This page provides some technical details of how penguinTrace is constructed. The main intention of penguinTrace is helping to provide a way to better understand how programs run at a low level. The development was also used as an opportunity to better understand details of how programs run, interactions with the Linux kernel and how debuggers work.

Web Interface


penguinTrace starts a thread to listen to requests. When a request is received the path is looked up in a table of routes which returns an object to construct the response. Broadly there are three types of endpoints:

  • File requests, returning a static file
  • Commands, which enqueue the command requested
  • State requests, which return the current program state

Commands and state requests are split so that requests for a command that could take some time, e.g. compilation, do not block before returning a response.


The Web UI is written with jQuery and CodeMirror. Each action makes a command request, which responds immediately whether the command was successfully enqueued. If successful, the UI will make state requests until all commands are complete and the UI can be updated with the new state.


penguinTrace can use Clang or GCC to compile programs. If using Clang (and libclang) then a preliminary parsing stage occurs. This provides a way to get information about compile errors and warning programatically in order to show them more clearly in the UI.

Then the compiler binary is called directly with the provided source code. Once the binary is compiled, the source code and configuration are added into new sections in the binary to create a self-contained binary that can be used to recreate the same session when uploaded.


penguinTrace creates another process using fork, and then executes the binary that has been compiled. penguinTrace uses the ptrace system call in order to interact with the child process that has been created.

The Linux kernel (and the processor that it is running on) have the ability to ‘single step’ through instructions, and once the instruction has been stepped the process is paused until the next step is requested. This is the mode in which penguinTrace usually controls the child process. At a lower level, this is implemented by the processor supporting a feature where at the end of executing an instruction an interrupt is raised which returns control to the operations system. This is the Trap Flag on x86_64 or single stepping on AArch64.

The ptrace system call also allows the parent process (in this case penguinTrace) to read both the registers and the memory of the traced process. This is used to obtain the values of variables while executing.

Debug Information

When compiling, penguinTrace instructs the compiler to embed debugging information (using the -g flag). This contains information such as:

  • Mapping between addresses and line numbers
  • Locations of variables in memory

This information is stored in DWARF format, and this information is parsed from the compiled binary. After each step the program counter/ instruction pointer is used to determine the current function.

By using the current function, the debug information can also be used to determine the variables in the current scope and their location. Then ptrace can be used to extract the value from the child process.