Bossy Lobster

A blog by Danny Hermes; musing on tech, mathematics, etc.

Edit on GitHub

An Interesting Bug

A fairly common interview question is

What is the "hardest" bug you've dealt with?

I've both asked it and answered it in interviews. It's pretty rare that the answer is useful and actionable, but I'll hold off on commenting on the state of the art in tech interviews today. (Usually the interviewer defines what "hardest" means or the interviewee asks for more specifics.)

Though it's been a few years since I've interviewed for jobs, I still can recall the discomfort at not having a good answer for this question. (Probably exacerbated by the fact that I was asking candidates a question I didn't have a good answer to.)

However, I recently acquired a good answer. Immediately after tracking down a "bug" in the oauth2client library, I realized that I was set for (interview) life.

First Contact

A user reported a bug in a library I maintain. The evidence of the bug was an obscure HTTP response ({'error': 'invalid_grant'}) rather than an errant code path.

My initial instinct was that for some reason, the user was sending a malformed request due to encoding issues. This library notoriously has had many bugs involving the support for Python 2 and 3 simultaneously and these often lead to incorrect representation of text (mixing up bytes and unicode).


After some futile back-and-forth on the bug report, it was clear that I'd need to be on the failing machine to really determine what was happening. (This was made clear by the fact that the user could successfully execute the same code on OS X that failed on an EC2 instance ... foreshadowing.)

I hopped onto a screenshare with the user and we went to work. The first thing we did was to step into the failing line of code. We ran the failing script with ipython -i (interactive mode) and then used the %debug magic to step into the code right where the exception occurred.

On checking the JSON web token (JWT) in the body, it was clear that the header, payload and signed final segment were correct on both OS X and his EC2 instance.

Check the Crypto

Since the plaintext (base64 encoded JSON) header and payload segments of the JWT were valid, we next stepped into the make_signed_jwt function to ensure that the JWT signature was being created correctly on both machines.

We even copied and pasted identical header and payload strings and found identical signatures on OS X and the EC2 instance (running Ubuntu).

Not Crypto, Not Cryptic

At this point, I was completely perplexed. The request was seemingly perfectly constructed and — given the same inputs — both operating systems performed identically.

But the user that filed the bug had the key insight. The assumption "given the same inputs" was now the point of failure.

He looked at the payload

  "aud": "",
  "exp": 1433902178,
  "iat": 1433898578,
  "iss": "[email protected]",
  "scope": ""

and realized the timestamps (exp for expired and iat for issued at, which are an hour, i.e. 3600 seconds apart) were drastically different from OS X to the EC2 instance!

These are determined as seconds since the epoch:

>>> import datetime
>>> int(time.mktime(datetime.datetime.utcnow().timetuple()))

Final Solution

After this realization, the answer was quite simple:

The clock had drifted on the EC2 instance and the time was wrong. In fact, it was 450 minutes in the past.

So when the oauth2client library issued requests, it asked for tokens that expired 390 minutes in the past (an hour past the "current" time on the machine). Complying with this is an impossibility, hence the invalid grant error.

This most interesting bug wasn't a bug in the library, but an incorrectly configured local environment. Once we realized this fact, the fix was as simple as:

$ sudo ntpdate -s