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Debugging bazel actions

When working on bazel build infrastructure, something I often need to do is reproduce an action outside of bazel's infrastructure in order to debug it further. This debugging often involves changing flags or swapping out the tool itself for a custom built version.

In many cases updating your bazel configuration as normal should work well enough. But sometimes when you're iterating on things that invalidate a significant portion of your build it can be faster to work on things outside of bazel first, and then update your bazel configuration based on your discoveries. Another case where this is useful is if you want to benchmark a specific action by running it many times individually without the contention caused by bazel parallelizing other actions.

Since bazel has a lot of infrastructure for keeping builds hermetic, there are a few steps you need to take to roughly reproduce what bazel is doing so your debugging is as close to what it runs as possible.

1. Build and disable sandboxing

In order for bazel to setup your build environment (including your downloaded dependencies), and leave it intact for you to muck around with, you must run a normal build and also either disable sandboxing by passing --spawn_strategy=standalone, or make it leave the sandbox base around by passing --sandbox_debug.

2. Grab your action's command line

Once bazel has run and left its environment intact, you need to grab the command line being run for the action you want to debug. I find that passing bazel's -s flag (also known as --subcommands) is the easiest way to do this. You just have to make sure that the action you're interested in actually runs. There are a few different ways you can force bazel to run an action:

  • Invalidate the inputs for the action. Unlike other build systems touching input files isn't enough, I often add newlines or comments to files to force actions to re-run.
  • Change the flags for a command line. For some actions such as C++ compiles, or native binary linking, there are easy command line flags you can pass to invalidate the actions, specifically things like --copt=-v and --linkopt=-v respectively. Another useful thing to know is bazel doesn't have any semantics around the contents of these flags, so if you need to invalidate the action a second time, you can often append the same option again, repeating it, to make bazel re-run it. For example --linkopt=-v --linkopt=-v, often the underlying tool won't care about the repetition. This works best when changing flags will only invalidate a small number of actions so you don't have to rebuild a ton of things before you get to the action you care about.
  • Change flags on the specific target. If changing flags globally is too invasive for your build, you can often edit the copts attribute of the specific target you care about to invalid the action. Again passing -v is often a useful way to get it to re-run without changing semantics of the build. You can also do this with --per_file_copt so you don't have to change any BUILD files. Thanks to Tom Rybka for pointing this out.
  • Make it fail. Change the inputs or flags to something that is invalid, then your bazel invocation will stop after hitting the action in question.

Once you have forcibly re-run your action with -s, you should see some output like this (specifics will vary based on your platform and the action you're debugging):

SUBCOMMAND: # //some_target:some_target [action 'Compiling Swift module //some_target:some_target', configuration: 725a049b28caa74d2a9605a6748b603bdab9e977931b2d02c0bb07b9a06575b2, execution platform: //:macos_x86_64]
(cd /private/var/tmp/_bazel_ksmiley/751b7cfc481e6eb168e92ffcfb919baa/execroot/someworkspace && \
  exec env - \
    APPLE_SDK_PLATFORM=iPhoneSimulator \
  bazel-out/darwin_x86_64-opt-exec-8F99CFCD-ST-41e1ca5c471d/bin/external/build_bazel_rules_swift/tools/worker/universal_worker swiftc @bazel-out/ios-sim_arm64-min12.0-applebin_ios-ios_sim_arm64-fastbuild-ST-40c63e007684/bin/some_target/some_target.swiftmodule-0.params

3. Reproduce bazel's environment and run

Now that you have the environment and command line bazel ran, you can roughly reproduce what it did in a few steps:

  1. Switch to the directory it built in using the cd command it prints: cd /private/var/tmp/_bazel_ksmiley/751b7cfc481e6eb168e92ffcfb919baa/execroot/someworkspace
  2. Reproduce the environment variables it sets for the action:

     export APPLE_SDK_PLATFORM=iPhoneSimulator
  3. Run the command line:

     bazel-out/darwin_x86_64-opt-exec-8F99CFCD-ST-41e1ca5c471d/bin/external/build_bazel_rules_swift/tools/worker/universal_worker \
       swiftc \


At this point you're likely very close to reproducing what bazel was running, but there are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Bazel has some implicit environment variable manipulation in some cases that you need to reproduce. For example for builds that rely on Xcode on macOS, the Xcode discovery logic is done implicitly by bazel, requiring you to approximate that logic yourself. To reproduce this specific case you need to make sure to set DEVELOPER_DIR and SDKROOT with something like1:
export DEVELOPER_DIR=$(xcode-select -p)
export SDKROOT=$(xcrun --show-sdk-path --sdk iphonesimulator)
  • Some actions in bazel use a number of wrappers before getting down to the actual command being run. In the example above universal_worker is a pre-processor for the Swift command line. Sometimes you might want to go a bit deeper in the stack. I often pass -v as an extra argument to the wrapper invocation to get the final command line it runs, and then iterate on that instead of the one bazel invokes.
  • Other environment variables can impact behavior. Depending on how you run bazel normally and what you're debugging, this might matter as the action may have access the environment variables that it wouldn't have inside of bazel. This often doesn't make a difference if your build is hermetic, but is worth keeping in mind (especially for PATH).
  • These steps may change over time. Ideally there would be a more straightforward way to reproduce actions like this, potentially by parsing bazel's execution log, but in the meantime this approach works well in my experience.
  1. I use a script for thisĀ