On Debug, Release, and Other Project Configurations

Sun
17
May 2020

Foreword: I was going to write a post about #pragma optimize in Visual Studio, which I learned recently, but later I decided to describe the whole topic more broadly. As a result, this blog post can be useful or inspiring to every programmer coding in C++ or even in other languages, although I give examples based on just C++ as used in Microsoft Visual Studio on Windows.

When we compile a program, we often need to choose one of possible "configurations". Visual Studio creates two of those for a new C++ project, called "Debug" and "Release". As their names imply, the first one is mostly intended to be used during development and debugging, while the other should be used to generate the final binary of the program to be distributed to the external users. But there is more to it. Each of these configurations actually sets multiple parameters of the project and you can change them. You can also define your custom configurations and have over 2 of them, which can be very useful, as you will see later.

First, let's think about the specific settings that are defined by a project configuration. They can be divided into two broad categories. First one is all the parameters that control the compiler and linker. The difference between Debug and Release is mostly regarding optimizations. Debug configuration is all about having the optimizations disabled (which allows full debugging functionality and also makes the compilation time short), while Release has the optimizations enabled (which obviously makes the program run faster). For example, Visual Studio sets these options in Release:

Visual Studio also inserts an additional code in Debug configuration to fill memory with some bit pattern that helps with debugging low-level memory access errors, which are plaguing C and C++ programmers. For example, seeing 0xCCCCCCCC in the debugger usually means uninitialized memory on the stack, 0xCDCDCDCD - allocated but uninitialized memory on the heap, and 0xFEEEFEEE - memory that was already freed and should no longer be used. In Release, memory under such incorrectly used pointers will just hold its previous data.

The second category of things controlled by project configurations are specific features inside the code. In case of C and C++ these are usually enabled and disabled using preprocessor macros, like #ifdef, #if. Such macros can not only be defined inside the code using #define, but also passed from the outside, among the parameters of the compiler, and so they can be set and changed depending on the project configuration.

The features controlled by such macros can be very diverse. Probably the most canonical example is the standard assert macro (or your custom equivalent), which we define to some error logging, instruction to break into the debugger, or even complete program termination in Debug config, and to an empty macro in Release. In case of C++ in Visual Studio, the macro defined in Debug is _DEBUG, in Release - NDEBUG, and depending on the latter, standard macro assert is doing "something" or is just ignored.

There are more possibilities. Depending on these standard pre-defined macros or your custom ones, you can cut out different functionalities from the code. One example is any instrumentation that lets you analyze and profile its execution (like calls to Tracy). You probably don't want it in the final client build. Same with detailed logging functionality, any hidden developer setting or cheat codes (in case of games). On the other hand, you may want to include in the final build something that's not needed during development, like checking user's license, some anti-piracy or anti-cheat protection, and generation of certificates needed for the program to work on non-developer machines.

As you can see, there are many options to consider. Sometimes it can make sense to have over 2 project configurations. Probably the most common case is a need for a "Profile" configuration that allows to measure the performance accurately - has all the compiler optimizations enabled, but still keeps the instrumentation needed for profiling in the code. Another idea would be to wrap the super low level, frequently called checks like (index < size()) inside vector::operator[] into some separate macro called HEAVY_ASSERT and have some configuration called "SuperDebug" that we know works very slowly, but has all those checks enabled. On the other end, remember that the "FinalFinal" configuration that you will use to generate the final binary for the users should be build and tested in your Continuous Integration during development, not only one week before the release date. Bugs that occur in only one configuration and not in the others are not uncommon!

Some bugs just don't happen in Debug, e.g. due to uninitialized memory containing consistent 0xCCCCCCCC instead of garbage data, or a race condition between threads not occurring because of a different time it takes to execute certain functions. In some projects, the Debug configuration works so slowly that it's not even possible to test the program on a real, large data set in this configuration. I consider it a bad coding practice and I think it shouldn't happen, but it happens quite often, especially when STL is used, where every reference to myVector[i] element in the unoptimized code is a function call with a range check instead of just pointer dereferecence. In any case, sometimes we need to investigate bugs occurring in Release configuration. Not all hope is lost then, because in Visual Studio the debugger still works, just not as reliably as in Debug. Because of optimizations made by the compiler, the instruction pointer (yellow arrow) may jump across the code inconsistently, and some variables may be impossible to preview.

Here comes the trick that inspired me to write this whole blog post. I recently learned that there is this custom Microsoft preprocessor macro:

#pragma optimize("", off)

that if you put at the beginning of a .cpp file or just before your function of interest, disables all the compiler optimizations from this point until the end of the file, making its debugging nice and smooth, while the rest of the program behaves as before. (See also its documentation.) A nice trick!

Comments | #c++ #visual studio Share

Comments

[Download] [Dropbox] [pub] [Mirror] [Privacy policy]
Copyright © 2004-2020