SECTIONS and OVERWRITE_SECTIONS

The main task of a linker script is to define extra symbols and define how input sections map into output sections. It has other miscellaneous features which can be implemented via command line options:

  • The ENTRY command can be replaced by --entry.
  • The OUTPUT_FORMAT command can usually be replaced by -m.
  • The SEARCH_DIRS command can be replaced by -L.
  • The VERSION command can be replaced by --version-script.
  • The INPUT and GROUP commands can add other files as input. This provides a mechanism to split an archive/shared object into multiple files.

This article focuses on the SECTIONS command. Here is the syntax:

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SECTIONS {
section-command
section-command
...
} [INSERT [AFTER|BEFORE] anchor_section;]

The INSERT part (in the bracket) is optional.

Each section-command can be a symbol assignment, an output section description, or an overlay description. The linker processes section-commands in order and maintains the current location (which can be referenced via .).

a = .; is a symbol assignment. It defines a symbol called a at the current location. If the symbol is also defined by a relocatable object file or an extracted archive member, the symbol assignment takes precedence. (In GNU ld, linker scripts and archives are processed in order, so a symbol assignment can suppress the extraction of a subsequent archive member.)

Output section descriptions

An output section description defines an output section. An output section represents a section in the linker output. A simple output section description is .text : {} where the section name is mandatory. Section attributes (type, AT, ALIGN, VMA memory region, LMA memory region, etc) are optional:

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section [address] [(type)] : [AT(lma)] [ALIGN(section_align)] [SUBALIGN](subsection_align)] {
output-section-command
...
} [>region] [AT>lma_region] [:phdr ...] [=fillexp] [,]

An output section description consists of multiple output-section-commands. An output-section-command is one of:

  • a symbol assignment
  • an input section description
  • a BYTE, SHORT, LONG, QUAD command
  • an output section keyword

Input section descriptions and symbol assignments are common.

.text : { *(.text .text.*) BYTE(0) a = .; } is an example involving an input section description, a data command, and a symbol assignment. BYTE(0) and a = .; are pretty self-descriptive.

Input section descriptions

An input section description consists of a file name pattern and a list of space-separated section patterns. The most common file name pattern is the wildcard *. Section patterns may be exact names (.text) or a glob (.text.*).

The section patterns are unordered: *(.text .text.*) does not place an ordering requirement on .text and .text.*. If the linker sees a .text.a before a .text, it will place the .text.a before the .text.

The KEEP keyword can be used to retain some input sections, e.g. .retain : { KEEP(*(.retain)) }.

Symbol assignments

Symbol assignments can be inside an output section description. They are commonly used to define encapsulation symbols, e.g. foo : { __start_foo = .; *(foo); __stop_foo = .; }.

An anti-pattern is:

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__start_foo = .;
foo : { *(foo) }
__stop_foo = .;

This is problematic because the linker's orphan section placement rules may place orphans between __start_foo and foo, breaking the intention of __start_foo:

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__start_foo = .;
/* Conceptually */ bar : { *(bar) }
foo : { *(foo) }
__stop_foo = .;

As an example:

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# RUN: split-file %s %t
# RUN: cc -c %t/a.s -o %t/a.o
# RUN: ld.lld %t/lds %t/a.o

#--- a.s
.section bar,"ax"; .byte 0
.section foo,"aw"; .byte 0

#--- lds
sections {
. = SIZEOF_HEADERS;

__start_foo = .;
foo : {}
__stop_foo = .;
}

The orphans and foo have different ranks. The linker does have a special rule to skip non-dot assignments like __stop_foo after an output section description. So sections of the same rank are usually benign.

Orphan sections

Orphan sections are sections present in an input file which are not mapped by an output section description. The linker will find or create a suitable output section to contain such orphan sections. GNU ld, gold, and LLD have different rules.

In LLD, in the absence of a SECTIONS command, there are default rules mapping .text.* into .text. After the output section name is fixed, LLD tries to place it in a suitable place. Every output section is assigned a rank. The important ranks are:

  • .interp
  • SHT_NOTE
  • read-only (non-SHF_WRITE non-SHF_EXECINSTR)
  • SHF_EXECINSTR
  • SHF_WRITE (RELRO, SHF_TLS)
  • SHF_WRITE (RELRO, non-SHF_TLS)
  • SHF_WRITE (non-RELRO)

If the output section for the orphan shares the rank with some output section descriptions, the output section will be placed at the end of these output section descriptions. Otherwise, an output section description whose rank is the closest to the incoming one will be picked. If the incoming section has a lower rank, LLD will place it just there, otherwise LLD will skip some contiguous output sections with the same rank and then non-. symbol assignments.

INSERT BEFORE and INSERT AFTER

We have delved into the details of output section descriptions for a while. Let's return to the optional INSERT keyword for which we omitted a description. This feature gives us a way to reorder output sections.

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SECTIONS {
.foo : { *(.foo) }
.bar : { *(.bar) }
} INSERT AFTER .bss;

.bss can be defined by an output section description or implicitly defined by orphan section placement. I added the orphan section support in D74375 (target: LLD 11.0.0).

This is cool for CUDA sections like .nv_fatbin: by moving them after .bss we can mitigate R_X86_64_PC32 relocation overflows for large executables.

While the documentation is not clear, I think for INSERT AFTER the output section descriptions should be in order, i.e. .bss .foo .bar instead of .bss .bar .foo. I recently fixed this in D105158 (target: LLD 13.0.0).

Internal linker script vs external linker script

GNU ld has the concept of an internal linker script. Many layout rules are implemented in a file under ldscripts/ installed along with ld.bfd (e.g. /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/ldscripts/elf_x86_64.* on Debian).

GNU ld picks a linker script according to whether certain command line options are enabled (e.g. -z combreloc, -z separate-code, -z now). Note that some options may be enabled at configure time. For example -z combreloc is usually the default. -z separate-code is the default on Linux x86. Many GCC installations pass -z relro -z now to ld by default.

Appending --verbose to a GNU ld command line can tell whether an internal linker script or an external one is used.

If you specify a linker script without an option, its SECTIONS commands will be appended to the internal linker script's SECTIONS command. Non-INSERT concatenated SECTIONS are usually not desired.

You may specify -T or --default-script to provide an external linker script. The internal linker script will be completely ignored.

A linker script cannot represent conditions like -z separate-code/-z noseparate-code distinction, or -z now/-z lazy distinction.

-z relro/-z norelro does not affect the internal linker script.

  • -z lazy internal linker script can be used by -z norelro and -z relro -z now links.
  • -z now internal linker script can be used by -z relro -z now links but cannot be used by -z norelro or -z relro -z lazy links.

gold and LLD

For more than two decades GNU ld was the only usable linker on Linux systems. Then gold was developed as a faster alternative. gold encodes many layout rules in code instead of ldscripts/ files. LLD inherited this property. IMO This is a superior design.

In the case where no linker script has been provided or every SECTIONS command is followed by INSERT, LLD applies built-in rules which are similar to GNU ld's internal linker scripts.

  • Align the first section in a PT_LOAD segment according to -z noseparate-code, -z separate-code, or -z separate-loadable-segments
  • Define __bss_start, end, _end, etext, _etext, edata, _edata
  • Sort .ctors.*/.dtors.*/.init_array.*/.fini_array.* and PowerPC64 specific .toc
  • Place input .text.* into output .text, and handle certain variants (.text.hot., .text.unknown., .text.unlikely., etc) in the presence of -z keep-text-section-prefix.

LLD can read GNU ld's internal linker scripts.

When linking a regular program, you may also supply a minimal linker script like the following:

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SECTIONS
{
PROVIDE (__executable_start = SEGMENT_START("text-segment", 0x400000)); . = SEGMENT_START("text-segment", 0x400000) + SIZEOF_HEADERS;

. = DATA_SEGMENT_ALIGN (CONSTANT (MAXPAGESIZE), CONSTANT (COMMONPAGESIZE));
.init_array :
{
PROVIDE_HIDDEN (__init_array_start = .);
KEEP (*(SORT_BY_INIT_PRIORITY(.init_array.*)))
KEEP (*(.init_array))
PROVIDE_HIDDEN (__init_array_end = .);
}
.fini_array :
{
PROVIDE_HIDDEN (__fini_array_start = .);
KEEP (*(SORT_BY_INIT_PRIORITY(.fini_array.*)))
KEEP (*(.fini_array))
PROVIDE_HIDDEN (__fini_array_end = .);
}
. = DATA_SEGMENT_RELRO_END (0, .);
.data : { *(.data .data.*) }
. = .;
.bss : { *(.bss .bss.*) *(COMMON) }
. = DATA_SEGMENT_END (.);
}

OVERWRITE_SECTIONS

An INSERT-flavored SECTIONS command does not suppress built-in layout rules, so it is useful to extend an existing internal linker script. However, there are two properties which are not ideal:

  • The output section descriptions impose an order.
  • The anchor section (as in INSERT AFTER where) must be present.

Sometimes we just want built-in orphan section placement and don't want to specify an order. The OVERWRITE_SECTIONS command is useful in this case. I proposed it in https://sourceware.org/bugzilla/show_bug.cgi?id=26404 and implemented it for LLD in D103303 (target: LLD 13.0.0).

This feature is versatile. To list a few usage:

  • Use section : { KEEP(...) } to retain input sections under GC
  • Define encapsulation symbols (start/end) for an output section
  • Use section : ALIGN(...) : { ... } to overalign an output section (similar to ld64 -sectalign)