Linkers part 14

Link Time Optimization

I’ve already mentioned some optimizations which are peculiar to the linker: relaxation and garbage collection of unwanted sections. There is another class of optimizations which occur at link time, but are really related to the compiler. The general name for these optimizations is link time optimization or whole program optimization.

The general idea is that the compiler optimization passes are run at link time. The advantage of running them at link time is that the compiler can then see the entire program. This permits the compiler to perform optimizations which can not be done when sources files are compiled separately. The most obvious such optimization is inlining functions across source files. Another is optimizing the calling sequence for simple functions–e.g., passing more parameters in registers, or knowing that the function will not clobber all registers; this can only be done when the compiler can see all callers of the function. Experience shows that these and other optimizations can bring significant performance benefits.

Generally these optimizations are implemented by having the compiler write a version of its intermediate representation into the object file, or into some parallel file. The intermediate representation will be the parsed version of the source file, and may already have had some local optimizations applied. Sometimes the object file contains only the compiler intermediate representation, sometimes it also contains the usual object code. In the former case link time optimization is required, in the latter case it is optional.

I know of two typical ways to implement link time optimization. The first approach is for the compiler to provide a pre-linker. The pre-linker examines the object files looking for stored intermediate representation. When it finds some, it runs the link time optimization passes. The second approach is for the linker proper to call back into the compiler when it finds intermediate representation. This is generally done via some sort of plugin API.

Although these optimizations happen at link time, they are not part of the linker proper, at least not as I defined it. When the compiler reads the stored intermediate representation, it will eventually generate an object file, one way or another. The linker proper will then process that object file as usual. These optimizations should be thought of as part of the compiler.

Initialization Code

C++ permits globals variables to have constructors and destructors. The global constructors must be run before main starts, and the global destructors must be run after exit is called. Making this work requires the compiler and the linker to cooperate.

The a.out object file format is rarely used these days, but the GNU a.out linker has an interesting extension. In a.out symbols have a one byte type field. This encodes a bunch of debugging information, and also the section in which the symbol is defined. The a.out object file format only supports three sections–text, data, and bss. Four symbol types are defined as sets: text set, data set, bss set, and absolute set. A symbol with a set type is permitted to be defined multiple times. The GNU linker will not give a multiple definition error, but will instead build a table with all the values of the symbol. The table will start with one word holding the number of entries, and will end with a zero word. In the output file the set symbol will be defined as the address of the start of the table.

For each C++ global constructor, the compiler would generate a symbol named __CTOR_LIST__ with the text set type. The value of the symbol in the object file would be the global constructor function. The linker would gather together all the __CTOR_LIST__ functions into a table. The startup code supplied by the compiler would walk down the __CTOR_LIST__ table and call each function. Global destructors were handled similarly, with the name __DTOR_LIST__.

Anyhow, so much for a.out. In ELF, global constructors are handled in a fairly similar way, but without using magic symbol types. I’ll describe what gcc does. An object file which defines a global constructor will include a .ctors section. The compiler will arrange to link special object files at the very start and very end of the link. The one at the start of the link will define a symbol for the .ctors section; that symbol will wind up at the start of the section. The one at the end of the link will define a symbol for the end of the .ctors section. The compiler startup code will walk between the two symbols, calling the constructors. Global destructors work similarly, in a .dtors section.

ELF shared libraries work similarly. When the dynamic linker loads a shared library, it will call the function at the DT_INIT tag if there is one. By convention the ELF program linker will set this to the function named _init, if there is one. Similarly the DT_FINI tag is called when a shared library is unloaded, and the program linker will set this to the function named _fini.

As I mentioned earlier, three are also DT_INIT_ARRAY, DT_PREINIT_ARRAY, and DT_FINI_ARRAY tags, which are set based on the SHT_INIT_ARRAY, SHT_PREINIT_ARRAY, and SHT_FINI_ARRAY section types. This is a newer approach in ELF, and does not require relying on special symbol names.

More tomorrow.


  1. ncm said,

    September 18, 2007 @ 7:11 pm

    It must have been at 1988 or 89 USENIX that John Reiser presented his results speeding up startup of Mentor Graphics’s CAE programs, by link editing. Programs were taking ten minutes to start up because, it turned out, most .cc files #included iostream.h. That file defined a static variable, a class object containing a single int and a constructor. The constructor would call an initializer for the iostream library, and then set the value.

    John displayed a real-time animation of these assignments, mapping the addresses of the pages touched to a Hilbert curve projected into a window, which showed program start-up touching pages throughout the static data space of the process. His link editor compacted all those ints to one or a few pages, resulting in program-startup time reduced to seconds.

    Nowadays,ELF offers better ways to get libraries initialized, but the problem has got more complicated. ISO Standard C++0x seems unlikely to provide any help defining initialization order in the presence of threads. It might not end up defining semantics initializing (and, particularly, destroying) variables in shared libraries loaded after main() starts. It seems certain not to define destruction in cases where libraries are unloaded. There does seem to be support for requiring that a static object, having been destroyed, may be re-constructed in-place for use by other destructors that may depend on it.

    (This was the same John Reiser who first ported Unix to the Vax, and who made the C preprocessor indispensable. He now posts at His program rtldi seems apropos here: it allows a program to link to more than one version of glibc at a time. Other programs found there may be interesting as well.)

  2. All about ELF format « $HOME said,

    December 30, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

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