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25.4 Whole program assumptions, linker plugin and symbol visibilities

Link-time optimization gives relatively minor benefits when used alone. The problem is that propagation of inter-procedural information does not work well across functions and variables that are called or referenced by other compilation units (such as from a dynamically linked library). We say that such functions and variables are externally visible.

To make the situation even more difficult, many applications organize themselves as a set of shared libraries, and the default ELF visibility rules allow one to overwrite any externally visible symbol with a different symbol at runtime. This basically disables any optimizations across such functions and variables, because the compiler cannot be sure that the function body it is seeing is the same function body that will be used at runtime. Any function or variable not declared static in the sources degrades the quality of inter-procedural optimization.

To avoid this problem the compiler must assume that it sees the whole program when doing link-time optimization. Strictly speaking, the whole program is rarely visible even at link-time. Standard system libraries are usually linked dynamically or not provided with the link-time information. In GCC, the whole program option (-fwhole-program) asserts that every function and variable defined in the current compilation unit is static, except for function main (note: at link time, the current unit is the union of all objects compiled with LTO). Since some functions and variables need to be referenced externally, for example by another DSO or from an assembler file, GCC also provides the function and variable attribute externally_visible which can be used to disable the effect of -fwhole-program on a specific symbol.

The whole program mode assumptions are slightly more complex in C++, where inline functions in headers are put into COMDAT sections. COMDAT function and variables can be defined by multiple object files and their bodies are unified at link-time and dynamic link-time. COMDAT functions are changed to local only when their address is not taken and thus un-sharing them with a library is not harmful. COMDAT variables always remain externally visible, however for readonly variables it is assumed that their initializers cannot be overwritten by a different value.

GCC provides the function and variable attribute visibility that can be used to specify the visibility of externally visible symbols (or alternatively an -fdefault-visibility command line option). ELF defines the default, protected, hidden and internal visibilities.

The most commonly used is visibility is hidden. It specifies that the symbol cannot be referenced from outside of the current shared library. Unfortunately, this information cannot be used directly by the link-time optimization in the compiler since the whole shared library also might contain non-LTO objects and those are not visible to the compiler.

GCC solves this problem using linker plugins. A linker plugin is an interface to the linker that allows an external program to claim the ownership of a given object file. The linker then performs the linking procedure by querying the plugin about the symbol table of the claimed objects and once the linking decisions are complete, the plugin is allowed to provide the final object file before the actual linking is made. The linker plugin obtains the symbol resolution information which specifies which symbols provided by the claimed objects are bound from the rest of a binary being linked.

GCC is designed to be independent of the rest of the toolchain and aims to support linkers without plugin support. For this reason it does not use the linker plugin by default. Instead, the object files are examined by collect2 before being passed to the linker and objects found to have LTO sections are passed to lto1 first. This mode does not work for library archives. The decision on what object files from the archive are needed depends on the actual linking and thus GCC would have to implement the linker itself. The resolution information is missing too and thus GCC needs to make an educated guess based on -fwhole-program. Without the linker plugin GCC also assumes that symbols are declared hidden and not referred by non-LTO code by default.

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