Compressed arbitrary sections

This article describes SHF_ALLOC|SHF_COMPRESSED sections in ELF and lld's linker option --compress-sections to compress arbitrary sections.

.symtab and .strtab

In ELF executables and DSOs, .symtab and .strtab sections can consume a significant portion of the file size (10+% or even 20+%). In many scenarios, we cannot remove them due to symbolizers (crash reporters, Linux perf, etc) and other analysis tools. .symtab and .strtab might be present in the executable/DSO or a debug file (see .gnu_debuglink).

It's natural to compress the two sections using the standard SHF_COMPRESSED feature.

Metadata sections

In recent years, metadata sections have gained more uses. Some users may find compression attractive if they weigh file sizes over decompression overhead.

Some metadata sections are non-SHF_ALLOC, like DWARF debug sections. They may be unused by a runtime library but provide additional information for an analysis tool to inspect the content.

Other metadata sections have the SHF_ALLOC flag and therefore are part of a PT_LOAD segment. When the program is executed, we will have both the compressed and uncompressed copies in memory. This may appear inefficient if the runtime library needs to allocate a buffer for the decompressed content. Why do some people accept this tradeoff? Well, they may prioritize file size or they simply accept this inefficiency.

Some factors may lean more toward compression.

  • Some metadata sections are optional and may be used infrequently (think of debug sections).
  • Some use cases allow for streaming decompression. They may build an in-memory data structure from the decompressed section content and can then discard the decompressed section.

Anyhow, compression is sometimes useful and designers may want to implement compression within the format. However, this would lead to duplicated code, considering that we have a generic feature at the object file format level: ELF SHF_COMPRESSED.


Compressed debug sections I wrote last year describes SHF_COMPRESSED. Currently, its use cases are limited to debug sections.

Many ELF linkers provide --compress-debug-sections=[zlib|zstd] to compress .debug_* sections. This functionality can be extended to arbitrary sections. I filed a GNU ld feature request in 2021, and recently decided to push forward with the effort. I have implemented [ELF] Add --compress-sections in ld.lld.

My proposed syntax is --compress-sections <section-glob>={none,zlib,zstd}[:level]. If an output section matches the glob pattern, it will be compressed using the specified format: zlib or zstd. The compression level is level (if specified) or a default speed-focused level.

A natural question arises: if a SHF_ALLOC section is matched, should the linker compress the section?


I believe the answer is yes. However, I have concerns regarding non-compliance with the ELF standard, as stated in the current generic ABI documentation:

SHF_COMPRESSED - This flag identifies a section containing compressed data. SHF_COMPRESSED applies only to non-allocable sections, and cannot be used in conjunction with SHF_ALLOC. In addition, SHF_COMPRESSED cannot be applied to sections of type SHT_NOBITS.

I believe this restriction is unnecessary for all of relocatable object files, executables, and shared objects. Therefore, I have proposed a change in the generic-abi group to remove the incompatibility between SHF_COMPRESSED and SHF_ALLOC in the wording.

For SHF_ALLOC|SHF_COMPRESSED sections in relocatable object files, they are fine as long as the linker is capable of decompressing the content. It is also important to ensure that non-linker consumers are compatible with the section, which is relatively easy to confirm.

For linker output (executable or shared object), having both the SHF_ALLOC and SHF_COMPRESSED flags should be permissible. For example, we can use PC-relative relocations in a metadata section to reference text sections. These relocations will be resolved at link time.

leaq __start_foo0(%rip), %rdi
leaq __stop_foo0(%rip), %rsi
call runtime


.section foo,"a"
.p2align 3

Section headers are optional in executables and shared objects and are ignored by runtime loaders. The runtime loader does not require any special handling for the SHF_COMPRESSED flag.

When the program is executed, the runtime library responsible for the metadata section will allocate memory and decompress the section's content. Let's say foo has the address 0x201000 in memory. If we allocate the decompressed buffer at address 0x202000, we need to add the offset 0x201000-0x202000 = -0x1000 to the label differences in foo.

Section decompression imposes certain limitations on use cases.

First, the sections cannot have dynamic sections. Relocation offsets are relative to the decompressed section instead of the compressed section. However, the runtime loader doesn't know there are compressed sections, so it would blindly apply the relocation. In the common case that the compressed section is smaller, the runtime loader will modify bytes in a subsequent section or an unmapped address, leading to runtime crashes or corruption of writable data sections.

In general, absolute references should be replaced with label differences.

.section foo.wrong,"a"
.p2align 3
.quad # wrong
.quad # wrong

Second, a symbol defined relative to an input section designate an offset relative to the compressed content. If the program tries to read the content at the symbol, it will load a random location from the compressed content or another section. Similar to the arithmetic example above (0x201000-0x202000 = -0x1000), the runtime library may adjust the symbol value by addr(compressed)-addr(decompressed) to obtain an offset relative to the decompressed content. If there are two symbols defined relative to one or two input sections, taking the difference can be more convenient.

Third, there is a circular dependency between the compressed section content and the section layout.

  • The uncompressed section content decides the compressed section size.
  • The compressed section size affects addresses of subsequent sections and symbol assignments. The affected sections include text sections that use range extension thunks.
  • Subsequent sections and symbol assignments may affect the uncompressed section content.
    • PC-relative references to text sections (e.g., .quad change values when the text section address changes.
    • data commands in an output section description may change.
    • location counter increments (e.g., . += expr;) in an output section description may change.
foo : { *(foo*) QUAD(expr1) . += expr2; }

If the linker compresses the section content at one step, the compressed content will be invalidated when the section content or size changes.

A sophisticated implementation can run compression and section content/size computation iteratively in a loop. In my ld.lld implementation, I just compute the uncompressed section size and content once, apply compression, and then perform other computations that need to be done iteratively. Since most metadata sections don't need an output section description using a linker script, I believe the limitation is acceptable.


SHF_ALLOC provides protection from strip, which can be seen as a secondary benefit. I think it is valuable in practice, as linking and stripping are separate steps, and the developers may have less control on the strip side.

In the GNU world, I think distributions have some strip option requirement/restriction. Therefore, there was even a post using section flags to indicate stripable or persistent sections discussing whether we want a section flag to avoid stripping.

Discerning between compressed and uncompressed sections

The runtime library can identify the section content with a pair of encapsulation symbols __start_<sectionname> and __stop_<sectionname>. These symbols are defined relative to the output section. In my ld.lld implementation, __stop_<sectionname> - __start_<sectionname> equals the compressed section size.

Note: if we use linker scripts to define a symbol in the middle of the output section, it will not have clear semantics. Such constructs should be avoided.

The content at __start_<sectionname> may be uncompressed starting with a regular metadata section header or compressed starting with an Elf32_Chdr/Elf64_Chdr header.

typedef struct {
Elf64_Word ch_type; // Compression format
Elf64_Word ch_reserved;
Elf64_Xword ch_size; // Uncompressed data size
Elf64_Xword ch_addralign; // Uncompressed data alignment
} Elf64_Chdr;

The metadata section header may start with a magic number. In practice, ch_type can only be 1 (ELFCOMPRESS_ZLIB) or 2 (ELFCOMPRESS_ZSTD). When I added ELFCOMPRESS_ZSTD, I acknowledged that we did not intend to include a plethora of formats. So even if we want to be a good ELF citizen and don't collide with future ELF extensions, there are still numerous values available for allocation.

While there is a slight risk of collision, it is not a significant cause for concern. Metadata sections generally faces fewer backward compatibility restrictions since prebuilt libraries with specific instrumentation are considered awkward and therefore uncommon. In the super rare circumstance that the metadata section header collides with an Elf32_Chdr/Elf64_Chdr header, we can update the metadata section header.

You may read the first paragraph of C++ standard library ABI compatibility where I describe different compatibility guarantees. In reality, for many metadata sections, mixing different versions are unsupported. If they work for a user mixing different versions, it's great. If not, the user should know that the onus is on their side.

Other object file formats

The description has primarily focused on ELF, which is the most widely used object file format for server platforms. Many metadata sections are designed specifically for ELF and prioritize it as the primary platform.

In contrast, PE/COFF and Mach-O, while popular in their respective operating systems, have comparatively lower demand for certain metadata features. However, it would be beneficial if these formats also supported a generic section compression feature.

Designing metadata sections can be challenging due to limitations in PE/COFF and Mach-O. For instance, COFF ARM64 does not support IMAGE_REL_ARM64_REL64. As a workaround, my introduced the use of .quad Mach-O requires atoms (non-temporary labels) as separators for subsections.