Collection of ELF and GOLD linker notes from AIRS' blog, for easier searching
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Metadata sections, COMDAT and SHF_LINK_ORDER


In C++, inline functions, template instantiations and a few other things can be defined in multiple object files but need deduplication at link time. In the dark ages the functionality was implemented by weak definitions: the linker does not report duplicate definition errors and resolves the references to the first definition. The downside is that unneeded copies remained in the linked image.

In Microsoft PE file format, the section flag (IMAGE_SCN_LNK_COMDAT) marks a section COMDAT and enables deduplication on a per-section basis. If a text section needs a data section and deduplication is needed for both sections, two COMDAT symbols are needed.

In the GNU world, .gnu.linkonce. was invented to duplicate groups with just one member. .gnu.linkonce. has been long obsoleted in favor of section groups but the usage has been daunting til 2020. Adhemerval Zanella removed the the last live glibc use case for .gnu.linkonce. BZ #20543.

ELF section groups

The ELF specification generalized this use case to allow an arbitrary number of groups to be interrelated.

Some sections occur in interrelated groups. For example, an out-of-line definition of an inline function might require, in addition to the section containing its executable instructions, a read-only data section containing literals referenced, one or more debugging information sections and other informational sections. Furthermore, there may be internal references among these sections that would not make sense if one of the sections were removed or replaced by a duplicate from another object. Therefore, such groups must be included or omitted from the linked object as a unit. A section cannot be a member of more than one group.

According to “such groups must be included or omitted from the linked object as a unit”, a linker’s garbage collection feature must retain or discard the sections as a unit.

The most common section group flag is GRP_COMDAT, which makes the member sections similar to COMDAT in Microsoft PE file format, but can apply to multiple sections. (The committee borrowed the name “COMDAT” from PE.)

This is a COMDAT group. It may duplicate another COMDAT group in another object file, where duplication is defined as having the same group signature. In such cases, only one of the duplicate groups may be retained by the linker, and the members of the remaining groups must be discarded.

I want to highlight one thing GCC does (and Clang inherits) for backward compatibility: the definitions relatived to a COMDAT group member are kept STB_WEAK instead of STB_GLOBAL. The idea is that old toolchain which does not recognize COMDAT groups can still operate correctly, just in a degraded manner.

Metadata sections

Many compiler options intrument text sections or annotate text sections, and need to create a metadata section for (almost) every text section. Such metadata sections have some characteristics:

  • All relocations from the metadata section reference the associated text section.
  • The metadata section is only referenced by the associated text section or not referenced at all.

Below is an example:



Users want GC semantics for such metadata sections: if is retained, is retained. Note: the regular GC semantics are converse: if is retained, is retained.

To achieve the desired GC semantics on ELF platforms, we could use a non-COMDAT section group. However, using a section group requires one extra section (usually named .group), which requires 40 bytes on ELFCLASS32 platforms and 64 bytes on ELFCLASS64 platforms. Put it in another way, to represent the metadata of a text section, we need two sections (the metadata section and the section group), 128 bytes on ELFCLASS64 platforms. The size overhead is concerning in many applications. (AArch64 and x86-64 define ILP32 ABIs and use ELFCLASS32, but technically they can use ELFCLASS32 for small code model with regular ABIs, if the kernel allows.)

In a generic-abi thread, Cary Coutant initially suggested to use a new section flag SHF_ASSOCIATED. HP-UX and Solaris folks objected to a new generic flag. Cary Coutant then discussed with Jim Dehnert and noticed that the existing (rare) flag SHF_LINK_ORDER has semantics closer to the metadata GC semantics, so he intended to replace the existing flag SHF_LINK_ORDER. Solaris had used its own SHF_ORDERED extension before it migrated to the ELF simplification SHF_LINK_ORDER. Solaris is still using SHF_LINK_ORDER so the flag cannot be repurposed. People discussed whether SHF_OS_NONCONFORMING could be repurposed but did not take that route: the platform already knows whether a flag is unknown and knowing a flag is non-conforming does not help produce better output. In the end the agreement was that SHF_LINK_ORDER gained additional metadata GC semantics.

The new semantics:

This flag adds special ordering requirements for link editors. The requirements apply to the referenced section identified by the sh_link field of this section’s header. If this section is combined with other sections in the output file, the section must appear in the same relative order with respect to those sections, as the referenced section appears with respect to sections the referenced section is combined with.

A typical use of this flag is to build a table that references text or data sections in address order.

In addition to adding ordering requirements, SHF_LINK_ORDER indicates that the section contains metadata describing the referenced section. When performing unused section elimination, the link editor should ensure that both the section and the referenced section are retained or discarded together. Furthermore, relocations from this section into the referenced section should not be taken as evidence that the referenced section should be retained.

Actually, ARM EHABI has been using SHF_LINK_ORDER for index table sections .ARM.exidx*. A .ARM.exidx section contains a sequence of 2-word pairs. The first word is 31-bit PC-relative offset to the start of the region. The idea is that if the entries are ordered by the start address, the end address of an entry is implicitly the start address of the next entry and does not need to be explicitly encoded. For this reason the section uses SHF_LINK_ORDER for the ordering requirement. The GC semantics are very similar to the metadata sections’.

So the updated SHF_LINK_ORDER wording can be seen as recognition for the current practice (even though the original discussion did not actually notice ARM EHABI).

However, in binutils, before 2.35, SHF_LINK_ORDER could be produced by ARM assembly directives, but not specified by user-customized sections.

C identifier name sections

A section whose name consists of pure C-like identifier characters (isalnum characters in the C locale plus _) is considered as a GC root by ld --gc-sections. The idea is that linker defined __start_foo and __stop_foo are used to delimiter the output section foo. Even if input sections foo are not referenced by other sections, __start_foo/__stop_foo is a signal that foo should be retained.

The metadata use case requires an amendment of the rule: if SHF_LINK_ORDER is set on foo, foo can be GCed (LLD r294592).

GNU ld does not implement this rule yet.


Mixed unordered and ordered sections

If an output section consists of only non-SHF_LINK_ORDER sections, the rule is clear: input sections are ordered in their input order. If an output section consists of only SHF_LINK_ORDER sections, the rule is also clear: input sections are ordered with respect to their linked-to sections.

What is unclear is how to handle an output section with mixed unordered and ordered sections.

GNU ld had a diagnostic: . LLD rejected the case as well error: incompatible section flags for .rodata.

When I implemented -fpatchable-function-entry= for Clang, I observed some GC related issues with the GCC implementation. I reported them and carefully chose SHF_LINK_ORDER in the Clang implementation if the integrated assembler is used.

This was a problem if the user wanted to place such input sections along with unordered sections, e.g. : { ... KEEP(*(__patchable_function_entries)) ... } (

As a response, I submitted to allow ordered input section descriptions within an output section.

This worked well for the Linux kernel. Mixed unordered and ordered sections within an input section description was still a problem. This made it infeasible to add SHF_LINK_ORDER to an existing metadata section and expect new object files linkable with old object files which do not have the flag. I asked how to resolve this upgrade issue and Ali Bahrami responded:

The Solaris linker puts sections without SHF_LINK_ORDER at the end of the output section, in first-in-first-out order, and I don’t believe that’s considered to be an error.

So I went ahead and implemented a similar rule for LLD: allowes arbitrary mix and places SHF_LINK_ORDER sections before non-SHF_LINK_ORDER sections.

If the associated section is discarded

We decided that the integrated assembler allows SHF_LINK_ORDER with sh_link=0 and LLD can handle such sections as regular unordered sections (

Other pitfalls

  • During --icf={safe,all}, SHF_LINK_ORDER sections should not be separately considered.
  • In relocatable output, SHF_LINK_ORDER sections cannot be combined by name.
  • When comparing two input sections with different linked-to output sections, use vaddr of output sections instead of section indexes. Peter Smith fixed this in


Arm Compiler 5 splits up DWARF Version 3 debug information and puts these sections into comdat groups. On “monolithic input section handling”, Peter Smith commented that:

We found that splitting up the debug into fragments works well as it permits the linker to ensure that all the references to local symbols are to sections within the same group, this makes it easy for the linker to remove all the debug when the group isn’t selected.

This approach did produce significantly more debug information than gcc did. For small microcontroller projects this wasn’t a problem. For larger feature phone problems we had to put a lot of work into keeping the linker’s memory usage down as many of our customers at the time were using 32-bit Windows machines with a default maximum virtual memory of 2Gb.

COMDAT sections have size overhead on extra section headers. Developers may be tempted to decrease the overhead with SHF_LINK_ORDER. However, the approach does not work due to the ordering requirement. Considering the following fragments:

header [a.o common]
- DW_TAG_compile_unit [a.o common]
-- DW_TAG_variable [a.o]
-- DW_TAG_namespace [common]
--- DW_TAG_subprogram [a.o]
--- DW_TAG_variable [a.o .data.baz]
footer [a.o common]
header [b.o common]
- DW_TAG_compile_unit [b.o common]
-- DW_TAG_variable [b.o]
-- DW_TAG_namespace [common]
--- DW_TAG_subprogram [b.o]
--- DW_TAG_variable [b.o .data.baz]
footer [b.o common]

DW_TAG_* tags associated with concrete sections can be represented with SHF_LINK_ORDER sections. After linking the sections will be ordered before the common parts.