Insertion of tracepoints in a software is traditionally done statically during its compilation. This requires access to the software source code and its build infrastructure. Once the tracepoints are inserted, it is not possible to add new ones at runtime. Dynamic instrumentation, or patching, solves this issue by allowing the runtime insertion of tracepoints. It opens a whole new world of possibilities that goes beyond tracing such as:

  • Hooks for runtime verification (e.g. bounds checking, ASAN, TSAN)
  • Fast conditional breakpoints (GDB has limited support for that)
  • Hot fixes of software vulnerabilities

Tools such as GDB (fast tracepoints) and Kprobe already have a limited support for dynamic patching. However, they are either limited by the algorithms used (e.g. can only patch 5 bytes instructions) or the runtime overhead is too large (software interrupts).

Libpatch is a modular userspace library developed to address this issue. It combines the latest patching algorithms found in the literature, such as instructions punning and using NOPs for trampolines, in order to achieve near 100% instrumentation coverage with a minimal runtime overhead. It abstracts away the process of [un]patching binaries from the architecture. Finally, it aims to be a common module for tools such as GDB, LTTng and uftrace, to help in their dynamic patching.


Olivier Dion is a Master’s student under the supervision of Michel Dagenais at Polytechnique Montréal. His research focus on dynamic instrumentation culminated in Libpatch.