preventing software bugs

Debugging With Visual Studio – Part 2

During the first article in our How to Debug series we went over a few generalized debugging best practices that are applicable to most platforms and debugging tools. Next we dove into Visual Studio with Debugging with Visual Studio – Part 1 and saw how Visual Studio handles code navigation, debugging windows, tooltips, and much more.

Today we’ll finish up our examination of Visual Studio and the powerful debugging features it provides including remote debugging, working with 64-bit applications, targeting different .NET Framework versions, and much more!

Remote Debugging

In addition to the typical localized debugging tools Visual Studio provides, it also supports a powerful remote debuggingcapability which allows you to debug applications deployed on different computers. Visual Studio supports debugging for ASP.NET applications running on IIS systems, ASP.NET on Azure, or C#/C++ applications running on a Windows-based network.

To begin using remote debugging start by installing the Remote Tools package appropriate to your particular Visual Studio version. Once installed you can setup a remote debugger configuration by specifying the type of connection and location of the remote machine, along with the appropriate user credentials to connect. The final step is to configure your local Visual Studio project properties and insert the remote machine name into the Debug > Use remote machine field so your system knows where to make a connection.

Check out example configurations in more detail in the official documentation.

Working With 64-Bit Applications

As surprising as it may be, even the latest versions of Visual Studio are not 64-bit applications and instead continue to use the tried-and-true 32-bit architecture we all know and love (or hate, depending on your perspective). In mid-2016 the Visual Studio Product Team even responded to requests from users asking that they upgrade Visual Studio to a 64-bit application. While there are many pros and cons to both 32- and 64-bit versions of Visual Studio, at the time of their response, the Visual Studio Team felt the return on investment of building, testing, and supporting two different architectures of the product wasn’t worth the pain and complexity in making the switch.

All that said, even though Visual Studio itself isn’t a 64-bit application it certainly supports the creation and debugging of 64-bit applications. To debug a 64-bit application locally you just need to add a new configuration in the Configuration Manager with a 64-bit CPU specified:

  1. Open Build > Configuration Manager.
  2. Select (or create a New) Active solution configuration.
  3. Click New under Active solution platform and select x64 (or whatever appropriate 64-bit CPU option you have available).
  4. Close the Configuration Manager then start debugging as normal using the new 64-bit configuration you created.

Visual Studio also allows remote 64-bit application debugging, which is setup and performed much the same way as normal remote debugging.

For more information check out the 64-Bit Application Debugging documentation.

Using Different .NET Framework Versions

While not always relevant to your project most modern versions of Visual Studio allow you to specify the particular .NET Framework version your project/application should use during debugging. This can be useful for projects that are intended to be used by other developers, such as .DLL libraries and the like, allowing you to easily test compatibility of your application with older (or even newer) .NET Framework versions.

Setting .NET Framework Version for New Projects

When creating a new project in newer versions of Visual Studio you can set the targeted .NET Framework version using the dropdown at the top of the New Project dialog.

Changing .NET Framework Version for Existing Projects

Changing the .NET Framework version for an existing project requires a few more steps but is still quite simple:

  1. Open the Project > [ProjectName] Properties window.
  2. Select the Application tab.
  3. Choose the appropriate .NET Framework version from the Target framework dropdown.

You may see a warning popup indicating that you may need to manually modify some project files to allow your application to build. This is usually necessary when your project uses outside resources and references that target .NET Framework versions which differ from than version you’re now specifying. Once any appropriate manual changes are made your project will now build and run using the new .NET Framework version you’ve selected.

To learn more check out the official documentation.

Altering Debugger Window Attributes

While not specific to using Visual Studio the .NET Framework provides the very powerful ability to extend code-specific metadata from directly within written source code using attributes. We won’t go into the full details of attributes and how to use them here, but the short explanation is that attributes allow you to add keyword-like declarations which help to annotate elements of your code such as types, methods, and properties. When the code is compiled it is converted to an intermediate language (MSIL) which can then be parsed and read by tools like Visual Studio in order to evaluate that extra metadata during execution and debugging. Check out a lot more info about general attribute use in .NET within the docs.

This ability to add and alter attributes in your code makes it easy to change the look, feel, and behavior of the data presented throughout the various debugger windows found throughout Visual Studio. For example, the DebuggerTypeProxyattribute can be applied to structures, classes, and assemblies, allowing you to change the way that particular object is displayed in debugger windows. We can also use the DebuggerDisplay attribute, which directly changes how objects, properties, fields, and the like are displayed in debugger windows throughout Visual Studio.

For example we can modify our simple Book class below by adding those two attributes (seen here in C#):

In this simple example we basically want to override the default behavior by hiding the private properties of our Book class (_author and _title) in the drill-down display of debugger windows. To accomplish this we create our BookDebugView class as an internal and give it a private _book property to hold our Book class instance, which is passed as the only parameter to the constructor. We can then use our public Author and Title property methods as normal, which will act as our proxy replacement for the fields displayed in our debugger window.

The result is that all Visual Studio debugger windows now use the BookDebugView class as their base object type to display thanks to the DebuggerTypeProxy attribute. Plus, we’ve used the DebuggerDisplay attribute to alter how the value of our Book objects is displayed in our debugger windows. Thus, when create a new instance of Book named book and view it in a debugger window, it changes from the default of this:

Name Value
+ book {VisualStudio.Program.Book}
:wrench: _author “Dr. Seuss”
:wrench: _title “Green Eggs and Ham”

to this:

Name Value
+ book “Green Eggs and Ham” by “Dr. Seuss”
:wrench: Author “Dr. Seuss”
:wrench: Title “Green Eggs and Ham”
+ Raw View

Custom Data Visualizers

Visual Studio also includes powerful user interface components known as visualizers. A visualizer typically creates a dialog box or other interface to display a value or object in a custom manner that is most appropriate based on that data type. When debugging with Visual Studio you’ll often see little magnifying glass icons which are the mechanism used to choose the visualizer you want to use to view that object.

By default Visual Studio comes with visualizers for HTML, JSON, Text, XML, and a handful of others. However, Visual Studio makes it easy to create your own custom visualizers. Visualizers are effectively just compiled .DLL files that are referenced in whatever project you want to use them in, so creating a custom visualizer begins with creating a new Class Library project. For example, here’s a very simple visualizer that targets objects of type System.String and creates a message box dialog popup with the string value when the visualizer is called:

Check out all the cool stuff you can do with visualizers in the official documentation.

Dump Files

If you’ve ever found yourself trying to recreate a bug reported by another user which you simply can’t seem to replicate then you’ll probably wish you had access to Visual Studio’s dump file support. For those unfamiliar with them a dump file is a snapshot of an entire application at the exact moment the dump was recorded. It includes tons of metadata such as the processes and modules that were running, memory records, execution and stack traces, and much more.

With a dump file in hand you can open it in Visual Studio and be presented with the Dump File Summary screen which outlines the basic information about the state of the application when the dump was taken. This includes stuff like the process name, exception codes, and the list of modules (.DLL and .exes) that were used by the application.

From there you can use Visual Studio to load up an exact recreation of the debugging process from the moment the dump was recorded. If you have access to the source code (or symbol files therein) that are used by the application you’ll be able to see exactly what line of code execution halted at when the dump was recorded, the values of local variables, and basically everything else you’re used to viewing within the Visual Studio debugger.

Learn more in the Using Dump Files docs.


The final debugging feature of Visual Studio we’ll discuss is IntelliTrace. IntelliTrace is an advanced feature available to professional-grade Visual Studio versions that essentially acts as a recorder for debugging sessions. When you begin a debugging session IntelliTrace will monitor for all “important” events that take place and record said events. These might include user interactions like clicking buttons, file IO access, database connections and executions, exceptions, and so forth.

With IntelliTrace enabled during an active debugging session the Diagnostic Tools debugger window will feature a list of events that were tracked and recorded by IntelliTrace. Again, these event types might include gestures by the user within the application interface, database queries, and so forth. With the currently live debugging session paused you can then navigate through the event log and select a particular event you wish to view then click Activate Historical Debugging. This will immediately enter Historical Debugging mode which shows your application code (along with all relevant local variables) in the state they were in at that specific moment of the accessed event.

This incredibly powerful feature allows you to perform historical diagnostics during a debugging session so you can more easily investigate particular bugs or issues when you aren’t sure exactly what event in the code might’ve caused them.

As usual, feel free to check out the official documentation for more information on IntelliTrace in Visual Studio.