• Do you have (server) processes that sometimes crash for mysterious reasons?
  • Can you not figure out why?
  • Do they not print any error messages to their log files upon crashing?
  • Are debuggers complicated, scary things that you'd rather avoid?

crash-watch to the rescue! This little program will monitor a specified process and wait until it crashes. It will then print useful information such as its exit status, what signal caused it to abort, and its backtrace.

Installation with RubyGems


gem install crash-watch

You must also have GDB installed. Mac OS X already has it by default. If you're on Linux, try one of these:

apt-get install gdb
yum install gdb

This gem is signed using PGP with the Phusion Software Signing key. That key in turn is signed by the rubygems-openpgp Certificate Authority.

You can verify the authenticity of the gem by following The Complete Guide to Verifying Gems with rubygems-openpgp.

Installation on Ubuntu

Use our PPA:

sudo add-apt-repository
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install crash-watch

Installation on Debian

Our Ubuntu Lucid packages are compatible with Debian 6.

sudo sh -c 'echo deb lucid main > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/phusion-misc.list'
sudo sh -c 'echo deb-src lucid main >> /etc/apt/sources.list.d/phusion-misc.list'
sudo apt-key adv --keyserver --recv-keys 2AC745A50A212A8C
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install crash-watch

Sample usage

$ crash-watch <PID>
Monitoring PID <PID>...
(...some time later, <PID> exits...)
Process exited.
Exit code: 0
    Thread 1 (process 95205):
    #0  0x00007fff87ea1db0 in _exit ()
    No symbol table info available.
    #1  0x000000010002a260 in ruby_stop ()
    No symbol table info available.
    #2  0x0000000100031a54 in ruby_run ()
    No symbol table info available.
    #3  0x00000001000009e4 in main ()
    No symbol table info available.

While monitoring the process, you may interrupt crash-watch by pressing Ctrl-C. crash-watch will then detach from the process, which will then continue normally. You may re-attach crash-watch later.

Consult crash-watch --help for more usage options.

Dumping live backtrace

Instead of waiting until a process crashes, you can also dump a live backtrace of a process. crash-watch will immediately exit after dumping the backtrace, letting the process continue as normally.

$ crash-watch --dump <PID>
Current thread (1) backtrace:
    #0  0x00007fff81fd9464 in read ()
    No symbol table info available.
    #1  0x0000000100060d3e in ?? ()
    No symbol table info available.

Goodie: GDB controller

I've written a small library for controlling gdb, which crash-watch uses internally. With CrashWatch::GdbController you can send arbitrary commands to gdb and also get its response.

Instantiate with:

require 'crash_watch/gdb_controller'
gdb =

This will spawn a new GDB process. Use #execute to execute arbitary GDB commands. Whatever the command prints to stdout and stderr will be available in the result string.

gdb.execute("bt")        # => backtrace string
gdb.execute("p 1 + 2")   # => "$1 = 3\n"

Call #close when you no longer need it.