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Posted 22 Apr 2003

Who deleted my pointer?

, 22 Apr 2003
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Locating your dangling pointer with overloaded new and delete operators


This happened to me the other day. I was fixing an app that was implemented as a horribly tangled ball of pointers. The app is processing through a linked list when it falls over on bad data pointed to from within one of the nodes. The type of object that we were supposed to point to was simply the virtual base class for half the objects in the system. The first question I asked was, was there ever an object there? The pointer it fell on was divisible by 4 and not NULL, so it could have been a valid pointer at one time. Investigation with Visual Studio's memory viewer (view->Debug Windows->Memory) showed that the data pointed to by this pointer was filled with

... This usually indicates memory that was allocated, but now is not. Something, somewhere deallocated my data. I needed a way figure out what happened to my data.


I ultimately ended up finding my lost data by overloading the new and delete operators. When a function is called, after the arguments are pushed onto the stack, the return address gets pushed on to the stack. We can then extract this from the stack in the new and delete operators to help in debugging.

Using the code

After several wrong guesses about where my pointer went, I resorted to overloading the operators new and delete as shown below. This implementation of the new operator extracts the return address from the stack. The return address is found between the address of the function argument and the address of the first automatic variable. The compiler settings, calling conventions, and machine architecture may effect where the return address is found, so you may need to tweak this slightly for your environment. Once it has its return address, new allocates an extra sixteen bytes and stores the return address and the intended size of the buffer at the front of the buffer, and returns a pointer to the sixteenth byte into the buffer.

The delete operator, as you can see, no longer deletes. Instead, it extracts the return address in the same fashion, pastes it into the front of the buffer after the size, writes DE AD BE EF into the last four bytes, then fills out the rest of the buffer with a repeating pattern.

Now, when the app falls over in the debugger on the bad pointer, I simply open the memory window, find where my pointer points, and go back 16 bytes. The first four bytes are where new was called from. The next four bytes are the allocated size. The third group of four bytes are where delete was called from. The last group of four bytes should say DE AD BE EF. Followed by the rest of the allocated buffer filled in with 77 77 77 77.

To map these return addresses for new and delete back to points in the source code, first reverse the byte order of them. This is necessary because of Intel's backward-endianness. Next, right click on the source and select Go To Disassembly. The leftmost column contains the memory address of each machine instruction. Press Ctrl-G or select (Edit->Go To...) and type in one of your extracted addresses. It then should scroll you to the call to new or delete. To get back to the source file, right click again, and select Go To Source. You should then see a call to new or delete.

Now you can quickly figure out where your lost data went. As for figuring out why delete was called on your data when you still needed it, well, you're on your own.

#include <MALLOC.H>

void * ::operator new(size_t size)
    int stackVar;
    unsigned long stackVarAddr = (unsigned long)&stackVar;
    unsigned long argAddr = (unsigned long)&size;

    void ** retAddrAddr = (void **)(stackVarAddr/2 + argAddr/2 + 2);

    void * retAddr = * retAddrAddr;

    unsigned char *retBuffer = (unsigned char*)malloc(size + 16);

    memset(retBuffer, 0, 16);

    memcpy(retBuffer, &retAddr, sizeof(retAddr));

    memcpy(retBuffer + 4, &size, sizeof(size));

    return retBuffer + 16;

void ::operator delete(void *buf)
    int stackVar;

    unsigned long stackVarAddr = (unsigned long)&stackVar;
    unsigned long argAddr = (unsigned long)&buf;

    void ** retAddrAddr = (void **)(stackVarAddr/2 + argAddr/2 + 2);

    void * retAddr = * retAddrAddr;

    unsigned char* buf2 = (unsigned char*)buf;

    buf2 -= 8;

    memcpy(buf2, &retAddr, sizeof(retAddr));

    size_t size;

    buf2 -= 4;

    memcpy(&size, buf2, sizeof(buf2));

    buf2 += 8;

    buf2[0] = 0xde;
    buf2[1] = 0xad;
    buf2[2] = 0xbe;
    buf2[3] = 0xef;

    buf2 += 4;

    memset(buf2, 0x7777, size);

//  deallocating destroys saved addresses, so don't
//    buf -= 16;
//    free(buf2);

Points of Interest

This code can also be used to detect memory leaks. Simply fix the delete operator so that it actually deallocates the memory. Then just before the app exits, use _heapwalk to step through the allocated buffers and extract the addresses where new was called. This will give you a list of calls to new which have not been matched with a call to delete.

Also, this code is for debugging, if you put this code into a production app, it will run out of memory fairly quickly.


This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

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About the Author

Web Developer
United States United States
I was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. I acquired an NCR PC Model 4 when I was 8, and was writing fairly complex GW-BASIC programs by the time I was ten. Educated formally at Wright State University, I now work for an undisclosed company doing platform level work with Linux, Windows, and, sadly still, DOS (Why the &%^& won't [name withheld] %^&%$%# upgrade already?!).

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Comments and Discussions

QuestionSimilar To MFC's DEBUG_NEW?? Pin
Mike O'Neill24-Apr-03 8:40
memberMike O'Neill24-Apr-03 8:40 
I'm unsure, but this seems similar to functionality provided in MFC by the DEBUG_NEW directive, when used with CMemoryState objects. MSDN describes these at[^]for DEBUG_NEW and at[^]for CMemeoryState.

Good article.

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