Linker garbage collection

A program may have a lot of unused code and data. There can be many reasons:

  • There is indeed unused code and data in all code paths.
  • The code and data may be unused in some code paths. This is common for libraries where not all usage can exercise all code paths.
  • The compiler generates duplicates definitions and expects the linker to deduplicate them, e.g. inline functions, implicit template instantiations, vtables, type_info objects. One copy is needed and the others can/must be discarded.

The compiler can detect some unused code and data for point 1 (e.g. -Wunused). However, due to the limitation of seeing just one translation unit, a lot of cases (e.g. unused non-internal linkage definitions) cannot be detected. The linker, which has visibility to all translation units, is the best place to do this. Many linkers provide features to discard unused code and data:

  • Archive member selection. If an archive member cannot satisfy an undefined reference, it may not be pulled into the link. This avoids all section contribution from the member.
  • COMDAT section deduplication
  • Section based garbage collection

This article focuses on the last point. In GNU linkers, the feature is called "garbage collection" (ld --gc-sections). On macOS, ld64 calls it "dead stripping" (ld -dead_strip). On Windows, the documentation says "eliminates functions and data that are never referenced" (link.exe /OPT:REF).

In many binary formats, "section" is an inseparable unit. The garbage collection feature starts with a list of sections which should be retained (GC roots). For each retained section, the linker marks referenced sections via relocations and associated sections (ELF section group and PE IMAGE_COMDAT_SELECT_ASSOCIATIVE). In the end, unmarked sections are discarded. If a symbol is defined relative to a discarded section, the symbol is discarded as well.

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set visited;
stack work_list;
for each section
if section is a GC root {
work_list.push_back(section);
visited.insert(section);
}
while (work_list.size()) {
section sec = work_list.back();
work_list.pop_back();
for each referenced section
if (visited.insert(section))
work_list.push_back(section);
}

ELF

To leverage section based GC, -ffunction-sections and -fdata-sections are needed. Otherwise, monolithic text and data sections are produced and they will likely be retained as a whole.

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# _start is a GC root.
.text
.globl _start
_start:
# The relocation causes .text.foo to be marked.
call foo

.section .text.foo,"ax",@progbits
.globl foo
foo:
# The relocation causes .text.bar to be marked.
call bar

.section .text.bar,"ax",@progbits
.globl bar
bar:
ret

-fno-unique-section-names

-ffunction-sections causes section names like .text.name. -fdata-sections causes section names like .data.name, .rodata.name, .data.rel.local.name. While the names are nice for debugging purposes, there are several issues:

  • Input section descriptions in a linker script need to take care of the optional suffix: *(.data .data.*).
  • The section names are unique can consume the the string table space.
  • Section for optimization purposes unfortunately picked ambiguous names: .text.exit.*, .text.hot.*, .text.unlikely.*, etc.

For the first point, $ in PE-COFF is a great alternative. For the second point, Clang provides -fno-unique-section-names to save the string table space: stem names such as .text, .data, .rodata are used.

-fno-unique-section-names needs to create multiple sections with the same name. This requires a new assembler syntax: .section .text,"a",@progbits,unique,1. H.J. Lu implemented the syntax for binutils 2.35.

GNU ld

The following sections are GC roots.

  • Sections which define a symbol specified by -u, --entry, --init, or --fini
  • Sections which define a symbol exported to .dynsym
    • STV_DEFAULT or STV_PROTECTED
    • -shared or --export-dynamic or --gc-keep-exported
    • ...
  • Sections which have the SHF_GNU_RETAIN flag
  • SHT_PREINIT_ARRAY/SHT_INIT_ARRAY/SHT_FINI_ARRAY
  • Non-SHF_ALLOC non-SHF_LINK_ORDER SHT_NOTE
  • Linker created sections (SEC_LINKER_CREATED)
  • Sections which are matched by an input section description with the KEEP keyword
  • ...

If there is at least one retained non-SHT_NOTE SHF_ALLOC section, GNU ld will mark more sections. Otherwise, most sections (e.g. .debug_*) will be discarded. (See bfd/elflink.c:_bfd_elf_gc_mark_extra_sections) This heuristic is interesting: it can discard quite a few debug sections when no non-SHT_NOTE SHF_ALLOC section is retained.

  • Non-SHF_ALLOC non-SHF_LINK_ORDER sections which are not in a section group
    • Except .debug_line.* which is associated to a discarded text section
  • Group sections which contain just non-SHF_ALLOC sections

GNU ld does not support garbage collecting SHF_MERGE sections (PR26622). If the only references to an as-needed shared object are from discarded sections, the DT_NEEDED entry can be omitted. GNU ld does not implement this (PR24836).

You can dump discarded sections with --print-gc-sections.

ld.lld

The following sections are GC roots.

  • Sections which define a symbol specified by -u, --entry, --init, or --fini
  • Sections which define a symbol exported to .dynsym
  • Sections which define a symbol referenced by a linker script
  • Sections which have the SHF_GNU_RETAIN flag
  • SHT_PREINIT_ARRAY/SHT_INIT_ARRAY/SHT_FINI_ARRAY
  • SHT_NOTE not within a section group (this rule is for Fedora watermark)
  • .ctors/.dtors/.init/.fini/.jcr
  • Personality routines or language-specific data area referenced by .eh_frame. LLD handles --gc-sections before .eh_frame deduplication, so this may retain sections than needed.
  • Sections which are matched by an input section description with the KEEP keyword

Non-SHF_ALLOC non-SHF_LINK_ORDER non-SHF_REL[A] non-SHF_GROUP sections are retained, albeit not GC roots.

Debug sections

Linkers do not discard debug sections. This follows the "smart format, dumb linker" philosophy. DWARF sections are large. Optimizing them would take a significant amount of link time.

There are, however, instances where discarded text sections can lead to some placeholder values (sometimes referred to as tombstone values) in DWARF.

  • .debug_ranges & .debug_loc: 1 (LLD<11: 0+addend; GNU ld uses 1 for .debug_ranges)
  • .debug_*: 0 (LLD<11: 0+addend; GNU ld uses 0; future LLD: 0xffffffff or 0xffffffffffffffff)

SHF_GNU_RETAIN

In binutils 2.36, GNU as introduced the flag R to represent SHF_GNU_RETAIN on FreeBSD and Linux emulations. This is an architecture-independent way to mark a section as a GC root. I have added the support to LLVM integrated assembler and LLD and allowed the syntax on all ELF platforms.

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.section meta,"aR",@progbits

With GCC>=11 or Clang>=13 (https://reviews.llvm.org/D97447), you can write:

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__attribute__((retain,used,section("meta")))
static const char dummy[0];

The used attribute, when attached to a function or variable definition, indicates that there may be references to the entity which are not apparent in the source code. On COFF and Mach-O targets (Windows and Apple platforms), the used attribute prevents symbols from being removed by linker section GC. On ELF targets, GNU ld/gold/LLD may remove the definition if it is not otherwise referenced.

The retain attributed was introduced in GCC 11 to set the SHF_GNU_RETAIN flag on ELF targets.

The typical solution before SHF_GNU_RETAIN is:

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asm(".pushsection .init_array,\"aw\",%init_array\n" \
".reloc ., BFD_RELOC_NONE, meta\n" \
".popsection\n")

(BFD_RELOC_NONE requires binutils>=2.26.)

This idea is that SHT_INIT_ARRAY sections are GC roots. An empty SHT_INIT_ARRAY does not change the output. The .reloc directive produces a relocation. BFD_RELOC_NONE is special notation which transforms to the architecture dependent R_*_NONE relocation type. The relocation serves as an artificial reference: it does not modify the location but can keep the section defining meta live.

I added .reloc support for R_ARM_NONE/R_AARCH64_NONE/R_386_NONE/R_X86_64_NONE/R_PPC_NONE/R_PPC64_NONE in LLVM 9.0.0 and BFD_RELOC_NONE support in LLVM 13.0.0. If you target older Clang, you can write:

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asm(".pushsection .init_array,\"aw\",%init_array\n" \
".reloc ., R_AARCH64_NONE, meta\n" \
".popsection\n")

See Metadata sections, COMDAT and SHF_LINK_ORDER for metadata section usage.

SHF_MERGE sections

This section flag applies to some constant data sections. If the section contains data elements of uniform size and the addresses are not significant, duplicate elements can be replaced by one representative element. The references from other sections can be bound to the representative element.

LLD supports garbage collection of unused pieces. GNU ld has not implemented the feature (PR26622).

PE/COFF

PE has a concept "Grouped Sections": if the section name includes $, the linker discards $ and the following characters. Thus, an object section named .text$name actually contributes to the .text section in the image.

.CRT$XCU is the global initializer section (similar to ELF SHT_INIT_ARRAY). A .CRT$XCU in an IMAGE_COMDAT_SELECT_ASSOCIATIVE section referencing an IMAGE_SCN_LNK_COMDAT text section can be garbage collected.

  • Sections which define a symbol specified by /include:
  • Sections which define a symbol specified by llvm.used (in bitcode, the /include: workaround happens too late)
  • Sections which define a symbol specified by /export:
  • Sections which define the delay load helper if /delayload is specified

Misc

Unfortunately GC roots require linker options. For a local symbol, there is no good way to retain the definition because /include: cannot be used. Using a unique name COMDAT with its name referenced by a /include: directive is a possible workaround.

__attribute__((used)) prevents the symbol from beging removed by linker section GC. Due to the above limitation, in LLVM this attribute does not work with local symbols.

Mach-O

As a binary format Mach-O is quite limited. You cannot have more than 255 sections. Thankfully, there is an interesting feature .subsections_via_symbols. While other binary formats introduce more sections and define a separate symbol for each section, .subsections_via_symbols uses a monolithic section and lets symbols split the section into logically independent pieces. This is a really great invention working around the limitation.

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.section __TEXT,__text,regular,pure_instructions
.globl _a
_a:
...

.globl _b
_b:
...

Because .subsections_via_symbols is always enabled, -ffunction-sections and -fdata-sections are no-op.

When __attribute__((used)) is specified on a symbol, it gets a .no_dead_strip directive to keep it live. In object files, this bit is N_NO_DEAD_STRIP.

The section attribute no_dead_strip can be specified on a section to keep it live. In object files, this bit is S_NO_DEAD_STRIP.

The section attribute live_support can be specified on a section. The section is live if any of its referenced section is live. In object files, this bit is S_ATTR_LIVE_SUPPORT. This attribute is used by __TEXT,__eh_frame and can be seen as a generalized SHF_LINK_ORDER.

LLVM IR

The global variable llvm.used is an appending linkage array which contains a list of GlobalValues (most are GlobalObjects). If a symbol appears in the list, the compiler, assembler and linker cannot discard it.

The global variable llvm.compiler.used is an appending linkage array which contains a list of GlobalValues (most are GlobalObjects). This is similar to llvm.used, except that the linker can discard the symbol.

__attribute__((used)) in GNU C maps to llvm.compiler.used on ELF and llvm.compiler.used on COFF/Mach-O/wasm.

Code generation options can be categorized into IR generation options (e.g. -g) and object file generation options (e.g. -ffunction-sections -fdata-sections). Without LTO, you usually do not see a line between the two because both of them take actions when producing an object file. With LTO, the distinction becomes clearer: IR generation options have effects on .c -> .ll/.bc (though usually people reuse ".o") and object file generation options have effects on .ll/.bc -> .o. In LLVM, -ffunction-sections and -fdata-sections are object file generating options and do not affect IR generation. LLD and LLVMgold.so enable function sections and data sections automatically.

In LLVM LTO, there is a dead stripping feature which is enabled by default (-mllvm -compute-dead=true). It computes the list of dead symbols (computeDeadSymbolsWithConstProp), i.e. not reachable from a retained symbol. For ThinLTO, this can decrease compile time because of fewer function imports, and improvement on internalization because of fewer imports/exports. In thinBackend, such dead symbols are dropped.

A natural question is why is --gc-sections still useful with LTO.

For regular LTO, very few sections generated by the compiler are discarded by --gc-sections. The are not optimized out because:

  • Target specific optimizations can drop references on constants (e.g. memcpy(..., &constant, sizeof(constant));)
  • Due to phase ordering issues some definitions are not discarded by the optimizer.

For ThinLTO there are more sections discarded by --gc-sections:

  • ThinLTO can cause a definition to be imported to other modules. The original definition may be unneeded after imports.
  • The definition may survive after intra-module optimization. After imports, a round of (inter-module) IR optimizations after computeDeadSymbolsWithConstProp may make the definition unneeded.
  • Symbol resolution is conservative.

Regarding symbol resolution, symbol resolution happens before LTO and LTO happens before --gc-sections. The symbol resolution process may be conservative: it may communicate to LTO that some symbols are referenced by regular object files while in the GC stage the references turn out to not exist because of discarded sections with more precise GC roots.

Linux kernel

Since v4.10, the CONFIG_LD_DEAD_CODE_DATA_ELIMINATION configuration option is provided to leverage ld --gc-sections.

Mach-O

  • Sections which define a symbol specified by -u, -e, or -exported_symbol
  • Sections which define a symbol with the N_NO_DEAD_STRIP attribute or the ReferencedDynamically attribute
  • Sections with the S_ATTR_NO_DEAD_STRIP flag

Windows link.exe /OPT:REF

The Windows garbage collection only works with COMDAT sections. THis is not a major issue in practice because with function sections every text section is in a COMDAT, either IMAGE_COMDAT_SELECT_NODUPLICATES or IMAGE_COMDAT_SELECT_ANY.