What are some reasons a Release build would run differently than a Debug build

I have a Visual Studio 2005 C++ program that runs differently in Release mode than it does in Debug mode. In release mode, there's an (apparent) intermittent crash occurring. In debug mode, it doesn't crash. What are some reasons that a Release build would work differently than a Debug build?

It's also worth mentioning my program is fairly complex and uses several 3rd party libraries for XML processing, message brokering, etc...

Thanks in advance!


Surviving the Release Version gives a good overview.

Things I have encountered - most are already mentioned

Variable initialization by far the most common. In Visual Studio, debug builds explicitely initialize allocated memory to given values, see e.g. Memory Values here. These values are usually easy to spot, cause an out of bounds error when used as an index or an access violation when used as a pointer. An uninitialized boolean is true, however, and may cause uninitialized memory bugs going undetected for years.

In Release builds where memory isn't explicitely initialized it just keeps the contents that it had before. This leads to "funny values" and "random" crashes, but as often to deterministic crashes that require an apparently unrelated command to be executed before the command that actually crashes. This is caused by the first command "setting up" the memory location with specific values, and when the memory locations are recycled the second command sees them as initializations. That's more common with uninitialized stack variables than heap, but the latter has happened to me, too.

Raw memory initialization can also be different in a release build whether you start from visual studio (debugger attached) vs. starting from explorer. That makes the "nicest" kind of release build bugs that never appear under the debugger.

Valid Optimizations come second in my exeprience. The C++ standard allows lots of optimizations to take place which may be surprising but are entirely valid e.g. when two pointers alias the same memory location, order of initialization is not considered, or multiple threads modify the same memory locations, and you expect a certain order in which thread B sees the changes made by thread A. Often, the compiler is blamed for these. Not so fast, young yedi! - see below

Timing Release builds don't just "run faster", for a variety of reasons (optimizations, logging functions providing a thread sync point, debug code like asserts not executed etc.) also the relative timing between operations change dramatically. Most common problem uncovered by that is race conditions, but also deadlocks and simple "different order" execution of message/timer/event-based code. Even though they are timing problems, they can be surprisingly stable across builds and platforms, with reproductions that "work always, except on PC 23".

Guard Bytes. Debug builds often put (more) guard bytes around selected instances and allocations, to protect against index overflows and sometimes underflows. In the rare cases where the code relies on offsets or sizes, e.g. serializing raw structures, they are different.

Other code differences Some instructions - e.g asserts - evaluate to nothing in release builds. Sometimes they have different side effects. This is prevalent with macro trickery, as in the classic (warning: multiple errors)

#ifdef DEBUG
#define Log(x) cout << #x << x << "\n";
#define Log(x)

if (foo)
if (bar)

Which, in a release build, evaluates to if (foo && bar) This type of error is very very rare with normal C/C++ code, and macros that are correctly written.

Compiler Bugs This really never ever happens. Well - it does, but you are for the most part of your career better off assuming it does not. In a decade of working with VC6, I found one where I am still convinced this is an unfixed compiler bug, compared to dozens of patterns (maybe even hundreds of instances) with insufficient understanding of the scripture (a.k.a. the standard).

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