A debugging journey

An issue was opened https://github.com/r-lib/fs/issues/95 in the fs package describing an unexpected error code (ENOENT rather than EEXIST) when copying the same file to the same destination twice. Tracking down the cause of this turned out to be one of the weirdest bugs I have seen.

The fs package provides filesystem operations for the R language, it is built on top of filesystem functions in libuv. Libuv in turn relies on the native system calls for each operating system it supports.

The first step in dealing with any bug is reproducing it. The original issue had a reprex (which is great!) and in this case I was able to simplify it to the following


fs::file_copy("a", "b")
#> Error: [ENOENT] Failed to copy 'a' to 'b': no such file or directory

The error being the error code ENOENT, which corresponds to an errno of 2. The first interesting bit to this issue is that this incorrect error code only occurred the first time the copy was attempted in an R session. Subsequent attempts always returned the proper EEXIST error code.


try(fs::file_copy("a", "b"))
#> Error : [ENOENT] Failed to copy 'a' to 'b': no such file or directory
try(fs::file_copy("a", "b"))
#> Error : [EEXIST] Failed to copy 'a' to 'b': file already exists

Usually if the behavior of code is different the first time it is run it is caused by failing to initialize an object. As always the first code to look at when debugging an error is your own, luckily in this case it had straightforward logic that looked correct.


file_copy <- function(path, new_path, overwrite = FALSE) {
  # TODO: copy attributes, e.g. cp -p?

  copyfile_(path_expand(path), path_expand(new_path), isTRUE(overwrite))



void copyfile_(CharacterVector path, CharacterVector new_path, bool overwrite) {
  for (R_xlen_t i = 0; i < Rf_xlength(path); ++i) {
    uv_fs_t req;
    const char* p = CHAR(STRING_ELT(path, i));
    const char* n = CHAR(STRING_ELT(new_path, i));
        !overwrite ? UV_FS_COPYFILE_EXCL : 0,
    stop_for_error2(req, "Failed to copy '%s' to '%s'", p, n);

Essentially we iterate over the old and new paths in turn and pass them to uv_fs_copyfile(), specifying the UV_FS_COPYFILE_EXCL option to indicate we want to fail the copy if the destination file already exists.

My first thought was there was a race condition when creating the file and copying, however we observe the same behavior if the files exist prior to opening the R session, so that hypothesis was quickly ruled out.

The next idea was there was a bug in libuv, so lets go look at the implementation for uv_fs_copyfile. Luckily for us the implementation it is also very short on macOS.


static ssize_t uv__fs_copyfile(uv_fs_t* req) {
#if defined(__APPLE__) && !TARGET_OS_IPHONE
  /* On macOS, use the native copyfile(3). */
  copyfile_flags_t flags;

  flags = COPYFILE_ALL;

  if (req->flags & UV_FS_COPYFILE_EXCL)
    flags |= COPYFILE_EXCL;

  return copyfile(req->path, req->new_path, NULL, flags);

So this is a very short shim over the system function copyfile(3) with the COPYFILE_EXCL flag.

Therefore we can rule out the issue being libuv by calling copyfile(3) directly in our package.

void copyfile_(CharacterVector path, CharacterVector new_path, bool overwrite) {
  for (R_xlen_t i = 0; i < Rf_xlength(path); ++i) {
    uv_fs_t req;
    const char* p = CHAR(STRING_ELT(path, i));
    const char* n = CHAR(STRING_ELT(new_path, i));

    int res = copyfile("a", "b", NULL, COPYFILE_ALL | COPYFILE_EXCL);
    Rcpp::Rcout << res << ':' << errno << '\n';

Unfortunately we see the same behavior from this function the first time it is called in a new R session, the errno is set to 2 (ENOENT) instead of 17 (EEXIST) and is 17 as expected the rest of the time. This rules out libuv as the culprit.

So the next idea, maybe it is a weird interaction with Rcpp or C++? To test this we can create a new copyfile R package, that uses only C and copyfile(3). Unfortunately after running the resultatnt copyfile::copyfile() in a new session the issue was still present. So this must not be an issue with C++ or Rcpp.

Next, maybe it is an R issue, lets try reproduce it with a standalone C program.

#include <copyfile.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <string.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
  errno = 0;
  int res = copyfile(argv[1], argv[2], NULL, COPYFILE_ALL | COPYFILE_EXCL);
  if (res == -1) {
    printf("%i:%i:%s", res, errno, strerror(errno));
  return errno;

In this case it does not reproduce the error, we always get 17 from errno regardless of which call it is.

So this leaves only a few possibilities. It is a genuine issue in R, an issue in the implementation of copyfile(3), an issue elsewhere in the OS, or a compiler bug.

R does not use copyfile() itself and does not seem to change errno so it seemed unlikely to be the culprit.

Apple releases the source code to some of its utilities and system functions, copyfile(3) is one of them, so we can look at the source copyfile-138. One thing to note in the source is there is logging being used by the copyfile(3) function. So lets see if the system logs can tell us anything more.

If we run log stream --predicate 'processImpagePath ENDSWITH "R"' we can capture any system logs from R processes. Then we can run our copyfile::copyfile() function in another window. Doing this gives us this interesting output from the log.

> log stream --predicate 'processImagePath ENDSWITH "R"'
Filtering the log data using "processImagePath ENDSWITH "R""
Timestamp                       Thread     Type        Activity PID
2018-03-30 12:23:45.134161-0400 0x4925ce   Default     0x0      75117  R: (libcopyfile.dylib) open on b: File exists

But this output from R.

#> -1:2:No such file or directory

So the errno is set correctly when it is logged (File exists), but changed (No such file or directory) when copyfile(3) returns. The other clue from the log is the log message “open on b:”. If we search for “open on” in the copyfile(3) source code we find two instances.

if ((s->src_fd = open(s->src, O_RDONLY | osrc , 0)) < 0)
  copyfile_warn("open on %s", s->src);
  return -1;

Then a little further down

copyfile_warn("open on %s", s->dst);
return -1;

Because b is the destination filename that means the latter one must be where the log occurred. Because the function returns immediately after the logging and the errno is correct when the log is printed maybe the errno is being changed in the logging function????

If we look at the copyfile_warn() definition we see it is

# define copyfile_warn(str, ...) syslog(LOG_WARNING, str ": %m", ## __VA_ARGS__)

Which seems innocuous enough. However exploring the available sources we can see there are multiple versions of the copyfile source available, if we use a higher version number copyfile-146 (aside: does anyone know what macOS versions correspond to these numbers?) we see the following definition of copyfile_warn().

// These macros preserve the value of errno.
# define copyfile_warn(str, ...) \
    do { \
        errno_t _errsv = errno; \
        syslog(LOG_WARNING, str ": %m", ## __VA_ARGS__); \
        errno = _errsv; \
    } while (0)```

So it seems as though the code has been changed at some point to preserve the errno; indicating that previous versions did not preserve this in all cases exactly the behavior we are seeing!

We can then test this hypothesis by disabling logging for our R process and seeing if it fixes the bug.

First we need to get the R PID

#> [1] 77310

Then we can disable logging on the command line for that PID

sudo log config --process=77310 --mode 'level:off'

Last we can run our test command

#> -1:17:File exists

SUCCESS!!! With logging turned off we get the expected error number 17 and proper error message File exists.

So after this lengthy exploration this seems like a bug in either the copyfile() or syslog() implementations, and may possibly be fixed in newer versions of macOS than I am using (10.12.6 Sierra). This was truly one of the weirder bugs I have encountered, which is why I took the time to document it. I am still not entirely sure the exact cause, but we have enough evidence to show the likely culprit is the system logging.

Jim Hester
Software Engineer

I’m a Software Engineer at RStudio and R package developer.