Hell Oh Entropy!

Life, Code and everything in between

Hello FOSSASIA: Revisiting the event *and* the first program we write in C

I was at FOSSAsia this weekend to deliver a workshop on the very basics of programming. It ended a pretty rough couple of weeks for me, with travel to Budapest (for Linaro Connect) followed immediately by the travel to Singapore. It seems like I don’t travel east in the timezone very well and the effects were visible with me napping at odd hours and generally looking groggy through the weekend at Singapore. It was however all worth it because despite a number of glitches, I had some real positives to take back from the conference.

The conference

FOSSAsia had been on my list of conferences to visit due to Kushal Das telling me time and again that I’d meet interesting people there. I had proposed a talk (since I can’t justify the travel just to attend) a couple of years ago but dropped out since I could not find sponsors for my talk and FOSSAsia was not interested in sponsoring me either. Last year I met Hong at SHD Belgaum and she invited me to speak at FOSSAsia. I gladly accepted since Nisha was going to volunteer anyway. However as things turned out in the end, my talk got accepted and I found sponsorship for travel and stay (courtesy Linaro), but Nisha could not attend.

I came (I’m still in SG, waiting for my flight) half-heartedly since Nisha did not accompany me, but the travel seemed worth it in the end. I met some very interesting people and was able to deliver a workshop that I was satisfied with.

Speaking of the workshop…

I was scheduled to talk on the last day (Sunday) first thing in the morning and I was pretty sure I was going to be the only person standing with nobody in their right minds waking up early on a Sunday for a workshop. A Sunday workshop also meant that I knew the venue and its deficiencies - the “Scientist for a Day” part of the Science Center was a disaster since it was completely open and noisy, with lunch being served right next to the room on the first day. I was wary of that, but the Sunday morning slot protected me from that and my workshop personally without such glitches.

The workshop content itself was based on an impromptu ‘workshop’ I did at FUDCon Pune 2015, but a little more organized. Here’s a blow by blow account of the talk for those who missed it, and also a reference for those who attended and would like a reference to go back to in future.

Hell Oh World

It all starts with this program. Hello World is what we all say when we are looking to learn a new language. However, after Hello World, we move up to learn the syntax of the language and then try to solve more complex user problems, ignoring the wonderful things that happened underneath Hello World to make it all happen. This session is an attempt to take a brief look into these depths. Since I am a bit of a cynic, my Hello World program is slightly different:

#include <stdio.h>

main (void)
  printf ("Hell Oh World!\n");
  return 0;

We compile this program:

$ gcc -o helloworld helloworld.c

We can see that the program prints the result just fine:

$ ./helloworld 
Hell Oh World!

But then there is so much that went into making that program. Lets take a look at the binary by using a process called disassembling, which prints the binary program into a human-readable format - well at least readable to humans that know assembly language programming.

$ objdump -d helloworld

We wrote only one function: main, so we should see only that. Instead however, we see so many functions that are present in the binary In fact, you you were lied to when they told back in college that main() is the entry point of the program! The entry point is the function called _start, which calls a function in the GNU C Library called __libc_start_main, which in turn calls the main function. When you invoke the compiler to build the helloworld program, you’re actually running a number of commands in sequence. In general, you do the following steps:

  • Preprocess the source code to expand macros and includes
  • Compile the source to assembly code
  • Assemble the assembly source to binary object code
  • Link the code against its dependencies to produce the final binary program

let us look at these steps one by one.


gcc -E -o helloworld.i helloworld.c

Run this command instead of the first one to produce a pre-processed file. You’ll see that the resultant file has hundreds of lines of code and among those hundreds of lines, is this one line that we need: the prototype for printf so that the compiler identifies the call printf:

extern int printf (const char *__restrict __format, ...);

It is possible to just use this extern decl and avoid including the entire header file, but it is not good practice. The overhead of maintaining something like this is unnecessary, especially when the compiler can do the job of eliminating the unused bits anyway. We are better off just including a couple of headers and getting all declarations.

Compiling the preprocessed source

Contrary to popular belief, the compiler does not compile into binary .o - it only generates assembly code. It then calls the assembler in the binutils project to convert the assembly into object code.

$ gcc -S -o helloworld.s helloworld.i

The assembly code is now just this:

    .file   "helloworld.i"
    .section    .rodata
    .string "Hell Oh World!"
    .globl  main
    .type   main, @function
    pushq   %rbp
    .cfi_def_cfa_offset 16
    .cfi_offset 6, -16
    movq    %rsp, %rbp
    .cfi_def_cfa_register 6
    movl    $.LC0, %edi
    call    puts
    movl    $0, %eax
    popq    %rbp
    .cfi_def_cfa 7, 8
    .size   main, .-main
    .ident  "GCC: (GNU) 6.3.1 20161221 (Red Hat 6.3.1-1)"
    .section    .note.GNU-stack,"",@progbits

which is just the main function and nothing else. The interesting thing there though is that the printf function call is replaced with puts because the input to printf is just a string without any format and puts is much faster than printf in such cases. This is an optimization by gcc to make code run faster. In fact, the code runs close to 200 optimization passes to attempt to improve the quality of the generated assembly code. However, it does not add all of those additional functions.

So does the assembler add the rest of the gunk?

Assembling the assembly

gcc -c -o helloworld.o helloworld.s

Here is how we assemble the generated assembly source into an object file. The generated assembly can again be disassembled using objdump and we see this:

helloworld.o:     file format elf64-x86-64

Disassembly of section .text:

: 0: 55 push %rbp 1: 48 89 e5 mov %rsp,%rbp 4: bf 00 00 00 00 mov $0x0,%edi 9: e8 00 00 00 00 callq e e: b8 00 00 00 00 mov $0x0,%eax 13: 5d pop %rbp 14: c3 retq

which is no more than what we saw with the compiler, just in binary format. So it surely is the linker adding all of the gunk.

Putting it all together

Now that we know that it is the linker adding all of the additional stuff into helloworld, lets look at how gcc invokes the linker. To do this, we need to add a -v to the gcc command. You’ll get a lot of output, but the relevant bit is this:

$ gcc -v -o helloworld helloworld.c

/usr/libexec/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/collect2 -plugin /usr/libexec/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/liblto_plugin.so -plugin-opt=/usr/libexec/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/lto-wrapper -plugin-opt=-fresolution=/tmp/ccEdWzG5.res -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc_s -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lc -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc -plugin-opt=-pass-through=-lgcc_s --build-id --no-add-needed --eh-frame-hdr --hash-style=gnu -m elf_x86_64 -dynamic-linker /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 -o helloworld /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/../../../../lib64/crt1.o /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/../../../../lib64/crti.o /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/crtbegin.o -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1 -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/../../../../lib64 -L/lib/../lib64 -L/usr/lib/../lib64 -L/usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/../../.. /tmp/cc3m0We9.o -lgcc --as-needed -lgcc_s --no-as-needed -lc -lgcc --as-needed -lgcc_s --no-as-needed /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/crtend.o /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-redhat-linux/6.3.1/../../../../lib64/crtn.o
COLLECT_GCC_OPTIONS='-v' '-o' 'helloworld' '-mtune=generic' '-march=x86-64'

This is a long command, but the main points of interest are all of the object files (*.o) that get linked in because the linker concatenates those and then resolves dependencies of unresolved references to functions (only puts in this case) among those and all of the libraries (libc.so via -lc, libgcc.so via -lgcc, etc.). To find out which of the object code files have the definition of a specific function, say, _start, disassemble each of them. You’ll find that crt1.o has the definition.

Static linking

Another interesting thing to note in the generated assembly is that the call is to puts@plt, which is not exactly puts. It is in reality a construct called a trampoline, which helps the code jump to the actual printf function during runtime. We need this because printf is actually present in libc.so.6, which the binary simply claims to need by encoding it in the binary. To see this, disassemble the binary using the -x flag:

$ objdump -x helloworld

helloworld:     file format elf64-x86-64
architecture: i386:x86-64, flags 0x00000112:
start address 0x0000000000400430
Dynamic Section:
  NEEDED               libc.so.6

This is dynamic linking. When a program is executed, what is actually called first is the dynamic linker (ld.so), which then opens all dependent libraries, maps them into memory, and then calls the _start function in the program. During mapping, it also fills in a table of data called the Global Offset Table with offsets of all of the external references (puts in our case) to help the trampoline jump to the correct location.

If you want to be independent of the dynamic linker, then you can link the program statically:

$ gcc -static -o helloworld helloworld.c

This will however result in bloating of the program and also has a number of other disadvantages, like having to rebuild for every update of its dependent libraries and sub-optimal performance since the kernel can no longer share pages among processes for common code.

BONUS: Writing the smallest program

The basics were done with about 10 minutes to spare, so I showed how one could write the smallest program ever. In principle, the smallest program in C is:

main (void)
  return 42;

As is evident though, this pulls in everything from the C and gcc libraries, so it is clearly hard to do this in C, so lets try it in assembly. We already know that _start is the main entry point of the program, so we need to implement that function. To exit the program, we need to tell the kernel to exit by invoking the exit_group syscall, which has syscall number 231. Here is what the function looks like:

.globl _start
    mov $0xe7, %rax
    mov $0x42, %rdi

We can build this with gcc to get a very small binary but to do this, we need to specify that we don’t want to use the standard libraries:

gcc -o min -nostdlib min.s

The resultant file is 864 bytes, as opposed to the 8.5K binary from the C program. We can reduce this further by invoking the assembler and linker directly:

$ as -o min.o min.s
$ ld -o min min.o

This results in an even smaller binary, at 664 bytes! This is because gcc puts some extra meta information in the binary to identify its builds.


At this point we ran out of time and we had to cut things short. It was a fun interaction because there were even a couple of people with Macbooks and we spotted a couple of differences in the way the linker ran due to differences in the libc, despite having the same gcc installed. I wasn’t able to focus too much on the specifics of these differences and I hope they weren’t a problem for the attendees using Macs. In all it was a satisfying session because the audience seemed happy to learn about all of this. It looked like many of them had more questions (and wonderment, as I had when I learned these things for the first time) in their mind than they came in with and I hope they follow up and eventually participate in Open Source projects to fulfill their curiosity and learn further.

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