Pocket article: Undefined Behavior Sanitizer Trap on Error

This post is a brief overview on how the Undefined Behavior Sanitizer can be used to trap unintentional or error prone parts of a C program. We’re going to look at how it’s used on a desktop program, as well as a way to use it in small embedded programs!

The Undefined Behavior Sanitizer

Undefined Behavior Sanitizer (UBSan) is part of a set of tools that perform runtime checks on C family software. You can read more here:



The other sanitizers in the family include AddressSanitizer, LeakSanitizer, and others.

Note: AddressSanitizer is a very powerful tool for detecting memory out-of-bounds errors, and I highly recommend enabling it in your unit tests. It is worthy of a dedicated post so we won’t go into too much detail here, other than it needs to be carefully integrated with the host platform- it works best on Linux (though it is available on some other platforms)

UBSan can catch several types of undefined behavior, for example:

  • array bounds checking
  • integer / floating point overflows (note that these are undefined per the C spec, but are usually deterministic for a particular compiler + arch + lib… however, changing optimization level might change how the UB is expressed!)
  • alignment when dereferencing; it’s possible to trick a compiler when dereferencing type-punned objects and in other scenarios, this traps those operations, though they may also end up in fault handler anyway depending on your architecture
  • loading an out-of-range enum

Basic Usage

To enable UBSan, add this flag during compilation and linking:


You may notice that enabling this flag increases the size of the compiled program. This is due to the runtime checks inserted by the compiler, which also will increase execution time. For this small example program, running the size program shows a ~50% increase with -fsanitize-undefined!

❯ size ubsan-basic-noubsan ubsan-basic
   text    data     bss     dec     hex filename
   1894     616       8    2518     9d6 ubsan-basic-noubsan
   2874     944       8    3826     ef2 ubsan-basic


Consider the small C program below:

// ubsan-basic.c

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv) {

  const char *arr[] = {

  // sketchy code below- argv may not have a second entry! could easily have an
  // out-of-bounds access in arr!
  int foo = atoi(argv[1]);
  printf("foo is %s\n", arr[foo]);

  return 0;

Without UBsan

Building that program normally:

❯ gcc ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic

And running with problematic input:

❯ ./ubsan-basic 2
foo is

We get a weird result! we’ve indexed into the arr array at an out-of-bounds position (2), but the program happily fetched that memory location and tried to print it as a string 😬.

This type of bug is very popular over at https://cve.mitre.org/ 😔

With UBsan

Building the same program with UBSan:

❯ gcc -fsanitize=undefined ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic

We can see that the runtime was linked in:

❯ ldd ubsan-basic
        linux-vdso.so.1 (0x00007ffcccdfd000)

        # libubsan below
        libubsan.so.1 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libubsan.so.1 (0x00007f22c0cb5000)

        libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007f22c0ac9000)
        libdl.so.2 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libdl.so.2 (0x00007f22c0ac2000)
        libpthread.so.0 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libpthread.so.0 (0x00007f22c0aa0000)
        libstdc++.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libstdc++.so.6 (0x00007f22c0887000)
        libgcc_s.so.1 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libgcc_s.so.1 (0x00007f22c086a000)
        /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f22c163f000)
        libm.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libm.so.6 (0x00007f22c071c000)

If we run that program with problematic input, UBSan prints a warning, and the printf was modifed to print a (null) value instead of the possibly problematic fetch.


If it’s preferrable to have the program crash instead, use the -fno-sanitize-recover=all to disable the error recovery functionality and immediately crash (exit with non-zero exit code) on errors:

❯ gcc -fsanitize=undefined -fno-sanitize-recover=all ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic


See details on sanitize-recover here:


libubsan library and -fsanitize-undefined-trap-on-error

For hosted platforms (eg Linux, BSD’s, macOS, Windows), there’s usually a libubsan library installed with your toolchain. On my system it’s here:

❯ ldconfig -p | grep libubsan
        libubsan.so.1 (libc6,x86-64) => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libubsan.so.1

We saw above that it’s linked into our executable, so we end up depending on it at runtime; on unhosted platforms (eg, embedded bare metal, or RTOS’s) it may not exist! Luckily, both GCC and Clang support this flag:


Which will instead insert an undefined instruction (on armv7-m, udf) on errors. Let’s see how that works:

❯ gcc -fsanitize=undefined -fsanitize-undefined-trap-on-error ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic
❯ ldd ubsan-basic
        linux-vdso.so.1 (0x00007ffc6c110000)
        libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007f62c4b00000)
        /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f62c4d04000)

# running with problematic input results in a crash!
❯ ./ubsan-basic 2
[1]    529554 illegal hardware instruction (core dumped)  ./ubsan-basic 2

As seen above, the undefined instruction trap should cause your program to crash in a noticeable way (eg, on Cortex-M processors, you end up in a UsageFault, and the UNDEFINSTR bit will be set in the UFSR register). You can use this to instrument/detect the cases of undefined behavior, and FIX them 🤩!

Compiling with this flag also reduces the output binary somewhat, here’s a comparison for our test program:

# compile without ubsan
❯ gcc ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic-noubsan
# compile with normal ubsan
❯ gcc -fsanitize=undefined ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic
# compile with ubsan and trap-on-error
❯ gcc -fsanitize=undefined -fsanitize-undefined-trap-on-error ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic-trap-on-error

❯ size ubsan-basic-noubsan ubsan-basic ubsan-basic-trap-on-error
   text    data     bss     dec     hex filename
   1894     616       8    2518     9d6 ubsan-basic-noubsan
   2874     944       8    3826     ef2 ubsan-basic
   2054     616       8    2678     a76 ubsan-basic-trap-on-error


One particularly nice result of using the undefined trap- loading the executable from above into gdb (after recompiling with -Og and -ggdb3) and running it with the bad input will halt at the location of the undefined trap:

❯ gcc -Og -ggdb3 -fsanitize=undefined -fsanitize-undefined-trap-on-error \
  ubsan-basic.c -o ubsan-basic-trap-on-error
❯ gdb -ex 'r' --args ubsan-basic-trap-on-error 2

undefined behavior trap in GDB

Undefined trap on an embedded platform

On an embedded platform, you might need to insert a software breakpoint (eg __asm__("bkpt 1"); or similar) in the correct fault handler, and also deal with pushing / popping the stack frame prior to the ISR.

The full description of that technique is beyond the scope of this article but if you are headed down that path https://github.com/adamgreen/CrashCatcher is worth a look!

See anything you'd like to change? Submit a pull request or open an issue at GitHub


Noah Pendleton is an embedded software engineer at Memfault. Noah previously worked on embedded software teams at Fitbit and Markforged