Symbol processing

UNDER CONSTRUCTION (COFF, Mach-O)

Symbol processing is a major step in a linker. In most binary formats, the linker maintains a global symbol table and performs symbols resolution for each input file (object file, shared object, archive, LLVM bitcode file). Some command line options can define/undefine symbols as well. The symbol resolution can affect archive processing and many subsequent steps (LTO, relocation processing, as-needed shared objects, etc).

ELF

I will mainly discuss the ELF format.

Symbol tables

An object file can have optional symbol tables.

A relocatable object file almost always has a symbol table, which is represented by a section .symtab of type SHT_SYMTAB. The symbol table is sometimes called a "static symbol table".

An executable or shared object almost always has a dynamic symtable table, which is represented by a section .dynsym of type SHT_DYNSYM. The dynamic symbol table specifies defined and undefined symbols, which can be seen as its export and import lists. They are needed by runtime relocation processing and symbol binding. A position dependent statically linked executable usually has no dynamic symbol table, because (1) it usually does not need dynamic relocations and (2) there is only one component and every needed symbol is defined internally, no need for symbol binding.

An executable or shared object may have an optional symbol table of type SHT_SYMTAB. ld produces the symbol table (.symtab) by default. The static symbol table is a superset of the dynamic symbol table and has many entries (local symbols and other non-exported symbols) not needed by runtime. It has value for symbolization without debug information but otherwise is not useful. Therefore an executable or shared object is usually post-processed by strip --strip-all which can remove .symtab along with .strtab and debug sections.

An archive is like a tarball. It almost always contains multiple relocatable object files. Almost all archives have a symbol index which is a collection of (defined_symbol, member_name) pairs. An archive requires special processing. See Dependency related linker options#Archive processing for details.

Symbols

A symbol table holds an array of entries. Each symbol table entry indicates a symbol. Let's look at the representations of a 32-bit ELF object file and a 64-bit ELF object file:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
typedef struct {
uint32_t st_name;
uint32_t st_value;
uint32_t st_size;
uint8_t st_info;
uint8_t st_other;
uint16_t st_shndx;
} Elf32_Sym;

typedef struct {
uint32_t st_name;
uint8_t st_info;
uint8_t st_other;
uint16_t st_shndx;
uint64_t st_value;
uint64_t st_size;
} Elf64_Sym;

Here is the description from the ELF specification:

  • st_name: This member holds an index into the object file's symbol string table, which holds the character representations of the symbol names. If the value is non-zero, it represents a string table index that gives the symbol name. Otherwise, the symbol table entry has no name.
  • st_value: This member gives the value of the associated symbol. Depending on the context, this may be an absolute value, an address, and so on; details appear below.
  • st_size: Many symbols have associated sizes. For example, a data object's size is the number of bytes contained in the object. This member holds 0 if the symbol has no size or an unknown size.
  • st_info: This member specifies the symbol's type and binding attributes. A list of the values and meanings appears below. The following code shows how to manipulate the values for both 32 and 64-bit objects.
  • st_other: This member currently specifies a symbol's visibility. A list of the values and meanings appears below. The following code shows how to manipulate the values for both 32 and 64-bit objects. Other bits contain 0 and have no defined meaning.
  • st_shndx: Every symbol table entry is defined in relation to some section. This member holds the relevant section header table index. As the sh_link and sh_info interpretation table and the related text describe, some section indexes indicate special meanings. If this member contains SHN_XINDEX, then the actual section header index is too large to fit in this field. The actual value is contained in the associated section of type SHT_SYMTAB_SHNDX.

Explanation:

st_name indicates the name.

st_shndx and st_value indicate whether the symbol is defined or undefined, and the associated section and the offset if defined. If st_shndx==SHN_UNDEF, we say the symbol is undefined. For an undefined symbol foo, we often say the object file references foo. If st_shndx!=SHN_UNDEF, we say the symbol is defined.

Some st_shndx values are special. If st_shndx==SHN_ABS, this is an absolute symbol. If st_shndx==SHN_COMMON, this is a common symbol (FORTRAN COMMON blocks or C tentative definitions). The binding must be STB_GLOBAL. A common symbol can also be represented as hasing a type of STT_COMMON but that is uncommon.

st_info encodes the type and the binding. Among types, STT_FILE, STT_SECTION and STT_TLS are special. Most symbols are of type STT_NOTYPE, STT_OBJECT, and STT_FUNC. Other types are uncommon. The binding is a very important attribute. All of STB_LOCAL, STB_GLOBAL, and STB_WEAK are important. A symbol of binding STB_LOCAL is often called a local symbol. A local symbol must be defined. It is not visible outside the object file, therefore it does contribute to the global symbol table. STB_WEAK represents a weak symbol. See Weak symbol for details. STB_GLOBAL represents a regular symbol visible outside the object file. Both weak and global symbols contribute to the global symbol table.

st_other encodes the visibility. The other bits are used by ppc64 ELFv2, AArch64, MIPS, etc. The visibility attribute represents different symbol resolution strategies for a non-local symbol. The linker only uses the information for a relocatable object file, not for a shared object.

A STV_HIDDEN or STV_INTERNAL symbol will be made STB_LOCAL in the linker output. This provides a mechanism to ensure a relocatable object file symbol will not be visible to other components. A STV_PROTECTED symbol provides a way to defeat performance loss due to symbol interposition for a relocatable object file which will be linked into a shared object. STV_DEFAULT is the default.

If multiple relocatable object files have a non-local symbol, the most constraining visibility will be the visibility in the output. The attributes, ordered from least to most constraining, are: STV_DEFAULT, STV_PROTECTED, STV_HIDDEN, and STV_INTERNAL. For a non-definition declaration in C/C++, we can make it STV_PROTECTED or STV_HIDDEN to ensure the symbol must be defined in the component. Actually, if every undefined is STV_PROTECTED by default, the model will be similar to PE-COFF's non-export by default model.

st_size just wastes space. The only minor use case is to provide a hint to .symtab based symbolization.

Symbol resolution

The following pseudocode gives a summary of input file processing in the linker.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
for file in input {
if file is a relocatable object file/bitcode file surrounded by --start-lib {
for sym in file's non-local symbols {
... // Lazy object file extraction may happen
}
} else if file is an archive not surrounded by --whole-archive {
for sym in file's index {
... // Archive member extraction may happen
}

} else if file is a shared object {
for sym in file's .dynsym { ... }

} else if file is a relocatable object file/bitcode file not surrounded by --start-lib {
for sym in file's non-local symbols { ... }
} else if file is an archive surrounded by --whole-archive {
for member in file {
if member is a relocatable object file/bitcode file {
handle member as a regular relocatable object file/bitcode file
}
}

} else {
error
}
}

The linker maintains a global symbol table for STB_GLOBAL and STB_WEAK symbols. The table can be seen as a collection mapping names to states. Each state encodes the symbol kind. In the following list, I place the LLD internal struct name before the description.

  • Undefined: An undefined symbol only referenced by shared objects
  • Undefined: An undefined symbol referenced by at least one relocatable object file/bitcode file
  • LazyArchive/LazyObjFile: An entry in an archive index or a definition in a relocatable object file/bitcode file inside a pair of --start-lib --end-lib
  • Shared: A definition in a shared object
  • CommonSymbol: A common symbol in a relocatable object file or LLVM bitcode file
  • Defined: A definition in a relocatable object file or LLVM bitcode file

The kinds are listed in increasing precedence. If the symbol in the current input file has a higher precedence than the global symbol table entry, the global symbol table entry will be overwritten.

Note the first Undefined kind. Such an undefined symbol only referenced by shared objects will not contribute a symbol table entry to the output. It is needed for several purposes:

  • Archive member extraction
  • --no-allow-shlib-undefined
  • Mark the symbol as exported if it ends up defined

Among Shared symbols, the first wins.

CommonSymbol can be regarded a special Defined which has a precedence lower than a STB_WEAK.

Among Defined symbols, a STB_GLOBAL overrides a STB_WEAK. If two STB_GLOBAL occur, the linker will report a duplicate definition error.

I will illustrate the symbol resolution rules with examples. As an abbreviation, I use "insert foo" to mean "insert foo to the global symbol table".

Duplicate definitions between relocatable object files

Both a.o and b.o define STB_GLOBAL foo. The linker command line is ld a.o b.o.

  • For a.o, insert foo as a Defined.
  • For b.o, notice that foo exists. Both are STB_GLOBAL => duplicate definition error.

STB_GLOBAL overrides STB_WEAK between relocatable object files

a.o defines STB_GLOBAL foo. c.o defines STB_WEAK foo. The linker command line is ld a.o c.o.

  • For a.o, insert foo as a Defined.
  • For c.o, notice that foo exists. The existing STB_GLOBAL definition wins.

In the output, the definition will come from a.o.

For ld c.o a.o, the incoming STB_GLOBAL definition will override the existing STB_WEAK definition.

Note: the STB_GLOBAL overriding STB_WEAK rule is between two relocatable object files.

STB_WEAK overrides common between relocatable object files

c.o defines STB_WEAK foo. d.o defines STB_GLOBAL SHN_COMMON foo. The linker command line is ld c.o d.o.

  • For c.o, insert foo as a Defined.
  • For d.o, notice that foo exists. The existing Defined entry wins.

The linker command line is ld d.o c.o.

  • For d.o, insert foo as a CommonSymbol.
  • For c.o, notice that foo exists. The incoming STB_WEAK definition overrides the existing CommonSymbol entry.

Relocatable object file overriding shared object

a.so defines STB_GLOBAL foo. c.o defines STB_WEAK foo. The linker command line is ld a.so c.o.

  • For a.so, insert foo as a Shared.
  • For c.o, notice that foo exists. The relocatable object file definition wins.

For ld c.o a.so, the definition in a.so will be ignored.

Note: the binding in a shared object is ignored for symbol resolution. The STB_GLOBAL overriding STB_WEAK rule does not apply, because a shared object is involved.

First shared object wins

a.so defines STB_GLOBAL foo. c.so defines STB_WEAK foo. The linker command line is ld c.so a.so.

  • For c.so, insert foo as a Shared.
  • For a.so, notice that foo exists. The first shared object wins.

Note: the binding in a shared object is ignored for symbol resolution. The STB_GLOBAL overriding STB_WEAK rule does not apply, because two shared objects are involved.

An undefined symbol in a shared object does not change the binding

w.o references STB_WEAK foo. x.so references STB_GLOBAL foo. The linker command line is ld w.o x.so.

  • For w.o, insert foo as an STB_WEAK Undefined.
  • For x.so, notice that foo exists. Ignore the incoming symbol.

The output binding will be STB_WEAK. For an executable link, -z defs is the default. The linker will report an error.

Archive processing

Archive processing is the most difficult part of the symbol resolution. An archive symbol represents a (defined_symbol, member_name) pair in an archive index.

The complexity comes from the lazy semantics. Initially every archive member is in a lazy state. The symbols (including defined and undefined ones) will not affect the output symbol table. A defined symbol in a member is called a lazy symbol. (Note: undefined symbols are ignored when the member is in a lazy state.)

An archive member or lazy object file can be extracted. This is triggered when a lazy symbol can be used to resolve an STB_GLOBAL undefined symbol referenced by a relocatable object file/bitcode file or shared object. Upon extraction, the member will be processed like a regular relocatable object file/bitcode file. Both definitions and undefined symbols will be processed.

As a replacement for thin archives, gold and ld.lld support --start-lib and --end-lib. A relocatable object file/bitcode file surrounded by the options is said lazy in the ld.lld representation. Such a lazy object file is similar to an archive with just one member. A symbol defined by such a lazy object file is also a lazy symbol.

Here is the simplified symbol resolution algorithm focusing on archive member extraction. Basically the linker maintains a set of non-weak undefined symbols. All relocatable object files, bitcode files, and shared objects can contribute to the set. For an incoming archive, each member is inspected. If a member resolves a STB_GLOBAL undefined symbol, the member will be extracted. (I emphasize STB_GLOBAL because a STB_WEAK undefined symbol does not trigger extraction.)

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
// Used by traditional Unix ELF linkers
undef = {};
for file in input {
if file is a relocatable object file/bitcode file not surrounded by --start-lib {
for sym in file's non-local symbols {
if sym is defined
undef.erase(sym);
else if sym has STB_GLOBAL binding
undef.insert(sym);
}
} else if file is a shared object {
for sym in file's .dynsym {
if sym is defined
undef.erase(sym);
else if sym has STB_GLOBAL binding
undef.insert(sym);
}
} else if file is an archive not surrounded by --whole-archive or --start-group {
bool cont = true;
while (cont) {
cont = false;
for member in file {
if member is not a regular object file || member is extracted { continue; }

// A member is extracted if it defines a previously undefined symbol.
bool extract = false;
for sym in member's non-local symbols
if sym is defined && undef.count(sym)
extract = true;
if !extract { continue; }

// Treat `member` as a regular relocatable object file/bitcode file.
// Duplicate definition errors are now possible.
cont = true;
for sym in member's non-local symbols {
if sym is defined
undef.erase(sym);
else if sym has STB_GLOBAL binding
undef.insert(sym);
}
}

// The extraction of one member may cause other members to be extracted.
// Use a loop.
}
} else {
...
}
}

The archives surrounded by a pair of --start-group and --end-group can be perceived as a single archive. Put it in another way, the linker will consider all the archives surrounded by --start-group and --end-group in the while (cont) loop.

--whole-archive switches to the relocatable object file processing.

Some takeaway:

The symbol definition precedence is roughly: relocatable object file/bitcode file > shared object > archive. An archive definition loses to a shared definition, but it can win over the shared definition if extraction happens.

Without --whole-archive, an archive may contribute zero or some members to the relocatable object file/bitcode file set.

If the defined symbol set of an archive member is a subset of a preceding relocatable object file/bitcode file/shared object or an archive member which is guaranteed to be extracted, the archive member will be ignored. The behavior is somewhat similar to symbol interposition. See ELF interposition and -Bsymbolic for details.

For ld ... definition.a reference.o, the definition may be entirely dropped and a later reference.o will lead to an undefined symbol error.

For an archive member to be extracted, the dependents need to appear before the archive or within another member of the archive. This property leads to a loose topological order requirement.

An external program 'lorder' or build system's integrated topological sorting feature is needed to order archives. In the old days, the program "lorder" (https://www.gnu.org/software/coreutils/manual/html_node/tsort-background.html) was used.

The archive order matters (loss of commutativity) and can hide brittle build problems due to duplicate definitions. Minor ordering tweaks can cause subtle behavior changes (symbol resolution).

When providing an interceptor library (a library providing overriding definitions), you usually want to make it optional, i.e. the intercepted library does not have a dependency on the interceptor. However, when linking both the intercepted archive and the interceptor archive, you need to be careful with the order, which usually requires some special plumbing in the build system. A common approach is --whole-archive, which unfortunately loses the nice lazy property.

I will use some examples to explain the symbol resolution rules related to lazy symbols.

Shared object overriding archive

Both a.so and b.a(b.o) define foo. The linker command line is ld a.so b.a.

  • For a.so, insert foo as a Shared.
  • For b.a, try inserting every symbol from the index. foo is already a shared definition, so a.so wins. b.a(b.o) is not extracted.

ld a.so --start-lib b.o --end-lib is similar.

Extracted archive member overriding shared object

0.o references bar. a.o defines foo. b.a(b.o) defines foo and bar. The linker command line is ld 0.o a.so b.a.

  • For 0.o, insert bar as an Undefined.
  • For a.so, insert foo as a Shared.
  • For b.a, try inserting every symbol from the index. foo is already a shared definition, so inserting foo is ignored. However, bar in the archive index can resolve the Undefined entry in the global symbol table, so the member providing bar (b.o) is extracted.
  • b.a(b.o) is added like a relocatable object file. Its foo definition overrides the Shared entry in the global symbol table. Its bar definition overrides the Undefined entry.

The linker command line is ld 0.o b.a a.so.

  • For 0.o, insert bar as an Undefined.
  • For b.a, insert foo as a LazyArchive. bar in the archive index can resolve the Undefined entry, so b.a(b.o) is extracted.
  • b.a(b.o) is added like a relocatable object file. Its foo definition overrides the LazyArchive entry in the global symbol table. Its bar definitions overrides the Undefined entry.
  • For a.so, its shared definition loses to the Defined entry in the global symbol table.

Relocatable object file suppressing archive member extraction

m1.o defines memcpy. libc.a(memcpy.o) defines memcpy. The linker command line is ld ... m1.o -lc.

  • For m1.o, insert memcpy as a Defined.
  • For libc.a, try inserting every symbol from the index. Some members are extracted. However, because no symbol defined by memcpy.o is Undefined in the global symbol table, memcpy.o is not extracted.

As a result, m1.o succeeds in shadowing libc.a(memcpy.o). In practice, m1.o may be an object file providing optimized memcpy routines.

m2.o defines memcmp. libc.a(memcmp.o) defines memcmp and STB_WEAK bcmp. The linker command line is ld ... m2.o -lc.

  • bcmp is referenced and thus inserted as an Undefined.
  • For m2.o, insert memcpy as a Defined.
  • For libc.a, bcmp in the archive index can resolve the Undefined entry, therefore libc.a(memcmp.o) is extracted.
  • libc.a(memcmp.o) is added like a relocatable object file. Its STB_GLOBAL memcmp definition causes a duplicate definition error with the existing STB_GLOBAL definition.

The example above demonstrates that if we want to shadow an archive member, it is better to ensure all its symbols which may be referenced are defined. I.e. The defined symbols of the interceptor should be a superset of the archive member being shadowed.

a.out

a.out is the ancestor of Mach-O, COFF, and ELF.

There are a text segment and a data segment. There are no flexible COFF/ELFF style sections, so no need for a ELF-style st_shndx.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
struct nlist {
union {
char *n_name;
long n_strx;
} n_un;
unsigned char n_type;
char n_other;
short n_desc;
unsigned long n_value;
};
  • n_type: N_UNDF, N_ABS, N_TEXT, N_DATA, N_BSS, N_FN. The N_EXT bit is used to represent an external symbol.

PE-COFF

The 8-byte short name and the 2-byte type just waste space.

The storage class basically maps to ELF's binding. There are many useless values. A weak definition needs an inconvenient auxiliary symbol record. A weak reference cannot be expressed.

The auxiliary symbol record representation makes the symbol table non-uniform, i.e. not an array of fixed-length entries. This makes random-access inconvenient.

Note: there is no 64-bit representation.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
struct Symbol {
union {
char short_name[8];
struct {
uint32_t zeroes; // 0
uint32_t offset;
};
};
uint32_t value;
uint16_t section_number;
uint16_t type;
uint8_t storage_class;
uint8_t num_aux;
};

Mach-O

The 256-section limitation is unfortunate. As a workaround, subsections were invented.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
struct nlist {
uint32_t n_strx;
uint8_t n_type;
uint8_t n_sect;
uint16_t n_desc;
uint32_t n_value;
};

struct nlist_64 {
uint32_t n_strx;
uint8_t n_type;
uint8_t n_sect;
uint16_t n_desc; // N_ARM_THUMB_DEF, REFERENCED_DYNAMICALLY, N_WEAK_DEF, N_WEAK_REF, N_NO_DEAD_STRIP, N_ALT_ENTRY, ...
uint64_t n_value;
};