Two Deterministic Build Bugs

‘Twas the week before Christmas and I ran across a deterministic-build bug. And then another one. One was in Chromium, and the other was in Microsoft Windows. It seemed like a weird coincidence so I thought I’d write about both of them (the second one can be found here).

A deterministic build is one where you get the same results (bit identical intermediate and final result files) whenever you build at the same commit. There are varying levels of determinism (are different directories allowed? different machines?) that can increase the level of difficulty, as described in this blog post. Deterministic builds can be quite helpful because they allow caching and sharing of build results and test results, thus reducing test costs and giving various other advantages.

It may seem that deterministic builds would happen automatically – don’t computers produce the same results every time? – but in fact deterministic builds can be quite challenging. Lots of tools embed timestamps and file paths in output files and those have to be dealt with. The same blog post describes these challenges and others.


Luckily for me various smart software developers have worked hard to make Chromium builds deterministic. If you and a friend both check out the Chromium source code at the same commit and build chrome.dll (or any other output binary) with the same build arguments then you will get identical .obj and .dll and .exe output. Well, this is mostly true. TOOLCHAIN_HASH comment and value from build\vs_toolchain.pyGoogle developers have a build package that contains all of the Visual Studio and Windows SDK headers/libs/tools that we depend on so that we all use exactly the same build files so we get determinism automatically. For you and your friend to get identical results you need to make sure you have the same Visual Studio and Windows SDK versions. But if you do that you will get identical build results, and that is a Good Thing™.

I knew all this. And I knew that we had build machines that tested this. So when I added a new build argument and I wanted to check that it wasn’t affecting the build output I knew that I could just build Chromium twice, once with and once without the flag, and confirm that the builds were identical.

They weren’t.

I found that chrome.dll was different, and not in a benign or trivial way. The size of the .text section, that contains all of the code, was varying by about 10 KB. The set of functions included in the .text section was varying. This was a determinism failure of the first order.

Since Chromium builds are deterministic I knew that the new build flag had to be the problem, so I filed a bug. I was told that the build flag shouldn’t be changing the output and I was asked to test again to see if use_pdb_alt_paths=true was the problem, since that does (by design) cause non-determinism. I turned that off and the builds were still non-deterministic. Then I turned off the build flag that I was testing and the builds were still non-deterministic. Then I thought that the directory name might be causing a problem (it shouldn’t!!!) and eventually I found that two subsequent builds in the same directory were different.

Windows deterministic build results - all greenThis all seemed… impossible. Why was I getting non-deterministic builds while our determinism-verification builders were happily green?

It’s worth mentioning I was doing my builds using our distributed build system, goma. It is supposed to guarantee reproducibility, and it is used on our bots that do reproducibility testing. However I had found that disabling goma made the problem go away. This was obviously a clue, but I didn’t yet know what to make of it.

Since I found the problem I was, by default, responsible for investigating it until I could figure out who to hand it off to. I needed to get scientific. I wrote a simple batch file that built a small test target, copied the results elsewhere, built again, and then compared all of the result files. Some, like .ninja_log and .ninja_deps contain timestamps and would be different every time, but all of the other files were supposed to be the same.

I focused on the .obj files since you can’t have deterministic DLLs without deterministic .obj files. My assumption was that the .obj files were different because of differences in generated source code and that looking at the .obj files would let me find the variably generated source. After a few runs of my batch file I found that there were about ten .obj files that varied between builds, but they weren’t always the same files!

Twelve down, one to go?

So far I had come up with about a dozen guesses and hypotheses and they had all been wrong. Oh well – that means that there were a dozen causes that I had eliminated, and I must be getting closer.

My next step was to compare a couple of the .obj files that had changed. I ran “dumpbin /disasm win_util.obj” and then compared the output to find clues. I found the differences, and they were all of this form:

< lea rdx,[??_C@_0BM@MFMJGBJM@?4?4?1?4?4?1base?1scoped_generic?4h?$AA@]
> lea rdx,[??_C@_0BM@LFHBMLEF@?4?4?1?4?4?2base?1scoped_generic?4h?$AA@]

base_unittests source code, edited to call a known-different functionHuh. I ran an undecorate command on that mangled name and it just told me it was a string. I thought it would be useful to see what string it was, but the code in question wasn’t even called in the test binary that I had built, so I modified the test binary to call the function so that I could step Disassembly of the problematic __FILE__ constant from the debuggerin using a debugger. I found that the string was “../../base/scoped_generic.h” (obvious in hindsight), and it was being referenced in a CHECK statement in the ScopedGeneric destructor in that header file.

Further inspection showed that all of the differences in the disassembly matched this pattern, varying only in the source file being referenced by the string.

The string in question clearly came from the __FILE__ macro which is used in our CHECK statements in order to indicate the location of errors. The long names for the strings were the symbols generated by the compiler so that the linker could pull in the necessary string constants. I now knew that the symbolic names for the __FILE__ macro were being generated inconsistently, but I didn’t know why.

At this point I had no choice. I had to invoke the Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm. I’d already written down the problem, so I thought really hard, and then I remembered something. When building with goma the compile steps are sent off to a data center in order to let me do 1,000-way build parallelism. However some compile steps are also run 48 logical CPUs in Windows' Task Managerlocally. These local compiles use otherwise idle CPU cores (have I mentioned that I have a workstation with 48 logical CPUs?) and if they complete first then their output is used instead of the result from the data center. In other words, goma builds have a by-design race condition. Both paths are supposed to produce the same results, but if the two paths produced different results then this would perfectly explain the randomly different .obj files.

I searched through my archives and found that “set GOMA_USE_LOCAL=false” would disable local compilation, re-ran my tests, and suddenly the builds were deterministic again!


Picture of fireworksThirteenth time is the charm, and finally one of my guesses was correct. So, it appears that goma builds and local builds are slightly different. They create different symbolic names for __FILE__ macros. This means that if two different .obj files use __FILE__ in a header file (like the ScopedGeneric destructor in ../../base/scoped_generic.h) then they might get different symbolic names. The linker does all of its work based on these symbolic names so if the names vary then the linker doesn’t know that the strings are identical, so it pulls in two copies of one string. If one of these copies is in the same COMDAT as a function then pulling in the __FILE__ string may also pull in some code, and suddenly this subtle difference in the .obj files leads to different DLLs and EXEs. That is, some __FILE__ strings seem to be attached to code, so pulling in an extra __FILE__ string may pull in extra code (this suggests that we may be routinely pulling in a bit more code than we need – that’s worth investigating).

Update: A more plausible way that the different __FILE__ constants could break determinism would be by breaking /OPT:ICF. If a template function is compiled from two different translation units with two different type parameters then the generated code may end up being the same, and the functions may get “folded” together due to the /OPT:ICF option. If the generated code references different __FILE__ strings then this optimization opportunity will be lost. That is, functions like the one below may get compiled with two different __FILE__ constants and will then not be folded together, leading to extra functions in the binary.

template <typename T> void Foo(T* p) {
  printf(“%s%p”, __FILE__, p);

When I started writing this I didn’t know why the symbolic names for scoped_generic.h varied between local and remote compiles, but while writing this blog post I figured it out. There’s a hint in the paragraph with the screenshot of some assembly language – go take a look. I’ll wait.

PXL_20220104_010143473The text refers to ../../base/scoped_generic.h but the screenshot refers to ../..\\base/scoped_generic.h. The text came from the bug report which was debugging a goma build. The screenshot came from a repro on my home machine, which used a non-goma build. And the difference is the middle slash, which is a slash on goma builds, and a back-slash on non-goma builds. That is, the strings have different symbolic names because they are actually different! This is obvious in hindsight, but then again, that is generally how hindsight works. The strings are generated by the compiler when it finds base/scoped_generic.h in the ../.. directory, so the difference is simply in how those two paths are joined together.

The fix will probably be to teach the compiler to more aggressively use slashes instead of backslashes when it concatenates paths, and then improve our determinism tests to exercise this case.

A mystery isn’t truly solved until you understand why this wasn’t previously noticed, so I looked at our build machines. I found that they use GOMA_USE_LOCAL=false (for unknown reasons), thus avoiding this bug. Most developers don’t use this flag but they would have no reason to notice this type of build indeterminism.

That’s all for now. I’ll publish my other build determinism story in a day or two and link to it from here.


A few days after publishing this post I got CCed on another build determinism bug. I couldn’t reproduce it, but after looking at the right spot in the bot output I found the problem, in some generated JavaScript files. Roughly speaking the difference was:

< // Copyright 2021 The Chromium Authors…
> // Copyright 2022 The Chromium Authors…

Whoops! Due to bad timing something triggered regeneration of these JavaScript files on a build that spanned the change of year, so some of the second-build files got different copyright dates. These files got embedded into resources and nothing matched anymore.

The failure persisted for at least a week because nothing else triggered regenerating the JavaScript files – the first/second build files continued to be different. The solution was to take the last-commit date (which we use for build timestamps) and pass that to the code-gen scripts so that they can use that to get the year.

Time and dates are hard, and anytime you ask the system for the current time – in a build system or in a video game – you are laying the groundwork of a determinism bug.

About brucedawson

I'm a programmer, working for Google, focusing on optimization and reliability. Nothing's more fun than making code run 10x as fast. Unless it's eliminating large numbers of bugs. I also unicycle. And play (ice) hockey. And sled hockey. And juggle. And worry about whether this blog should have been called randomutf-8. 2010s in review tells more:
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14 Responses to Two Deterministic Build Bugs

  1. scharette says:

    Happy new year! 🙂
    Glad to see a new post from you… It was a good break from reading emails for the 2nd day in a row, catching-up after the holidays!

  2. VZ says:

    But how can the __FILE__ differences explain that “The set of functions included in the .text section was varying.”?

    • brucedawson says:

      I got a bit hand-wavy around that part, and I don’t know in perfect detail, but it seems most likely that the new __FILE__ constant was embedded in a COMDAT (basically a linkable block of data) with a function. That means that when the new __FILE__ constant got pulled in then it also pulled in the code (because they are in the same unsplittable block).

      I tried lld-link /verbose to investigate and understand this further but I couldn’t get enough detail to confirm or deny this theory. I’m sticking with this theory because it seems like the only possibility.

      • We have been discussing this in and it seems one solution agreed on is to _always_ store path component separators as slashes (/) in IR, and only render target-specific paths on emission. saudi has already been looking into that, and even thought it’s probably the best way ahead, it leads to massive changes in the LLVM codebase. Someone needs to take on that endeavor 😉

        • brucedawson says:

          Always storing path component separators as slashes sounds great. That’s basically what we try to do in other parts of Chromium’s source and build system, with very rare exceptions. It’s too bad that it leads to massive changes – that surprise me. But, long term it does seem like the correct/sane thing to do.

          I think that on Windows you can just leave the path separators as / – there’s no need to switch to target-specific paths on emission. The Windows command prompt doesn’t like slashes, but the rest of Windows is fine with them.

  3. Oliver says:

    Thanks Bruce for this once again nice blog post. Do you have any recommended reading for pursuing deterministic builds? was always my first choice, but it’s very Unix-centric. Do you have any recommendations for either _true_ cross-platform or Windows-centric documentation? Also, do you use a patched lld-link or the one the one that comes with vanilla Clang and /Brepro? Anything we mere mortals outside of the Chrome dev team are allowed to see, perhaps? 😉 Thanks.

  4. Alex says:

    I know many large projects dedicate a lot of attention to deterministic builds, but I genuinely don’t understand what their value is, could someone elaborate?
    For example, when I and my colleague (or I and the build server) build our project, we get different binaries because I use date and time macros. This has never been a problem. If I need the exact PDB file for the exact release build, I just download it from the build server.

    • brucedawson says:

      One benefit – perhaps the main benefit – is reducing load on the test machines. If a change lands that only affects some binaries then the test infrastructure can detect that many of the binaries are unchanged and skip running their tests. Some of this can be done through code analysis but this is tricky and will always miss some things. I think that Chromium is able to save a significant amount of money through this alone. Think of all the changes to text files, comments, code inside of #ifdefs, code that only affects some binaries, code where the optimizer produces the same machine code despite source changes, etc. In all of these cases a reproducible build means that we can trivially tell which binaries have changed and require fresh test runs.

  5. shuffle2 says:

    Thanks for these posts about deterministic build on msvc! I’ve gotten it to work very nicely with the dolphin-emu project, however only for final outputs (.dll/.exe), and not .obj/.lib, which seem to suffer from various non-deterministic data being included, mostly relating to embedding debug information with /Z7. I had thought /Z7 was part of the magic recipe for deterministic builds, but maybe that isn’t the case? (I had originally switched to /Z7 because of /MP, but as I’ll move to Ninja soon, that may no longer be a requirement).

    For example, I’ve filed some related issues:
    …which unfortunately don’t seem to be being worked on. My suspicion why they’re not seeing activity is because I’m not using the “normal” set of options for deterministic build on msvc.

    Another annoying issue, which I haven’t filed a separate issue for yet, is that .obj files embed paths of files referenced when building the object (because of /Z7) – which is fine – except the toolchain seemingly randomly decides to invert case of the first character of the paths, sometimes. For example c:\my\source.h may become C:\my\source.h or vice versa. This occurs even if the path does not start with a drive letter. Have you run into this problem?

    • brucedawson says:

      I have not run into the problem with drive letter case being inverted, for two reasons:
      1) We build with clang-cl rather than VC++
      2) We don’t pass full paths. One of our design goals is that we should be able to move the project directory to a different drive and directory structure and still get the same build output.
      BTW, you can test all of this by downloading the Chrome source code and doing some test builds. I recommend testing with a smaller build target like base_unittests rather than all of Chrome.
      Not that /Z7 is still needed with ninja, or at least it is recommended. And it works very well with clang-cl.

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