Sed: a debugging story.

Posted by Michael Snoyman - 19 June, 2018

This blog post is a semi-complete retelling of my debugging adventures on a particularly crazy bug. Consider it a combination of fun story telling for the audience and catharsis for myself. This affects anyone trying to use AppVeyor and Stack for projects that use the network package with GHC 8.4 and up. If you want to cheat and get the solution, check out the pull request. Otherwise, strap yourselves in, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Initial bug report

Neil Mitchell opened a bug report against Stack. The bug report detailed the fact that running stack --resolver nightly build network would fail, but using stack unpack network and then building the locally unpacked source files did work. When it failed, the error message was:

config.status: creating network.buildinfo
sed: -e expression #1, char 257: invalid reference \1 on `s' command's RHS

Initially, I didn't believe this was too serious a bug: it appeared that unpacking locally was a decent workaround. I didn't understand that this bug would prevent using AppVeyor for any testing of compatibility of Haskell source code on Windows. My initial poking and prodding at the issue was therefore minimal. Once I was shown that this was more serious than I thought, I spent significant time in clusters over the past few weeks trying to understand what was going on.

First guesses

A first guess at the problem here is that we had two different versions of the sed executable at play, and one was misbehaving. This even lines up with the bug triggering on AppVeyor. AppVeyor itself will install its own sed.exe as part of its Git installation, and Stack will provide a sed.exe as part of the msys environment. For some reason, Stack was setting different environment variables for different ways of building, causing the buggy behavior.

However, this hypothesis left some questions:

  • Why would a change in GHC version cause Stack to pass in different environment variables?
  • How could two different sources for a sed.exe executable have such different behaviors?

Since I didn't like this hypothesis too much, I decided to try to disprove it. I tried installing a modified sed.exe that would pass its arguments over to the real sed.exe. I got that sort of working, but it turned out that I'd messed up the actual passing in of the arguments. I didn't end up figuring out what I did wrong here. However, the AppVeyor log showed me exactly what I needed to know:

Both the stack unpack and stack build network versions of the build called my modified sed.exe. This disproved the initial hypothesis well enough for me: the problem was not in different executables being called. Something else had to be afoot.

What's GHC got to do with this?

Let's take a step back and understand exactly what Stack is doing when this bug gets triggered. With the stack build network case, it starts off by downloading the network- tarball and unpacking it to a temporary directory. In the stack unpack network- case, the downloading and unpacking happen during the unpack call, and happen to the current directory, not a temporary directory. Once we have the files on the filesystem, the following steps occur:

  1. Stack compiles the Setup.hs file from network into Setup.exe. This module uses the Cabal library that ships with GHC.
  2. Stack calls Setup.exe configure with the PATH environment variable set appropriately to find build tools (like GHC, gcc, bash, sed, etc).
  3. Setup.exe configure runs the configure script that ships with the network package, which ultimately has the sed failure.

Looking at these steps, there are only two places where GHC could have any impact:

  • The directories set for the PATH to find the GHC executable
  • Which Cabal library is used

The former doesn't seem likely to be the problem, since the directory holding ghc.exe seems unrelated to how sed.exe is being called. However, the latter—which Cabal library is used—seems promising. My new hypothesis was: the GHC version at play isn't actually causing the bug, it's the Cabal library version.

I tested this hypothesis by using GHC 8.2.2, which initially worked perfectly, and installing a newer version of the Cabal library. I ended up doing this manually in a remote desktop session to AppVeyor, so I have no scripts to show. But the result was exactly what I was hoping for: once I installed Cabal 2.2 with GHC 8.2.2, it failed just like GHC 8.4.3 did. Hurrah! We narrowed down the source of the problem.

Unpack location

This gets us a bit closer, but we still don't know why the two ways of unpacking the network package make a difference. But let me paraphrase myself from above:

With the stack build network case, it unpacks to a temporary directory. In the stack unpack network- case, it unpacks to the current directory.

Alright, that's somewhat promising. New hypothesis: for some reason, unpacking to a temporary directory causes the breakage. Easy enough to test. Let's manually stack unpack into a “temporary” directory. I looked at the logs from the stack build network case, and found that it was building from C:\Users\appveyor\AppData\Local\Temp\1\stack2232\network- So I manually ran some commands along the lines of:

mkdir C:\Users\appveyor\AppData\Local\Temp\1\stack2232\
cd C:\Users\appveyor\AppData\Local\Temp\1\stack2232\
stack unpack network-
cd network-
echo "resolver: ghc-8.4.3" > stack.yaml
stack build

And, like magic, I reproduced the bug! This was a great breakthrough, it was the first time I reproduced the bug and had access to modify the source code at the same time (without tweaking Stack's behavior). The question was: what was wrong with that directory?

The path length limit

I've been burned many times in the past by Window's path length limit, which is set somewhere around 256 characters. (Yeah, it's sort of 260, and yeah, it's sort of been relaxed. But I'm paranoid.) So my first guess was that this temp directory was too long. So I decided to progressively move up the directory tree to see where things stopped failing.

I tried building inside C:\Users\appveyor\AppData\Local\Temp\1\ next, and the build failed. I moved up another directory and built in C:\Users\appveyor\AppData\Local\Temp\. And suddenly the build succeeded. I hadn't expected that: I'd only removed two characters from the path.


I stared at the subdirectory I'd just removed, 1\. And I had a crazy thought. I ran something like:

mkdir \1
cd \1
stack unpack network-
cd network-
echo "resolver: ghc-8.4.3" > stack.yaml
stack build

And, even with this tiny path, the build failed! There seemed to be something magical about the \1 subdirectory. I was able to use this approach to reliably reproduce the bug on my local Windows machine too, which was a much more pleasant continuation of debugging than remotely connecting to AppVeyor (although the RDP setup for AppVeyor is an amazing feature). Awesome!

Next I decided to fuzz this a bit more, and built in c:\2. This time, my error message changed from:

sed: -e expression #1, char 213: invalid reference \1 on `s' command's RHS


sed: -e expression #1, char 213: invalid reference \2 on `s' command's RHS

That's when it hit me: sed was, for some reason, suddenly interpreting components of the file path as part of its substitution command. Weird!

Cabal's fault!

Now I knew the problem was related to paths, and that there was a change in Cabal 2.2 versus Cabal 2.0 that triggered this bug. Therefore, there must be some difference between these two versions and how they're calling the configure script. After some searching, I found the current call to the configure script:

configureFile <- makeAbsolute $
  fromMaybe "." (takeDirectory <$> cabalFilePath lbi) </> "configure"
let args' = configureFile:args ++ ["CC=" ++ ccProgShort]
runProgramInvocation verbosity $
  (programInvocation (sh {programOverrideEnv = overEnv}) args')
  { progInvokeCwd = Just (buildDir lbi) }

Which roughly translates to:

  1. Find the configure file in the same directory of the cabal file
  2. Get an absolute path to that file
  3. Construct a set of command line arguments with the configure script as the first argument
  4. Pass all of this to sh, setting the working directory to the build directory

OK, all of that seems reasonable. But for some reason, the path to the config file is being interpreted as sed commands. It turns out that you can replace backslashes with forward slashes in Windows file paths, so my next step was to try this little ugly hack:

let args' = map replace configureFile:args ++ ["CC=" ++ ccProgShort]
    replace '\\' = '/'
    replace c = c

And sure enough, this worked! Definitely zeroing in. My next question was: what did this look like in Cabal 2.0? A quick call to git diff origin/2.0 -- Cabal/Distribution/Simple.hs revealed that:

+  configureFile <- makeAbsolute $
+    fromMaybe "." (takeDirectory <$> cabalFilePath lbi) </> "configure"
-      args' = args ++ ["CC=" ++ ccProgShort]
+      args' = configureFile:args ++ ["CC=" ++ ccProgShort]
                  (programInvocation (sh {programOverrideEnv = overEnv}) args')
+                 { progInvokeCwd = Just (buildDir lbi) }
-    args = "./configure" : configureArgs backwardsCompatHack flags
+    args = configureArgs backwardsCompatHack flags

It seems that Cabal 2.0 was assuming that the current working directory contained the configure script, and therefore wasn't passing in the full path on the command line. And therefore, the funny paths couldn't possible be interpreted as sed commands. Can we get back that same behavior? Sure, by make the code instead look something like:

let configureFile = "./configure"
let args' = configureFile:args ++ ["CC=" ++ ccProgShort]
runProgramInvocation verbosity $
  (programInvocation (sh {programOverrideEnv = overEnv}) args')
  { progInvokeCwd = fmap takeDirectory (cabalFilePath lbi) }

I tried this out, and the network package built correctly. I've since filed an issue with Cabal about this.

Cabal's fault?

Alright… but is that really a bug in Cabal? It passed a valid path to the configure script, which proceeded to barf. After some discussion on the aforementioned issue, it became clear that, in fact, this is a bug in autotools itself. Quasi Computation sent a bug report upstream.

However, even if the bug is upstream, this is an issue we'll need to deal with, since:

  • There's no timeline on an autotools fix
  • It will take time for the autotools fix to deploy
  • Even after it deploys, broken configure scripts will continue to exist in the wild, such as all existing versions of the network package

We can change the Cabal library to not trigger this bug with some flavor of the workaround I mentioned above. However, Stack will continue to use the version of Cabal that ships with GHC by default, which for GHC 8.4.1, 8.4.2, and 8.4.3 will trigger this bug.

Stack's workaround

One workaround for Stack would be kind of crazy: add some conditional logic to, on Windows, when using Cabal 2.2, check if the generated temporary directories include a backslash followed by a digit, and then figure out some other directory to use. I considered that for a bit, and then realized we had a simpler solution, so I sent a PR consisting of:

     STACK_ROOT: "c:\\sr"

+    # Override the temp directory to avoid sed escaping issues
+    # See
+    TMP: "c:\\tmp"

All we've done is changed the temporary directory used when building on AppVeyor. This works well enough, as to my knowledge most Windows systems do not have such weird temporary directory paths. If others are affected by this in the future, we can make further tweaks to either Stack itself, the Stack installer, or documentation.

Last unsolved question

I have one final question that I haven't answered yet. I was able to reproduce the bug using Cabal-the-library and a manually created triggering directory. But what about using cabal-install to install network? Well, that seems to work just fine. It seems that cabal-install unpacks into C:\Users\appveyor\AppData\Local\Temp\cabal-tmp-2952. Notice how it does not have a \1 style path in it.

I've looked through both the Stack and cabal-install codebases briefly, and I cannot figure out why they'd have different behavior for creating temporary directories. But at this point, I've had enough of my debugging adventure. Perhaps some curious reader will shed some light on the last mystery here.


This was a challenging, frustrating, and ultimately fun bug. It's not often we get to find bugs in such ubiquitous tools as autoconf. It took a lot of effort to unwind the various layers of tooling. Getting a reliable repro locally was hard, and AppVeyor's remote desktop was invaluable there. And the debugging technique of “form a hypothesis, try to invalidate it” helped me ultimately zero in on the real problem.

Topics: appveyor, Haskell Programming, Debugging, cabal, GHC

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