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6. Linking

Between the two incompatible binary formats, the static vs shared library distinction, and the overloading of the verb `link' to mean both `what happens after compilation' and `what happens when a compiled program is invoked' (and, actually, the overloading of the word `load' in a comparable but opposite sense), this section is complicated. Little of it is much more complicated than that sentence, though, so don't worry too much about it.

To alleviate the confusion somewhat, we refer to what happens at runtime as `dynamic loading' and cover it in the next section. You will also see it described as `dynamic linking', but not here. This section, then, is exclusively concerned with the kind of linking that happens at the end of a compilation.

6.1 Shared vs static libraries

The last stage of building a program is to `link' it; to join all the pieces of it together and see what is missing. Obviously there are some things that many programs will want to do --- open files, for example, and the pieces that do these things are provided for you in the form of libraries. On the average Linux system these can be found in /lib and /usr/lib/, among other places.

When using a static library, the linker finds the bits that the program modules need, and physically copies them into the executable output file that it generates. For shared libraries, it doesn't --- instead it leaves a note in the output saying `when this program is run, it will first have to load this library'. Obviously shared libraries tend to make for smaller executables; they also use less memory and mean that less disk space is used. The default behaviour of Linux is to link shared if it can find the shared libraries, static otherwise. If you're getting static binaries when you want shared, check that the shared library files (*.sa for a.out, *.so for ELF) are where they should be, and are readable.

On Linux, static libraries have names like libname.a, while shared libraries are called where x.y.z is some form of version number. Shared libraries often also have links pointing to them, which are important, and (on a.out configurations) associated .sa files. The standard libraries come in both shared and static formats.

You can find out what shared libraries a program requires by using ldd (List Dynamic Dependencies)

$ ldd /usr/bin/lynx => /usr/lib/ => /lib/

This shows that on my system the WWW browser `lynx' depends on the presence of (the C library) and (used for terminal control). If a program has no dependencies, ldd will say `statically linked' or `statically linked (ELF)'.

6.2 Interrogating libraries (`which library is sin() in?')

nm libraryname should list all the symbols that libraryname has references to. It works on both static and shared libraries. Suppose that you want to know where tcgetattr() is defined: you might do

$ nm |grep tcget
         U tcgetattr

The U stands for `undefined' --- it shows that the ncurses library uses but does not define it. You could also do

$ nm | grep tcget
00010fe8 T __tcgetattr
00010fe8 W tcgetattr
00068718 T tcgetpgrp

The `W' stands for `weak', which means that the symbol is defined, but in such a way that it can be overridden by another definition in a different library. A straightforward `normal' definition (such as the one for tcgetpgrp) is marked by a `T'

The short answer to the question in the title, by the way, is libm.(so|a). All the functions defined in <math.h> are kept in the maths library; thus you need to link with -lm when using any of them.

6.3 Finding files

ld: Output file requires shared library ``

The file search strategy of ld and friends varies according to version, but the only default you can reasonably assume is /usr/lib. If you want libraries elsewhere to be searched, specify their directories with the -L option to gcc or ld.

If that doesn't help, check that you have the right file in that place. For a.out, linking with -lfoo makes ld look for (shared stubs), and if unsuccessful then for libfoo.a (static). For ELF, it looks for then libfoo.a. is usually a symbolic link to

6.4 Building your own libraries

Version control

As any other program, libraries tend to have bugs which get fixed over time. They also may introduce new features, change the effect of existing ones, or remove old ones. This could be a problem for programs using them; what if it was depending on that old feature?

So, we introduce library versioning. We categorise the changes that might be made to a library as `minor' or `major', and we rule that a `minor' change is not allowed to break old programs that are using the library. You can tell the version of a library by looking at its filename (actually, this is, strictly speaking, a lie for ELF; keep reading to find out why) : has major version 1, minor version 2. The minor version number can be more or less anything --- libc puts a `patchlevel' in it, giving library names like, and it's also reasonable to put letters, underscores, or more or less any printable ASCII in it.

One of the major differences between ELF and a.out format is in building shared libraries. We look at ELF first, because it's simpler.

ELF? What is it then, anyway?

ELF (Executable and Linking Format) is a binary format originally developed by USL (UNIX System Laboratories) and currently used in Solaris and System V Release 4. Because of its increased flexibility over the older a.out format that Linux was using, the GCC and C library developers decided last year to move to using ELF as the Linux standard binary format also.

Come again?

This section is from the document '/news-archives/comp.sys.sun.misc'.

ELF ("Executable Linking Format) is the "new, improved" object file format introduced in SVR4. ELF is much more powerful than straight COFF, in that it *is* user-extensible. ELF views an object-file as an arbitarily long list of sections (rather than an array of fixed size entities), these sections, unlike in COFF, do not HAVE to be in a certain place and do not HAVE to come in any specific order etc. Users can add new sections to object-files if they wish to capture new data. ELF also has a far more powerful debugging format called DWARF (Debugging With Attribute Record Format) - not currently fully supported on linux (but work is underway). A linked list of DWARF DIEs (or Debugging Information Entries) forms the .debug section in ELF. Instead of being a collection of small, fixed-size information records, DWARF DIEs each contain an arbitrarily long list of complex attributes and are written out as a scope-based tree of program data. DIEs can capture a large amount of information that the COFF .debug section simply couldn't (like C++ inheritance graphs etc.).
ELF files are accessed via the SVR4 (Solaris 2.0 ?) ELF access library, which provides an easy and fast interface to the more gory parts of ELF. One of the major boons in using the ELF access library is that you will never need to look at an ELF file qua. UNIX file, it is accessed as an Elf *, after an elf_open() call and from then on, you perform elf_foobar() calls on its components instead of messing about with its actual on-disk image (something many COFFers did with impunity).

The case for/against ELF, and the necessary contortions to upgrade an a.out system to support it, are covered in the ELF-HOWTO and I don't propose to cut/paste them here. The HOWTO should be available in the same place as you found this one.

ELF shared libraries

To build as a shared library, the basic steps look like this:

$ gcc -fPIC -c *.c
$ gcc -shared -Wl,-soname, -o *.o
$ ln -s
$ ln -s

This will generate a shared library called, and the appropriate links for ld ( and the dynamic loader ( to find it. To test, we add the current directory to LD_LIBRARY_PATH.

When you're happpy that the library works, you'll have to move it to, say, /usr/local/lib, and recreate the appropriate links. The link from to is kept up to date by ldconfig, which on most systems is run as part of the boot process. The link must be updated manually. If you are scrupulous about upgrading all the parts of a library (e.g. the header files) at the same time, the simplest thing to do is make ->, so that ldconfig will keep both links current for you. If you aren't, you're setting yourself up to have all kinds of weird things happen at a later date. Don't say you weren't warned.

$ su
# cp /usr/local/lib
# /sbin/ldconfig
# ( cd /usr/local/lib ; ln -s )

Version numbering, sonames and symlinks

Each library has a soname. When the linker finds one of these in a library it is searching, it embeds the soname into the binary instead of the actual filename it is looking at. At runtime, the dynamic loader will then search for a file with the name of the soname, not the library filename. Thus a library called could have a soname, and all programs linked to it would look for instead when they started.

This sounds like a pointless feature, but it is key to understanding how multiple versions of the same library can coexist on a system. The de facto naming standard for libraries in Linux is to call the library, say,, and give it a soname of If it's added to a `standard' library directory (e.g. /usr/lib), ldconfig will create a symlink -> so that the appropriate image is found at runtime. You also need a link -> so that ld will find the right soname to use at link time.

So, when you fix bugs in the library, or add new functions (any changes that won't adversely affect existing programs), you rebuild it, keeping the soname as it was, and changing the filename. When you make changes to the library that would break existing binaries, you simply increment the number in the soname --- in this case, call the new version, and give it a soname of Now switch the link to point to the new version and all's well with the world again.

Note that you don't have to name libraries this way, but it's a good convention. ELF gives you the flexibility to name libraries in ways that will confuse the pants off people, but that doesn't mean you have to use it.

Executive summary: supposing that you observe the tradition that major upgrades may break compatibility, minor upgrades may not, then link with

gcc -shared -Wl,-soname, -o

and everything will be all right.

a.out. Ye olde traditional format

The ease of building shared libraries is a major reason for upgrading to ELF. That said, it's still possible in a.out. Get and read the 20 page document that you will find after unpacking it. I hate to be so transparently partisan, but it should be clear from context that I never bothered myself :-)


QMAGIC is an executable format just like the old a.out (also known as ZMAGIC) binaries, but which leaves the first page unmapped. This allows for easier NULL dereference trapping as no mapping exists in the range 0-4096. As a side effect your binaries are nominally smaller as well (by about 1K).

Obsolescent linkers support ZMAGIC only, semi-obsolescent support both formats, and current versions support QMAGIC only. This doesn't actually matter, though, as the kernel can still run both formats.

Your `file' command should be able to identify whether a program is QMAGIC.

File Placement

An a.out (DLL) shared library consists of two real files and a symlink. For the `foo' library used throughout this document as an example, these files would be and; the symlink would be and would point at the latter of the files. What are these for?

At compile time, ld looks for This is the `stub' file for the library, and contains all exported data and pointers to the functions required for run time linking.

At run time, the dynamic loader looks for This is a symlink rather than a real file so that libraries can be updated with newer, bugfixed versions without crashing any application that was using the library at the time. After the new version --- say, --- is completely there, running ldconfig will switch the link to point to it in one atomic operation, leaving any program which had the old version still perfectly happy.

DLL libraries (I know that's a tautology --- so sue me) often appear bigger than their static counterparts. They reserve space for future expansion in the form of `holes' which can be made to take no disk space. A simple cp call or using the program makehole will achieve this. You can also strip them after building, as the addresses are in fixed locations. Do not attempt to strip ELF libraries.


A libc-lite is a light-weight version of the libc library built such that it will fit on a floppy and suffice for all of the most menial of UNIX tasks. It does not include curses, dbm, termcap etc code. If your /lib/ is linked to a lite lib, you are advised to replace it with a full version.

Linking: common problems

Send me your linking problems! I probably won't do anything about them, but I will write them up if I get enough ...

Programs link static when you wanted them shared

Check that you have the right links for ld to find each shared library. For ELF this means a symlink to the image, for a.out a file. A lot of people had this problem after moving from ELF binutils 2.5 to 2.6 --- the earlier version searched more `intelligently' for shared libraries, so they hadn't created all the links. The intelligent behaviour was removed for compatibility with other architectures, and because quite often it got its assumptions wrong and caused more trouble than it solved.

The DLL tool `mkimage' fails to find libgcc, or

As of and above, libgcc is no longer shared. Hence you must replace occurrences of `-lgcc' on the offending line with `gcc -print-libgcc-file-name` (complete with the backquotes).

Also, delete all /usr/lib/libgcc* files. This is important.

__NEEDS_SHRLIB_libc_4 multiply defined messages

are another consequence of the same problem.

``Assertion failure'' message when rebuilding a DLL ?

This cryptic message most probably means that one of your jump table slots has overflowed because too little space has been reserved in the original jump.vars file. You can locate the culprit(s) by running the `getsize' command provided in the tools-2.17.tar.gz package. Probably the only solution, though, is to bump the major version number of the library, forcing it to be backward incompatible.

ld: output file needs shared library

This usually happens when you are linking with libraries other than libc (e.g. X libraries), and use the -g switch on the link line without also using -static.

The .sa stubs for the shared libraries usually have an undefined symbol _NEEDS_SHRLIB_libc_4 which gets resolved from the stub. However with -g you end up linking with libg.a or libc.a and thus this symbol never gets resolved, leading to the above error message.

In conclusion, add -static when compiling with the -g flag, or don't link with -g. Quite often you can get enough debugging information by compiling the individual files with -g, and linking without it.

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