, id, binding, classname|
  if event == 'call'
    $trace_out.puts "#{file}:#{line} #{classname}##{id}"
  end
}

Re-running the test produces a trace.txt file that records all the Ruby method calls encountered during execution. Inspecting this log, we hope to find a repeating pattern of an identical list of method calls.

In my case, the start of each pattern pointed to another line in my source where the stack originates:

/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/stack.rb:38 Montrose::Stack#advance
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/frequency/yearly.rb:4 Montrose::Frequency::Yearly#include?
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/frequency.rb:51 Montrose::Frequency#matches_interval?
...
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/stack.rb:38 Montrose::Stack#advance
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/frequency/yearly.rb:4 Montrose::Frequency::Yearly#include?
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/frequency.rb:51 Montrose::Frequency#matches_interval?
...
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/stack.rb:38 Montrose::Stack#advance
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/frequency/yearly.rb:4 Montrose::Frequency::Yearly#include?
/Users/ross/dev/rossta/montrose/lib/montrose/frequency.rb:51 Montrose::Frequency#matches_interval?
...

A useful trick is to keep the trace routine in a separate file that you can incorporate with an environment variable. You can also leverage Kernel.caller here and only log when the stack exceeds an arbitrarily large size.

# spec/support/trace.rb

if ENV["TRACE"]
  $stack_size = ENV["TRACE"].to_i
  $trace_out = open("trace.txt")

  set_trace_func proc { |event, file, line, id, binding, classname|
    if event == 'call' && caller.length > $stack_size
      $trace_out.puts "#{file}:#{line} #{classname}##{id}"
    end
  }
end

In my Montrose gem, this file gets loaded during every test run but the set_trace_func hook will only be evaluated when the TRACE environment variable is present:

$ TRACE=500 bin/m spec/montrose/recurrence_spec.rb

Again, you won't need to resort to this workaround for SystemStackError in Ruby 2.2+, but keep this in mind next time you get stuck "in the loop".


Did you like this post? Do me a favor: share it on Twitter, follow me - @rossta, and sign up for my newsletter. Thanks!

Published on Jan 12, 2016