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Not sure how "layman" to get... but here you go :)

ASAN helps find difficult-to-reproduce bugs, e.g. data races. A data race occurs when two or more threads access the same memory locations in a undefined order. The OS can interrupt threads at any time, it's hard to test all possible interleavings of instructions from multiple threads. Programmers typically have some invariants in their mind but it's really easy to make a mistake, and hard to detect it.

To use the tool, you compile a C/C++ program in a different way. The ASAN toolchain instruments your memory accesses. Then you run your program (or unit tests for library code). And it will tell you if there were memory errors like data races. Then you look at your source code and fix the bug.

Valgrind does a similar thing and is a standard open source tool. As mentioned on the page, this is faster.




What you described is Thread Sanitizer (clang toolchain). The corresponding valgrind-based tools would be Helgrind and DRD.

ASan can only catch memory errors in C/C++ programs. A memory error is an access outside the allocated memory of an object, e.g. due to incorrect pointer arithmetics. Such errors would otherwise go undetected but can cause all kinds of errors in the program, like corrupted data, crashes etc.

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There's some overlap between the two tools. Race conditions often lead to memory errors of the type that ASan can detect. TSan/Helgrind are the way to go if you want to find races that happen to be benign most of the time, or lock ordering problems, or races that lead to non-memory problems.

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