Executable stack

The gcc compiler implements an extension to C: nested functions. A trivial example:

int f() {
int i = 2;
int g(int j) { return i + j; }
return g(3);

The function f will return 5. Note in particular that the nested function g refers to the variable i defined in the enclosing function.

You can mostly treat nested functions as ordinary functions. In particular, you can take the address of a nested function, and you can pass the resulting function pointer to another function, that function can make a call through the function pointer to the nested function, and the nested function will correctly refer to variables in its caller’s stack frame. I’m not here going to go into the details of how this is implemented. What I will say is that gcc currently implements this by writing instructions to the stack and using a pointer to those instructions. This requires that the stack be executable.

This approach was implemented many years ago, before computers were routinely attacked. In the hostile Internet environment of today, an area of memory that is both writable and executable is dangerous, because it gives an attacker space to create brand new instructions to execute. Since the stack must be writable, this means that we want to make the stack non-executable if possible. Since very few programs use nested functions, this is normally possible. But we don’t want to break those few programs either.

This is how the GNU tools do it on ELF systems such as GNU/Linux. The compiler adds a new section to all code that it compiles. The section is named .note.GNU-stack. It is empty and not allocated, which means that it takes up no space at runtime. If the code being compiled does not require an executable stack—the normal case—the compiler doesn’t set any flags for the section. If the code does require an executable stack, the compiler sets the SHF_EXECINSTR flag.

When the linker links a program, it checks each input object for a .note.GNU-stack section. If there is no such section, the linker assumes that the object must be old, and therefore may require an executable stack. If there is such a section, the linker checks the section flags to see whether the code requires an executable stack. The linker discards the .note.GNU-stack sections, and creates a PT_GNU_STACK segment in the output executable. The PT_GNU_STACK segment is empty and is not part of any PT_LOAD segment. The segment flags PF_R and PF_W are always set. If the linker has determined that the program requires an executable stack, it also sets the PF_X flag.

When the Linux kernel starts a program, it looks for a PT_GNU_STACK segment. If it does not find one, it sets the stack to be executable (if appropriate for the architecture). If it does find a PT_GNU_STACK segment, it marks the stack as executable if the segment flags call for it. (It’s possible to override this and force the kernel to never use an executable stack.) Similarly, the dynamic linker looks for a PT_GNU_STACK in any executable or shared library that it loads, and changes the stack to be executable if any of them require it.

When this all works smoothly, most programs wind up with a non-executable stack, which is what we want. The most common reason that this fails these days is that part of the program is written in assembler, and the assembler code does not create a .note.GNU_stack section. If you write assembler code for GNU/Linux, you must always be careful to add the appropriate line to your file. For most targets, the line you want is:

.section .note.GNU-stack,"",@progbits

There are some linker options to control this. The -z execstack option tells the linker to mark the program as requiring an executable stack, regardless of the input files. The -z noexecstack option marks it as not requiring an executable stack. The gold linker has a --warn-execstack option which will cause the linker to warn about any object which is missing a .note.GNU-stack option or which has an executable .note.GNU-stack option.

The execstack program may also be used to query whether a program requires an executable stack, and to change its setting.

These days we could probably change the default: we could probably say that if an object file does not have a .note.GNU-stack section, then it does not require an executable stack. That would avoid the problem of files written in assembler which do not create the section. It’s possible that this would cause some programs to incorrectly get a non-executable stack, but I think that would be quite unlikely in practice. An advantage of changing the default would be that the compiler would not have to create an empty .note.GNU-stack section in all object files.

By the way, there is one thing you can do with a normal function that you can not do with a nested function: if the nested function refers to any variables in the enclosing function, you can not return a pointer to the nested function to the caller. If you do, the variable will disappear, so the variable reference in the nested function will be dangling reference. It’s worth noting here that the Go language supports nested function literals which may refer to variables in the enclosing function, and when using Go this works correctly. The compiler creates variables on the heap if necessary, so they do not disappear until the garbage collector determines that nothing refers to them any more.

Finally, I’ll mention that there are some plans to implement a different scheme for nested functions in C, one which does not require any memory to be both writable and executable, but these plans have not yet been implemented. I’ll leave the implementation as an exercise for the reader.


  1. gumby said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    I have always wondered why RMS chose to write the function into the stack. It seems an unnecessarily convoluted approach.

    I presume you plan to just put the nested function code in the text section like any other function and give it a secret parameter (like a virtual function base pointer) which is a pointer to the caller’s stack frame. References to lexical variables would have to be indirect.

    This makes calling function pointers hairy though. There are a couple of ways to handle that — the easiest is to make the called function pointer actually point to a trampoline function. Doing THAT makes & more complicated, but fortunately that complexity is a compile-time hassle rather than a runtime one.

    Is that the plan?

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    Yes, function pointers are the issue. That is the case where gcc currently creates a trampoline on the stack. The challenge is to create that trampoline function without having any memory that is both writable and executable, and without putting a limit on the number of trampolines which may be use at any one time.

  3. msebor said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Do C++ lambdas also rely on executable stack? If not, is there a inherent difference between C nested functions and C++ lambdas that prevents sharing the two implementation?

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 10:03 pm

    As I understand it, a C++11 lambda expression evaluates to a class object with an operator(). It does not become a function pointer. This difference with C nested functions means that no executable stack is required. For example, you can not pass a lambda expression to qsort.

  5. Infectious Executable Stacks – Tech 'n' Gadget News said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 9:01 am

    […] that it would not need an executable stack. To question a non-executable stack, an object file have to private the (empty) allotment .repeat.GNU-stack. If even a single object file fails to do that, then the final program gets an executable […]

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