lld is a new generation of linker. It is not “section” based like traditional
linkers which mostly just interlace sections from multiple object files into the
output file. Instead, lld is based on “Atoms”. Traditional section based
linking work well for simple linking, but their model makes advanced linking
features difficult to implement. Features like dead code stripping, reordering
functions for locality, and C++ coalescing require the linker to work at a finer
An atom is an indivisible chunk of code or data. An atom has a set of
attributes, such as: name, scope, content-type, alignment, etc. An atom also
has a list of References. A Reference contains: a kind, an optional offset, an
optional addend, and an optional target atom.
The Atom model allows the linker to use standard graph theory models for linking
data structures. Each atom is a node, and each Reference is an edge. The
feature of dead code stripping is implemented by following edges to mark all
live atoms, and then delete the non-live atoms.
An atom is an indivisible chunk of code or data. Typically each user written
function or global variable is an atom. In addition, the compiler may emit
other atoms, such as for literal c-strings or floating point constants, or for
runtime data structures like dwarf unwind info or pointers to initializers.
A simple “hello world” object file would be modeled like this:
There are three atoms: main, a proxy for printf, and an anonymous atom
containing the c-string literal “hello world”. The Atom “main” has two
references. One is the call site for the call to printf, and the other is a
reference for the instruction that loads the address of the c-string literal.
There are only four different types of atoms:
95% of all atoms. This is a chunk of code or data
This is a place holder in object files for a reference to some atom
outside the translation unit.During core linking it is usually replaced
by (coalesced into) another Atom.
If a required symbol name turns out to be defined in a dynamic shared
library (and not some object file). A SharedLibraryAtom is the
placeholder Atom used to represent that fact.
It is similar to an UndefinedAtom, but it also tracks information
about the associated shared library.
This is for embedded support where some stuff is implemented in ROM at
some fixed address. This atom has no content. It is just an address
that the Writer needs to fix up any references to point to.
The linker views the input files as basically containers of Atoms and
References, and just a few attributes of their own. The linker works with three
kinds of files: object files, static libraries, and dynamic shared libraries.
Each kind of file has reader object which presents the file in the model
expected by the linker.
An object file is just a container of atoms. When linking an object file, a
reader is instantiated which parses the object file and instantiates a set of
atoms representing all content in the .o file. The linker adds all those atoms
to a master graph.
Static Library (Archive)
This is the traditional unix static archive which is just a collection of object
files with a “table of contents”. When linking with a static library, by default
nothing is added to the master graph of atoms. Instead, if after merging all
atoms from object files into a master graph, if any “undefined” atoms are left
remaining in the master graph, the linker reads the table of contents for each
static library to see if any have the needed definitions. If so, the set of
atoms from the specified object file in the static library is added to the
master graph of atoms.
Through the use of abstract Atoms, the core of linking is architecture
independent and file format independent. All command line parsing is factored
out into a separate “options” abstraction which enables the linker to be driven
with different command line sets.
The overall steps in linking are:
- Command line processing
- Parsing input files
- Generate output file
The Resolving and Passes steps are done purely on the master graph of atoms, so
they have no notion of file formats such as mach-o or ELF.
Existing developer tools using different file formats for object files.
A goal of lld is to be file format independent. This is done
through a plug-in model for reading object files. The lld::Reader is the base
class for all object file readers. A Reader follows the factory method pattern.
A Reader instantiates an lld::File object (which is a graph of Atoms) from a
given object file (on disk or in-memory).
Every Reader subclass defines its own “options” class (for instance the mach-o
Reader defines the class ReaderOptionsMachO). This options class is the
one-and-only way to control how the Reader operates when parsing an input file
into an Atom graph. For instance, you may want the Reader to only accept
certain architectures. The options class can be instantiated from command
line options, or it can be subclassed and the ivars programmatically set.
The resolving step takes all the atoms’ graphs from each object file and
combines them into one master object graph. Unfortunately, it is not as simple
as appending the atom list from each file into one big list. There are many
cases where atoms need to be coalesced. That is, two or more atoms need to be
coalesced into one atom. This is necessary to support: C language “tentative
definitions”, C++ weak symbols for templates and inlines defined in headers,
replacing undefined atoms with actual definition atoms, and for merging copies
of constants like c-strings and floating point constants.
The linker support coalescing by-name and by-content. By-name is used for
tentative definitions and weak symbols. By-content is used for constant data
that can be merged.
The resolving process maintains some global linking “state”, including a “symbol
table” which is a map from llvm::StringRef to lld::Atom*. With these data
structures, the linker iterates all atoms in all input files. For each atom, it
checks if the atom is named and has a global or hidden scope. If so, the atom
is added to the symbol table map. If there already is a matching atom in that
table, that means the current atom needs to be coalesced with the found atom, or
it is a multiple definition error.
When all initial input file atoms have been processed by the resolver, a scan is
made to see if there are any undefined atoms in the graph. If there are, the
linker scans all libraries (both static and dynamic) looking for definitions to
replace the undefined atoms. It is an error if any undefined atoms are left
Dead code stripping (if requested) is done at the end of resolving. The linker
does a simple mark-and-sweep. It starts with “root” atoms (like “main” in a main
executable) and follows each references and marks each Atom that it visits as
“live”. When done, all atoms not marked “live” are removed.
The result of the Resolving phase is the creation of an lld::File object. The
goal is that the lld::File model is the internal representation
throughout the linker. The file readers parse (mach-o, ELF, COFF) into an
lld::File. The file writers (mach-o, ELF, COFF) taken an lld::File and produce
their file kind, and every Pass only operates on an lld::File. This is not only
a simpler, consistent model, but it enables the state of the linker to be dumped
at any point in the link for testing purposes.
The Passes step is an open ended set of routines that each get a change to
modify or enhance the current lld::File object. Some example Passes are:
- stub (PLT) generation
- GOT instantiation
- order_file optimization
- branch island generation
- branch shim generation
- Objective-C optimizations (Darwin specific)
- TLV instantiation (Darwin specific)
- DTrace probe processing (Darwin specific)
- compact unwind encoding (Darwin specific)
Some of these passes are specific to Darwin’s runtime environments. But many of
the passes are applicable to any OS (such as generating branch island for out of
range branch instructions).
The general structure of a pass is to iterate through the atoms in the current
lld::File object, inspecting each atom and doing something. For instance, the
stub pass, looks for call sites to shared library atoms (e.g. call to printf).
It then instantiates a “stub” atom (PLT entry) and a “lazy pointer” atom for
each proxy atom needed, and these new atoms are added to the current lld::File
object. Next, all the noted call sites to shared library atoms have their
References altered to point to the stub atom instead of the shared library atom.
Generate Output File
Once the passes are done, the output file writer is given current lld::File
object. The writer’s job is to create the executable content file wrapper and
place the content of the atoms into it.
lld uses a plug-in model for writing output files. All concrete writers (e.g.
ELF, mach-o, etc) are subclasses of the lld::Writer class.
Unlike the Reader class which has just one method to instantiate an lld::File,
the Writer class has multiple methods. The crucial method is to generate the
output file, but there are also methods which allow the Writer to contribute
Atoms to the resolver and specify passes to run.
An example of contributing
atoms is that if the Writer knows a main executable is being linked and such
an executable requires a specially named entry point (e.g. “_main”), the Writer
can add an UndefinedAtom with that special name to the resolver. This will
cause the resolver to issue an error if that symbol is not defined.
Sometimes a Writer supports lazily created symbols, such as names for the start
of sections. To support this, the Writer can create a File object which vends
no initial atoms, but does lazily supply atoms by name as needed.
Every Writer subclass defines its own “options” class (for instance the mach-o
Writer defines the class WriterOptionsMachO). This options class is the
one-and-only way to control how the Writer operates when producing an output
file from an Atom graph. For instance, you may want the Writer to optimize
the output for certain OS versions, or strip local symbols, etc. The options
class can be instantiated from command line options, or it can be subclassed
and the ivars programmatically set.
Just as LLVM has three representations of its IR model, lld has two
representations of its File/Atom/Reference model:
- In memory, abstract C++ classes (lld::Atom, lld::Reference, and lld::File).
- textual (in YAML)
Textual representations in YAML
In designing a textual format we want something easy for humans to read and easy
for the linker to parse. Since an atom has lots of attributes most of which are
usually just the default, we should define default values for every attribute so
that those can be omitted from the text representation. Here is the atoms for a
simple hello world program expressed in YAML:
- name: _main
content: [ 55, 48, 89, e5, 48, 8d, 3d, 00, 00, 00, 00, 30, c0, e8, 00, 00,
00, 00, 31, c0, 5d, c3 ]
- offset: 07
- offset: 0E
- type: c-string
content: [ 73, 5A, 00 ]
The biggest use for the textual format will be writing test cases. Writing test
cases in C is problematic because the compiler may vary its output over time for
its own optimization reasons which my inadvertently disable or break the linker
feature trying to be tested. By writing test cases in the linkers own textual
format, we can exactly specify every attribute of every atom and thus target
specific linker logic.
The textual/YAML format follows the ReaderWriter patterns used in lld. The lld
library comes with the classes: ReaderYAML and WriterYAML.
The lld project contains a test suite which is being built up as new code is
added to lld. All new lld functionality should have a tests added to the test
suite. The test suite is lit driven. Each
test is a text file with comments telling lit how to run the test and check the
result To facilitate testing, the lld project builds a tool called lld-core.
This tool reads a YAML file (default from stdin), parses it into one or more
lld::File objects in memory and then feeds those lld::File objects to the
Basic testing is the “core linking” or resolving phase. That is where the
linker merges object files. All test cases are written in YAML. One feature of
YAML is that it allows multiple “documents” to be encoding in one YAML stream.
That means one text file can appear to the linker as multiple .o files - the
normal case for the linker.
Here is a simple example of a core linking test case. It checks that an
undefined atom from one file will be replaced by a definition from another
# RUN: lld-core %s | FileCheck %s
# Test that undefined atoms are replaced with defined atoms.
- name: foo
- name: foo
# CHECK: name: foo
# CHECK: scope: global
# CHECK: type: code
# CHECK-NOT: name: foo
# CHECK: ...
Since Passes just operate on an lld::File object, the lld-core tool has the
option to run a particular pass (after resolving). Thus, you can write a YAML
test case with carefully crafted input to exercise areas of a Pass and the check
the resulting lld::File object as represented in YAML.
There are a number of open issues in the design of lld. The plan is to wait and
make these design decisions when we need to.
Currently, the lld model says nothing about debug info. But the most popular
debug format is DWARF and there is some impedance mismatch with the lld model
and DWARF. In lld there are just Atoms and only Atoms that need to be in a
special section at runtime have an associated section. Also, Atoms do not have
addresses. The way DWARF is spec’ed different parts of DWARF are supposed to go
into specially named sections and the DWARF references function code by address.
CPU and OS specific functionality
Currently, lld has an abstract “Platform” that deals with any CPU or OS specific
differences in linking. We just keep adding virtual methods to the base
Platform class as we find linking areas that might need customization. At some
point we’ll need to structure this better.
Currently, lld::File just has a path and a way to iterate its atoms. We will
need to add more attributes on a File. For example, some equivalent to the
target triple. There is also a number of cached or computed attributes that
could make various Passes more efficient. For instance, on Darwin there are a
number of Objective-C optimizations that can be done by a Pass. But it would
improve the plain C case if the Objective-C optimization Pass did not have to
scan all atoms looking for any Objective-C data structures. This could be done
if the lld::File object had an attribute that said if the file had any
Objective-C data in it. The Resolving phase would then be required to “merge”
that attribute as object files are added.