# -fno-semantic-interposition

This article is a continuation to ELF interposition and -Bsymbolic. It focuses on the GCC/Clang option -fno-semantic-interposition and why it can (sometimes incredibly) optimize -fPIC programs.

## Source level implication

Now let's discuss how the compiler models C/C++ in terms of the binary format semantics. An external linkage function/variable has STB_GLOBAL binding and STV_DEFAULT visibility by default, e.g. f and g in the following code. (Note: we exclude vague linkage definitions for our discussion.)

A -fpic compiled object file can be linked as a shared object. f is preemptible when linked as a shared object. GCC's -fpic interpretation is to anticipate that the definition may change and suppress interprocedural optimizations including inlining.

The emitted assembly looks like:

f cannot be inlined into g. g cannot make use of f's characteristics for optimizations. (This turns out to be the biggest difference between -fpie and -fpic. A -fpie object file cannot make a shared object, so a definition is known to be non-preemptible.) In CPython's case, they said it was up to 30% due to suppressed interprocedural optimizations.

The pessimization does not stop here. See my next article ELF interposition and -Bsymbolic for the cost.

This is a feature used by extremely few libraries that penalizes most other libraries. I'll say fewer than 0.1%. A portable project needs ld -interposable, DYLD_FORCE_FLAT_NAMESPACE or __attribute__((section("__DATA,__interpose"))) to work on Mach-O, but there is no counterpart on Windows. Read on.

On PE-COFF, f cannot be interposed.

## GCC -fno-semantic-interposition

GCC 5 introduced -fno-semantic-interposition to optimize -fpic. It assumes that interposition will not change the semantics (and side effects) of the interposed function. First, GCC can apply interprocedural optimizations including inlining like -fno-pic and -fpie. Second, in the emitted assembly, a function call will go through a local alias to avoid PLT if linked with -shared.

If f is a non-definition declaration, -fno-semantic-interposition has no behavior difference.

Now let's look at a more complex example with an address taken operation.

gcc -O2 -fpic -fno-semantic-interposition produces

Note that GCC still uses the original symbol for address taking so that interposition can keep pointer equality.

Note that GCC does not use a local alias for global variables. This is important to keep copy relocations working. Scroll to the bottom of the article for a libc++ variable interspoition example. Disabling variable interposition would cause breakage.

I filed PR100937 and posted a configure option patch. It was immediately closed as wontfix.

## Clang -fno-semantic-interposition

### Long-standing behavior

It turns out that the first merit of the GCC feature "interprocedural optimizations including inlining are applicable" is actually Clang's long-standing behavior for external linkage definitions in -fpic code.

When -fsemantic-interposition was contributed by Serge Guelton, I noted that we should keep the aggressive behavior, even if it differs from GCC, not to regress the long-standing optimizations. (ipconstprop, inliner, sccp, sroa treat normal ExternalLinkage GlobalObjects non-interposable.)

### dso_local inference in -fpic -fno-semantic-interposition mode

I contributed an optimization to Clang 11: in -fpic -fno-semantic-interposition mode, default visibility external linkage definitions get the dso_local specifier, like in -fno-pic and -fpie modes. For -fpic code, access to a dso_local symbol will go through its local alias .Lfoo$local. For -fno-pic and -fpie code, access to a dso_local symbol can use the original foo because the object file shall not be linked with -shared. With dso_local, there are some noticeable behavior differences: • variable access: access the local symbol directly instead of going through a GOT indirection • function call: call .Lfoo$local
• taking the address of a function: similar to a variable access

For the previous C example, the emitted assembly will look like the following.

The local alias is a .L symbol. This is deliberate:

• The assembler suppresses the symbol table entry (if not RISC-V -mrelax) and converts relocations to reference the section symbol instead.
• Tools cannot be confused by two symbols at the same location. In an object file produced by GCC, currently llvm-objdump will label a function as f.localalias.

The branch target symbol will have a different type: STT_FUNC -> STT_NOTYPE. In some processor supplementary ABI, there may be certain implications on range extension thunks. AArch64 is known to be good but ABI makers should be aware of this.

GCC doesn't use local aliases for global variables. It turns out that I misinterepreted GCC's semantics, I plan to remove local aliases for global variables in Clang. This rarely matters for performance.

In Clang cc1, there are three states:

• -fsemantic-interposition: this represents -fpic -fsemantic-interposition. Don't set dso_local on default visibility external linkage definitions. Emit a module flag metadata SemanticInterposition to disallow interprocedural optimizations.
• -fhalf-no-semantic-interposition: this represents -fpic without a semantic interposition option. Don't set dso_local on default visibility external linkage definitions. However, interprocedural optimizations on such definitons are allowed.
• (default): this represents either of -fno-pic, -fpie, and -fpic -fno-semantic-interposition. Set dso_local on default visibility external linkage definitions. Interprocedural optimizations on such definitons are allowed.

### Supported targets

As of Clang 12, -fno-semantic-interposition is only effective on x86.

Clang 13 will support AArch64 (https://reviews.llvm.org/D101873) and RISC-V (https://reviews.llvm.org/D101876).

## What GlobalValues can be optimized in LLVM IR?

It must be a definition for the linker, so available_externally and extern_weak are excluded. It must be a definition not replaceable by a different copy in the same linkage unit, so common, {linkonce,weak}{,_odr} are excluded. It must lower to a symbol with a non-local binding, so private and internal are excluded. appending can only be used by special LLVM internal global variables.

So the only optimizable linkage is external. We should additionally exclude an external in a COMDAT, which is replaceable.

## ThinLTO

I believe ThinLTO -fpic -fno-semantic-interposition works for ThinLTO:) ThinLTO required two changes: if a GlobalVariable is converted to a declaration, we should drop the dso_local specifier (D74749 D74751).

In GCC's foo.localalias scheme, there is an extra symbol table entry (sizeof(Elf64_Sym) = 24) and a string in the string table.

In Clang's .Lfoo\$local scheme, this generally costs a STT_SECTION symbol table entry (the entry can usually be suppressed).

## Can Clang default to -fno-semantic-interposition?

Clang currently has three states. There are some optimization opportunities between the half state and the full -fno-semantic-interposition. It is natural to ask whether we can drop the half state and make -fpic default to the full state.

This is something I'd like Clang to do, but I'll note that there is still some risk. Some points favoring the changed default.

### Interprocedural optimizations (including inlining)

For ELF -fpic, Clang never suppresses interprocedural optimizations (including inlining) on default visibility external linkage definitions. So projects relying on blocked interprocedural optimizations have been broken for years. They only probably work recently by specifying -fsemantic-interposition.

### Assembler behavior for VK_None

Before 2020-01 (https://reviews.llvm.org/D72197), the integrated assembler resolved the fixup when the target symbol and the location are in the same section. There was no relocation, so the linker could not produce a PLT.

Non-x86 targets typically use VK_None for branch instruction. x86 uses VK_PLT for -fpie and -fpic.

If a project passed with -fno-function-sections on aarch64/ppc/etc before 2020-01, we have some confidence that the project does not rely on function semantic interposition.

### In action

I wanted a configure option --enable-default-semantic-interposition from GCC, so that -fpic compiles can default to -fno-semantic-interposition. The feature request https://gcc.gnu.org/PR100937 was rejected.

## Applications

Python. CPython 3.10 sets -fno-semantic-interposition. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8.2 brings faster Python 3.8 run speeds says there is a huge improvement (up to 30%). This is really an upper bound you can see from real world applications. This suggests that the relevant code was not particularly tuned for the (unfortunate) ELF toolchain defaults.

A small single-digit performance boost (say, 4%) is what I'd normally expect. In https://bugs.archlinux.org/task/70697 and https://bugzilla.redhat.com/show_bug.cgi?id=1956484, I suggest that distributions consider -fno-semantic-interposition and -Bsymbolic-functions when building Clang. My x86_64 defconfig build with a clang built with -fPIC -fno-semantic-interposition is 4% faster (total time, so the clang improvement is larger than 4%). The number may be larger with GCC built -fPIC clang since GCC -fPIC disables interprocedural optimizations on default visibility definitions. With -fPIC -fno-semantic-interposition -Wl,-Bsymbolic-functions, my clang is 15% faster (relocation processing takes too much time).

When built with GCC, -fno-semantic-interposition makes my libclang-cpp.so 2% smaller on top of -Wl,-Bsymbolic-functions

## Variable interposition examples

### libc++ locale

libcxx/src/locale.cpp calls install(&make<_VSTD::ctype<char> >(nullptr, false, 1u)); to initialize std::__1::ctype<char>::id. In libcxx/include/__locale (which may be transitively included by the executable), the std::__1::ctype<char>::id reference is expected to be bound to std::__1::ctype<char>::id defined in libc++.so.1. If std::__1::ctype<char>::id is copy relocated by the executable, the std::__1::ctype<char>::id reference from the executable will be bound to the uninitialized copy in the executable, causing a no-facet failure.