Bert's blog

A note on linkers

Compiling a code is always a bit of an exciting event, especially if you just finished implementing something new. You thought about what you want to do, you built up a logical structure for the new code in your head, did the necessary online research to see how to exactly implement a function call, and now you will ask the compiler to actually turn this into a real program that does something.

And more often than not, this will fail at the first attempt. If you are new to a language, you are likely to make syntax errors (a forgotten ; somewhere for example). If you were in a hurry while writing the code, you might have made a typo. Or you might be making some slightly more complicated programming mistake that the compiler will tell you about. In most cases, the compiler errors or warnings you get (I personally recommend turning all warnings into errors using the -Werror flag for the GCC, Clang and Intel compilers) will be pretty easy to decipher, and after a few iterations, the code will usually happily compile.

However, as I already mentioned in a post a long time ago, the compilation process for a complex project involving multiple source code files and libraries is a two step process. The first step is actually compiling all the individual source code files into machine code (so called object files, with a typical .o extension). During the second step, these object files are combined into an executable, together with all additional libraries the executable depends on. This is done by a linker, a separate program (although usually shipped with the compiler) that makes sure all interdependencies between different object files and object files and libraries are correctly resolved.

If something goes wrong during this step, the error messages will usually be a lot harder to understand, making it more difficult to understand what the problem is and how to resolve it. There have been multiple occasions in the past where I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out a linker error, eventually ending up copying some solution from the internet that seemed to work, as if it was magic. Although this is good from a pragmatic point of view, it is not very satisfying, nor is it very helpful towards future problems.

By now, I have sufficient experience with linker problems to actually have a better understanding of what a linker exactly does and how this can go wrong, and I thought it would be good if I could share some of this understanding, in the hope that it might help other people understand the linker magic.

Why do we need a linker?

To understand what a linker does, it is first of all important to know why we need it. Imagine you have a minimal C++ program, consisting of:

A header file, “hello.hpp”:

void say_hello();

an implementation file, hello.cpp:

#include <iostream>

void say_hello() {
  std::cout << "Hello!" << std::endl;

and a main program file, main.cpp:

#include "hello.hpp"

int main(int argc, char **argv){
  return 0;

To compile this simple program, you first need to compile the individual source code files (assuming you use the GCC compiler:

> g++ -c hello.cpp
> g++ -c main.cpp

Then, you need to link them:

> g++ -o hello hello.o main.o

This will produce the executable hello, which you can run:

> ./hello

The structure of this program is very simple: the main function will place a single call to the say_hello function and exit. The say_hello function itself is compiled into the hello.o object file. What the linker needs to do is make sure that the machine code in main.o that calls say_hello, actually points to the exact location in hello.o where say_hello is actually implemented, so that the computer can execute this function at run time.

Without this linking, the compute would still be able to execute main.o, but when it arrives at the line where say_hello is called, it would not know where to find this function. The say_hello function in hello.o would not work either, because it would not know where to find the C++ standard library functionality for writing to the standard output (std::cout). And it would never get called anyway.

So the task of the linker is to make sure that calls in one object file to a function or variable defined in another object file are correctly resolved. The same is true for calls to other functions, e.g. functions that are part of some external library or the standard C or C++ library (like the std::cout call in hello.cpp). To do this, the linker needs to know where all relevant object and library files are stored in the system, what kind of linking is required (static or dynamic, I will come back to this), and where in the object and library files specific functions can be found.

The explicit linker command

It looks like the link step in the above example was performed by the GCC compiler, but actually the compiler called another program, the linker. We can figure out what command was actually called by adding the -v flag to the linking command:

> g++ -v -o hello hello.o main.o
Using built-in specs.
Target: x86_64-linux-gnu
Configured with: ../src/configure -v --with-pkgversion='Ubuntu 7.4.0-1ubuntu1~18.04.1' --with-bugurl=file:///usr/share/doc/gcc-7/README.Bugs --enable-languages=c,ada,c++,go,brig,d,fortran,objc,obj-c++ --prefix=/usr --with-gcc-major-version-only --program-suffix=-7 --program-prefix=x86_64-linux-gnu- --enable-shared --enable-linker-build-id --libexecdir=/usr/lib --without-included-gettext --enable-threads=posix --libdir=/usr/lib --enable-nls --with-sysroot=/ --enable-clocale=gnu --enable-libstdcxx-debug --enable-libstdcxx-time=yes --with-default-libstdcxx-abi=new --enable-gnu-unique-object --disable-vtable-verify --enable-libmpx --enable-plugin --enable-default-pie --with-system-zlib --with-target-system-zlib --enable-objc-gc=auto --enable-multiarch --disable-werror --with-arch-32=i686 --with-abi=m64 --with-multilib-list=m32,m64,mx32 --enable-multilib --with-tune=generic --enable-offload-targets=nvptx-none --without-cuda-driver --enable-checking=release --build=x86_64-linux-gnu --host=x86_64-linux-gnu --target=x86_64-linux-gnu
Thread model: posix
gcc version 7.4.0 (Ubuntu 7.4.0-1ubuntu1~18.04.1) 
COLLECT_GCC_OPTIONS='-v' '-o' 'hello' '-shared-libgcc' '-mtune=generic' '-march=x86-64'
 /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/collect2 -plugin /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/ -plugin-opt=/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/lto-wrapper -plugin-opt=-fresolution=/tmp/cccMNTeb.res -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc_s -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lc -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc_s -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc --sysroot=/ --build-id --eh-frame-hdr -m elf_x86_64 --hash-style=gnu --as-needed -dynamic-linker /lib64/ -pie -z now -z relro -o hello /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/../../../x86_64-linux-gnu/Scrt1.o /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/../../../x86_64-linux-gnu/crti.o /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/crtbeginS.o -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7 -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/../../../x86_64-linux-gnu -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/../../../../lib -L/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu -L/lib/../lib -L/usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu -L/usr/lib/../lib -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/../../.. hello.o main.o -lstdc++ -lm -lgcc_s -lgcc -lc -lgcc_s -lgcc /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/crtendS.o /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/7/../../../x86_64-linux-gnu/crtn.o
COLLECT_GCC_OPTIONS='-v' '-o' 'hello' '-shared-libgcc' '-mtune=generic' '-march=x86-64'

The relevant line is the penultimate one. As you might be able to see, the basic linking command -o hello hello.o main.o is still there, but the compiler has added a lot of additional object and library files to this. Some of these are necessary to link in the C++ standard library (e.g. the -lstdc++ but also -lm and -lc). Others are required for the specific C++ standard library we are using here: the version provided by the GCC compiler. This library version contains some additional features to help make the program more robust and some of these features require additional object files to be linked in, like crti.o, crtbeginS.o and so on. Since these objects and the library options for the linker are the same for every C++ program, the GCC compiler provides a convenient wrapper for the linker. The actual linker program called by GCC is called collect2, and this itself is only a wrapper for the actual linker, a program called ld.

If something goes wrong during linking, the command that will fail is hence called collect2. This is the command you will see in the error message that the compiler displays.

It is very instructive to try to link the example program yourself using ld, starting from the basic linker command and then adding the additional components on the detailed linking command above one by one until the executable is successfully linked. You will notice that this is not at all an easy procedure!

Note that because of the wrapper, all the paths and options for the C++ standard library are already guaranteed to be part of the linker command, and unless your compiler installation itself is broken, they will be correct. In general, this is hence not something you should worry about if you do not invoke the linker directly. And given how hard it is to add all these elements yourself, you should probably always use the compiler provided wrapper for the linker.


The only way the linker can know how to find the machine code for the functions that are referenced in object and library files, is by using some kind of identifier. These identifiers are called symbols. These symbols are somewhat similar to the declarations of functions and variables that you put in header files and that you use to tell the compiler what the correct signature is for a function call (or class) that you are using in one file, but that is actually defined in another.

Whenever the compiler encounters a new function or variable in a source code file that needs to be visible outside that file, it will prepend the bit of machine code generated for that function or variable with a unique symbol. Whenever that same variable or function is called in another source code file, it will simply check if the call matches the declaration for that function or variable in the header file, and then insert the same symbol in the machine code for that source code file. When the linker later links together the two object files, it will replace these symbols with actual machine code that calls the correct machine code for that function or variable where it is used.

In order for this to work, the symbols that are generated for the different source code files need to be consistent, i.e. they need to be generated in a deterministic way. On top of that, the symbols also need to be unique: if a variable or function with a specific symbol is created in one object file, then the same variable or function symbol cannot be created in another one, since then the linker would not know to which of the versions to link. The same goes for all additional libraries that are linked into the program: their symbols need to be generated in the same way and also need to be unique.

The rules for generating deterministic symbols depend on the compiler, and also on the programming language. For e.g. the C language function names need to be unique, so the function name itself can simply act as a unique and deterministic symbol. A language like C++ allows function overloading, i.e. multiple functions with the same name but with a different number of function arguments or function arguments of a different type. In this case, the symbol for a function also needs to encode information about the number and type of the function arguments to be unique.

A consequence of these different rules for different languages is that it is not generally possible to link together object files that were compiled for different languages. This seems obvious for object files of two very different languages like Fortran and C++, but is also true for languages that have very similar syntaxes, like C and C++. Note however that if your C code can be compiled as valid C++ code (which is quite likely), and you compile it with the C++ compiler, the generated symbols will use the C++ rules and linking will work. So everything depends on the compilation step.

That being said, it is often necessary to link together machine code that was generated for different languages. A lot of functionality of an operating system exists in the form of libraries that were written in a specific language (for Unix systems, this is generally C), and if you want to use this functionality, you will need to link against these libraries. Theoretically, this should be perfectly possible, as in the end all libraries just contain machine code, which is independent from the language it was originally written in. The problem is then not so much the fact that the library was written in another language, but the fact that the symbols for the functionality in that library were created using different rules.

If you do need to link code in different languages, it suffices to tell the compiler to generate symbols in a different way. For C and C++, this can be done by including the extern keyword in the declarations of functions. Suppose for example that the say_hello function in our example was written in C. Then we would have the following header file, hello.h:

extern "C"{
  void say_hello();

and the following implementation file (now using the C standard library):

#include <stdio.h>

void say_hello() {
  printf("C Hello!\n");

We now need to compile the C source code file using gcc:

> gcc -c hello.c

Replace the hello.hpp in main.cpp with hello.h, recompile main.cpp (still using g++) and link again (also using g++). The program will still work!

To see the difference between the symbols in both cases, we can use the nm command line tool. This tool will read the object file generated by the compiler, and print out all the symbols it contains. For the object file generated from hello.c, we get:

> nm hello.o
                 U _GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_
                 U printf
0000000000000000 T say_hello

For the object file with source hello.cpp, this is:

> nm hello.o
                 U __cxa_atexit
                 U __dso_handle
                 U _GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_
0000000000000078 t _GLOBAL__sub_I__Z9say_hellov
000000000000002f t _Z41__static_initialization_and_destruction_0ii
0000000000000000 T _Z9say_hellov
                 U _ZNSolsEPFRSoS_E
                 U _ZNSt8ios_base4InitC1Ev
                 U _ZNSt8ios_base4InitD1Ev
                 U _ZSt4cout
                 U _ZSt4endlIcSt11char_traitsIcEERSt13basic_ostreamIT_T0_ES6_
0000000000000000 r _ZStL19piecewise_construct
0000000000000000 b _ZStL8__ioinit
                 U _ZStlsISt11char_traitsIcEERSt13basic_ostreamIcT_ES5_PKc

The latter can be made easier to read by using the -C option for nm:

> nm -C hello.o
                 U __cxa_atexit
                 U __dso_handle
                 U _GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_
0000000000000078 t _GLOBAL__sub_I__Z9say_hellov
000000000000002f t __static_initialization_and_destruction_0(int, int)
0000000000000000 T say_hello()
                 U std::ostream::operator<<(std::ostream& (*)(std::ostream&))
                 U std::ios_base::Init::Init()
                 U std::ios_base::Init::~Init()
                 U std::cout
                 U std::basic_ostream<char, std::char_traits<char> >& std::endl<char, std::char_traits<char> >(std::basic_ostream<char, std::char_traits<char> >&)
0000000000000000 r std::piecewise_construct
0000000000000000 b std::__ioinit
                 U std::basic_ostream<char, std::char_traits<char> >& std::operator<< <std::char_traits<char> >(std::basic_ostream<char, std::char_traits<char> >&, char const*)

While in the C case, the symbol for the say_hello function is simply say_hello, the C++ version is _Z9say_hellov. By including the extern "C" keyword in the C header we include in main.cpp, we instruct the compiler to generate the C version rather than the C++ version of this symbol.

Something similar can be done in Fortran (using the iso_c_binding module) to make sure the Fortran compiler generates symbols that can be read in C(++) or vice versa. Many Unix C libraries include a check in their header files that activates an extern "C" statement whenever the library is included in a C++ project, so that you as a developer do not need to worry about correctly including that library.

Symbols are often mentioned in linker error messages, usually for two reasons. An undefined reference to linker error means that a symbol referenced in an object file does not have an actual implementation in another object file or library, usually because that object file or library is missing from the linker command. multiple definition of linker errors on the other hand mean that the same symbol is used for two different functions or variables, because you are reusing a function or variable name that already exists (are you linking two source code files that contain a main function?). This is often caused by unsafe use of header files: if you define a function or variable inside a header file and then include that header file from different source code files, then the compiler will include the entire definition of that function or variable and its symbols into the generated object files. That is why you should (a) never define variables inside a header file, and (b) always make sure that function definitions inside header files are inlined, i.e. the code they contain rather than the function definition is included in the object file, and no symbols are generated.

Static versus dynamic

When multiple object files are linked together into an executable, the output of the linking process is a single executable that contains all the machine code that makes up that executable. In principle, the same can be done for executables that contain external libraries. This is called static linking: the object and library machine code is copied and linked as it is right now, and the resulting executable contains a static image of all this code that can only be changed by recompiling or relinking the executable. Since the executable contains all the machine code, it can become very large, but assuming it does not depend on any external input files, it can be copied and run from any other location.

Sometimes, this is not ideal. The external library you use could be very large, or the external library could change quite often and you want to be able to incorporate those changes into your code without having to recompile your executable every time. In this case, it is possible to dynamically link the library into your executable. In this case, the linker will not copy the machine code for the library, but will instead insert the location of the machine code within the external library file into the code. When the executable is executed, the external library will be loaded into memory, and the address of the linked functionality will be used to access the corresponding machine code. The advantage of this approach is that the executable does no longer need to contain all the machine code for the library, and also that the external library could in principle change without the need to recompile the executable.

Of course, this will only work if the linker can somehow generate a consistent address for the dynamically linked functionality that will keep working even if the external library itself changes. In practice, this means that different library files are generated for different types of linking: static libraries that can be used for static linking (with typical .a extensions on Unix), and shared libraries for dynamic linking (with a .so extension). It is very unlikely that you will ever actively need to think about what type of linking is required, but it is good to know these terms.

Order is important

One last annoying thing about the linker is that it can be very peculiar about the order in which static libraries are linked in to your program. A static library itself is simply a collection (or archive) of object files, containing the same type of symbols you would find in the object files for your own source code. Static libraries can however contain a large amount of these object files, making looking through all of them during linking a reasonably expensive operation.

For that reason, the GCC linker (I don’t know about other linkers) uses a very basic approach to find unresolved symbols during linking. It will simply take all the arguments provided to it, from left to right, and look through them, creating a list of unresolved symbols, i.e. symbols that are referenced but not yet defined. Whenever it finds a definition for a symbol, it will use the list to resolve all occurrences of that symbol. However, the linker does not generally store a list of resolved symbols for external static libraries, i.e. it will not generally keep track of the symbols that it already resolved. If a symbol is referenced after the linker encountered its definition, it might hence not be able to resolve it.

There are good reasons why the linker uses this strategy: system libraries can contain a huge number of symbols, and looking up symbols in a huge list is not a very efficient process. But unfortunately, this also means that you need to make sure that libraries are included in the right order: always after the object files that make up your program, and always in an order that makes sure dependencies between external libraries are resolved correctly. This is why it is always a good idea to use compiler wrappers for the linker (so that the wrapper can figure out the interdependencies for the standard libraries), and why I would also strongly recommend using configuration software like autotools or CMake to create linking commands.

Note that there are situations in which external libraries have circular dependencies, e.g. library a.a uses functionality from b.a, but b.a uses a function that is part of c.a that uses a function from a.a. There are various ways to resolve this: you can simply list a.a twice in the linker command, or you can force the linker to iteratively look through these three libraries until all symbols have been resolved, by using a group (ld has the -( and -) or --start-group and --end-group options to create cyclic groups of static libraries). This will have a performance impact, but can sometimes be necessary in order to successfully complete the linking process.

Passing on additional linker options

If you use compiler wrappers and configuration tools for your project, then you will hopefully never need to touch the linker command. There are a few cases in which it can be useful to do this nonetheless, e.g. if you have cyclic library dependencies (see above) or if the linker does not find a library that is definitely installed on your system (a good configuration tool will help you sort out both of these).

The correct linker option to pass on the path where a library file can be found is -L, while the syntax to pass on a library file directly is -l. However, since you will probably invoke the linker command through the compiler wrapper (or at least, you should do this), you cannot directly pass on these options. Instead, you need to tell the wrapper to pass them on to the linker, using the -Wl option:

> g++ -o test test.o -Wl,-L/path/to/library -Wl,-llibrary

Multiple -Wl option arguments can be combined as a comma-separated list, while multiple -Wl options can be given as well. All of them will be passed on in the order they are provided as a space separated list. For shared libraries, you want to use -R rather than -l.

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