PStack  2.0
Stack trace printer for MSVC and GCC binaries
Stack Printout (PStack) Reference

The main project contained in this code-base is the PStack application. This is an application that is capable of connecting to a running process, and displaying stack traces for all threads. It decodes both MSVC's and G++'s name mangling styles.

The genesis of this application comes from a previous position of mine in which no single set of tools was not able to give reliable stack traces for the running process. Essentially, the mingw C++ toolchain's name-mangling was not consistent with Microsoft's debugging libraries, and produced obfuscated stack traces. In addition, the test machines under Windows did not necessarily have a debugger present (as opposed to Linux with it's ubiquitous installation of GDB). PStack is a light-weight solution to both of these problems.

Download the latest source here.

Matt Bisson
25 November, 2007 – 15 September, 2014
PStack 1.0
PStack 2.0

Points of Interest

Before delving into the details of this application, note that the project is a playground where I can toy with software engineering tidbits while still developing something real. As such, I will direct your attention to some interesting points in the code for those interested in C++ development, and so on:

  • First, as you've probably already noticed, the entire project is documented in great detail with Doxygen.
  • PStack loads the DbgHelp DLL manually, which allows it to check the version of this DLL for compatibility instead of simply misbehaving (a common reaction to older DbgHelp versions). See: psystem::debug_help_dll.
  • There is a small bit of template meta-programming in type_traits.hpp to examine (at compile time) if a function has a void return type (psystem::has_void_return_type). This meta-function then determines what function-call operator psystem::shared_library uses for manually loaded DLL imports.
  • The psystem::symbol_file_module class does some interesting manual examination of Windows DLL and EXE files (in COFF format). It even exposes its own iterators so that DLL exports and debugging symbols can be examined in standard C++ algorithms.
  • PSystem has its own RAII containers for Windows handles to match the C++ standard pointer-type containers (e.g., std::unique_ptr). These are psystem::shared_handle and psystem::unique_handle. Also of interest is that the unique_handle is implemented in such a way that is takes no memory footprint (beyond that of the handle it contains) when CloseHandle is acceptable for clean-up. Since Windows handles are often passed into Win32 functions for modification, these types also define an operator& that keeps the handle safe even during that modification.
  • The psystem::format namespace defines some enhancements to iostream to augment the way in which certain commonly used data is formatted for output.

Of course, the actual work that PStack does is interesting as well, so we will discuss that next.


Since its inception, the PStack application has been broken down into multiple modules. The separation of the application from base functionality allows us to create other applications with ease that are unrelated to stack printing.


The PSystem library is an abstraction layer that provides a platform-agnostic data-model, on which a debugger may be implemented. Within this context, the library defines objects that encapsulate system processes, threads, stack frames, and so on within a logical run-time structure. It also contains utilities for reading executable files directly, and for mapping memory addresses to symbols and source code information.

Conveniently, PSystem also presents basic utilities, such as exception types and framework classes (e.g., psystem::shared_handle, or psystem::format::mask()).


ProcLib is a simple library built on top of PSystem's infrastructure that exposes debugging functionality. Applications should look here for classes that connect to running processes, and access that process's memory, set break-points, and so on.

A typical application based on this library does the following:


PStack is a useful tool if you don't have proper debugging tools on a machine (for example, on a machine that you try to keep as clean as possible for QA purposes). The app consists of one executable and has dependencies on only a few (Microsoft) DLL's.

Beyond this, the tool seems to get better stack trace information that most debuggers (including the MS debugger). It can be told to upgrade its OS access rights (to debug processes running as a service, for example), and can search the executable on disk for debugging symbols that aren't present in memory. This allows it to be more useful on GCC-generated executables than MSVC (which doesn't understand them at all).

The application runs fairly quickly, and with a program running 30 threads, and an executable size of 150mb, it can return in well under a second with data (on 2007 technology, that is).


This is a fairly simple application that exercises a decent amount of the Psystem functionality. Given an executable module file and an address, this application will attempt to look up the function name (and line number) that corresponds to that offset. In other words, given a program counter address, one can look up where in the code the program is executing.