Collection of ELF and GOLD linker notes from AIRS' blog, for easier searching
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Rough transcriptions of a thread on Mastodon

Here are some useful parts of posts I made on Mastodon, I haven’t cleaned them up too much.

General structure of an ELF file

An ELF file starts with an ELF header (Ehdr), which contains offsets to the program headers aka segments (Phdr), and the section headers (Shdr). also tells you the entry point, architecture+bitsize, and which shdr is .shstrtab.

Shdrs and phdrs are explained here. Both provide views on the ELF file, but for different purposes. Though its kinda not a good idea, I’ll give you that.

The stuff pointed to by the shdrs and phdrs are:

  • text, data, rodata, bss, ... blobs
  • string table blobs (strtab, shstrtab, dynstr)
  • interpreter, comment, etc etc
  • relocation tables (Rel, Rela) (phdrs don’t know about this one)
  • symbol tables (Sym) (phdrs don’t know about this one)
  • versioning info (Versym, Verdef, Verneed) (phdrs don’t know about this one)
  • dynamic table (Dyn), which also has entries for relocations, symbols, versioning

Yes, its true that phdrs, shdrs, dynamic, symtab, dynsym, ... could’ve just been tables right after the Ehdr, but that was apparently not complicated enough for Sun.

What are all the different sections for?

.hash, .gnu.hash: hash tables for looking up symbols. both do the same but are slihgtly different in implementation, .hash comes from SysV R4 and has been deprecated for ages, no clue why its still there. .gnu.hash is made by the GNU people because they thought the SysV one wasnt good enough.

.comment is just a string the toolchain inserts to tell people its built with the toolchain, for some reason.

.shstrtab is the blob that contains the section names (so the actual “.text”, “.data”, ... strings), for some reason (elaborated on later) this is stored separately from the other string tables (the ‘sh_name’ field of an ElfXX_Shdr is an offset into this table).

.rel* and .rela* contain relocation info, used both during static/“compile-time” linking and runtime/dynamic linking. binaries contain only runtime relocation info, linkable objects contain only static linking info (the linker has to figure out which symbols and relocations need to get truned into dynamic ones).

.gnu.version and .gnu.version_r contain versioning information of symbols, glibc uses this a lot, and practically nothing else

There’s also .debug* and .dwarf* stuff for debug info, that’s yet another rabbithole im not going into this time.

Usually, an ELF binary (not a non-linked object) has two symbol tables, .symtab and .dynsym. the former contains all the ‘internal’ symbols (the part you can strip away), the latter are the imported and exported ones

.strtab contains the symbol name strings, the st_name of the ElfXX_Sym entries in .symtab is again an offset, .dynstr contains the names of the names of the .dynsym entries

However, section headers don’t actually have to be present at all in binaries (executables and libraries), only in linkable object files. you can just, get rid of them completely (patch out the shdr-related fields in the ELF header), and things still work, which is why and how you can get rid of the .symtab, .strtab, .shstrtab, etc (and the shdr table itself), and thats also why all the string tables are separate.

But how would ld.so find .dynsym etc. if the shdrs that point to them are gone?

That’s where .dynamic is for: it contains a bunch of only half-related offsets of the file into a table: a list of library dependencies, offsets into the .dynsym, .dynstr, .gnu.version, .rel(a), ... tables, misc flags and settings, and so on (the entries are key/value pairs, see ElfXX_Dyn).

But then how does ld.so find .dynamic?

That’s what the phdrs are for (not). Originally, those are meant for the kernel to see where in memory an executable needs to be mapped, with offset+address, alignment, permission, ... info. But as that’s the table the kernel looks at, that’s also where they added the info about which interpreter should be used for the binary, whether the stack should be mapped NX, and so on. there’s also one containing the offset of the .dynamic table. the kernel doesnt touch it, but thats how ld.so can reliably find it.

The thing is, you can have most things “gone” by removing all the sections, but many of these will still actually be present because they have an entry in the .dynamic table. which is not very useful. so if you want to get rid of some stuff (hash tables, versioning info, ...), you’ll first have to remove the entries from the dyn table, and only then remove the relevant shdrs, as that will properly remove it from the binary

Then you can nuke the shdr table itself using a tool like sstrip (usually packaged in elf-kickers or elfkickers or ...), binutils/objcopy won’t let you do this.

And thats why, if you want a small output file, you want to either write the ELF headers manually, or use/write a custom linker that doesn’t emit all this stuff.

Random notes

  • ld.so has to be linked with -static-pie
  • All symbol tables must start with a zeroed-out entry, because the standard says that symbol index 0 (when referencing a symbol elsewhere) means no symbol, instead of index -1 or so. It’s not a sentinel value.
  • ld.so will use the hash tables first to look up symbols that are defined in the binary before resorting to walking the symbol table manually. It probably actually needs at least one of these two to be present in a binary nowdays. .hash is provided as a fallback for when ld.so wouldn’t know about .gnu.hash, but that practically never happens.