PLT and GOT - the key to code sharing and dynamic libraries

(this post was going to be about something else, but after getting this far, I think it stands on its own as an introduction to dynamic linking)

The shared library is an integral part of a modern system, but often the mechanisms behind the implementation are less well understood. There are, of course, many guides to this sort of thing. Hopefully this adds another perspective that resonates with someone.

Let's start at the beginning — - relocations are entries in binaries that are left to be filled in later -- at link time by the toolchain linker or at runtime by the dynamic linker. A relocation in a binary is a descriptor which essentially says "determine the value of X, and put that value into the binary at offset Y" — each relocation has a specific type, defined in the ABI documentation, which describes exactly how "determine the value of" is actually determined.

Here's the simplest example:

$ cat a.c
extern int foo;

int function(void) {
    return foo;
$ gcc -c a.c
$ readelf --relocs ./a.o

Relocation section '.rel.text' at offset 0x2dc contains 1 entries:
 Offset     Info    Type            Sym.Value  Sym. Name
00000004  00000801 R_386_32          00000000   foo

The value of foo is not known at the time you make a.o, so the compiler leaves behind a relocation (of type R_386_32) which is saying "in the final binary, patch the value at offset 0x4 in this object file with the address of symbol foo". If you take a look at the output, you can see at offset 0x4 there are 4-bytes of zeros just waiting for a real address:

$ objdump --disassemble ./a.o

./a.o:     file format elf32-i386

Disassembly of section .text:

00000000 <function>:
   0:    55         push   %ebp
   1:    89 e5                  mov    %esp,%ebp
   3:    a1 00 00 00 00         mov    0x0,%eax
   8:    5d                     pop    %ebp
   9:    c3                     ret

That's link time; if you build another object file with a value of foo and build that into a final executable, the relocation can go away. But there is a whole bunch of stuff for a fully linked executable or shared-library that just can't be resolved until runtime. The major reason, as I shall try to explain, is position-independent code (PIC). When you look at an executable file, you'll notice it has a fixed load address

$ readelf --headers /bin/ls
ELF Header:
  Entry point address:               0x8049bb0

Program Headers:
  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x08048000 0x08048000 0x16f88 0x16f88 R E 0x1000
  LOAD           0x016f88 0x0805ff88 0x0805ff88 0x01543 0x01543 RW  0x1000

This is not position-independent. The code section (with permissions R E; i.e. read and execute) must be loaded at virtual address 0x08048000, and the data section (RW) must be loaded above that at exactly 0x0805ff88.

This is fine for an executable, because each time you start a new process (fork and exec) you have your own fresh address space. Thus it is a considerable time saving to pre-calculate addresses from and have them fixed in the final output (you can make position-independent executables, but that's another story).

This is not fine for a shared library (.so). The whole point of a shared library is that applications pick-and-choose random permutations of libraries to achieve what they want. If your shared library is built to only work when loaded at one particular address everything may be fine — until another library comes along that was built also using that address. The problem is actually somewhat tractable — you can just enumerate every single shared library on the system and assign them all unique address ranges, ensuring that whatever combinations of library are loaded they never overlap. This is essentially what prelinking does (although that is a hint, rather than a fixed, required address base). Apart from being a maintenance nightmare, with 32-bit systems you rapidly start to run out of address-space if you try to give every possible library a unique location. Thus when you examine a shared library, they do not specify a particular base address to be loaded at:

$ readelf --headers /lib/
Program Headers:
  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x00000000 0x00000000 0x236ac 0x236ac R E 0x1000
  LOAD           0x023edc 0x00024edc 0x00024edc 0x0015c 0x001a4 RW  0x1000

Shared libraries also have a second goal — code sharing. If a hundred processes use a shared library, it makes no sense to have 100 copies of the code in memory taking up space. If the code is completely read-only, and hence never, ever, modified, then every process can share the same code. However, we have the constraint that the shared library must still have a unqiue data instance in each process. While it would be possible to put the library data anywhere we want at runtime, this would require leaving behind relocations to patch the code and inform it where to actually find the data — destroying the always read-only property of the code and thus sharability. As you can see from the above headers, the solution is that the read-write data section is always put at a known offset from the code section of the library. This way, via the magic of virtual-memory, every process sees its own data section but can share the unmodified code. All that is needed to access data is some simple maths; address of thing I want = my current address + known fixed offset.

Well, simple maths is all relative! "My current address" may or may not be easy to find. Consider the following:

$ cat test.c
static int foo = 100;

int function(void) {
    return foo;
$ gcc -fPIC -shared -o test.c

So foo will be in data, at a fixed offset from the code in function, and all we need to do is find it! On amd64, this is quite easy, check the disassembly:

000000000000056c <function>:
 56c:        55         push   %rbp
 56d:        48 89 e5               mov    %rsp,%rbp
 570:        8b 05 b2 02 20 00      mov    0x2002b2(%rip),%eax        # 200828 <foo>
 576:        5d                     pop    %rbp

This says "put the value at offset 0x2002b2 from the current instruction pointer (%rip) into %eax. That's it — we know the data is at that fixed offset so we're done. i386, on the other hand, doesn't have the ability to offset from the current instruction pointer. Some trickery is required there:

0000040c <function>:
 40c:    55         push   %ebp
 40d:    89 e5                  mov    %esp,%ebp
 40f:    e8 0e 00 00 00         call   422 <>
 414:    81 c1 5c 11 00 00      add    $0x115c,%ecx
 41a:    8b 81 18 00 00 00      mov    0x18(%ecx),%eax
 420:    5d                     pop    %ebp
 421:    c3                     ret

00000422 <>:
 422:    8b 0c 24       mov    (%esp),%ecx
 425:    c3                     ret

The magic here is The architecture does not let us get the current instruction address, but we can get a known fixed address — the value pushes into cx is the return value from the call, i.e in this case 0x414. Then we can do the maths for the add instruction; 0x115c + 0x414 = 0x1570, the final move goes 0x18 bytes past that to 0x1588 ... checking the disassembly

00001588 <global>:
    1588:       64 00 00                add    %al,%fs:(%eax)

i.e., the value 100 in decimal, stored in the data section.

We are getting closer, but there are still some issues to deal with. If a shared library can be loaded at any address, then how does an executable, or other shared library, know how to access data or call functions in it? We could, theoretically, load the library and patch up any data references or calls into that library; however as just described this would destroy code-sharability. As we know, all problems can be solved with a layer of indirection, in this case called global offset table or GOT.

Consider the following library:

$ cat test.c
extern int foo;

int function(void) {
    return foo;
$ gcc -shared -fPIC -o test.c

Note this looks exactly like before, but in this case the foo is extern; presumably provided by some other library. Let's take a closer look at how this works, on amd64:

$ objdump --disassemble
00000000000005ac <function>:
 5ac:        55         push   %rbp
 5ad:        48 89 e5               mov    %rsp,%rbp
 5b0:        48 8b 05 71 02 20 00   mov    0x200271(%rip),%rax        # 200828 <_DYNAMIC+0x1a0>
 5b7:        8b 00                  mov    (%rax),%eax
 5b9:        5d                     pop    %rbp
 5ba:        c3                     retq

$ readelf --sections
Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name              Type             Address           Offset
       Size              EntSize          Flags  Link  Info  Align
  [20] .got              PROGBITS         0000000000200818  00000818
       0000000000000020  0000000000000008  WA       0     0     8

$ readelf --relocs
Relocation section '.rela.dyn' at offset 0x418 contains 5 entries:
  Offset          Info           Type           Sym. Value    Sym. Name + Addend
000000200828  000400000006 R_X86_64_GLOB_DAT 0000000000000000 foo + 0

The disassembly shows that the value to be returned is loaded from an offset of 0x200271 from the current %rip; i.e. 0x0200828. Looking at the section headers, we see that this is part of the .got section. When we examine the relocations, we see a R_X86_64_GLOB_DAT relocation that says "find the value of symbol foo and put it into address 0x200828.

So, when this library is loaded, the dynamic loader will examine the relocation, go and find the value of foo and patch the .got entry as required. When it comes time for the code loads to load that value, it will point to the right place and everything just works; without having to modify any code values and thus destroy code sharability.

This handles data, but what about function calls? The indirection used here is called a procedure linkage table or PLT. Code does not call an external function directly, but only via a PLT stub. Let's examine this:

$ cat test.c
int foo(void);

int function(void) {
    return foo();
$ gcc -shared -fPIC -o test.c

$ objdump --disassemble
00000000000005bc <function>:
 5bc:        55         push   %rbp
 5bd:        48 89 e5               mov    %rsp,%rbp
 5c0:        e8 0b ff ff ff         callq  4d0 <foo@plt>
 5c5:        5d                     pop    %rbp

$ objdump --disassemble-all
00000000000004d0 <foo@plt>:
 4d0:   ff 25 82 03 20 00       jmpq   *0x200382(%rip)        # 200858 <_GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_+0x18>
 4d6:   68 00 00 00 00          pushq  $0x0
 4db:   e9 e0 ff ff ff          jmpq   4c0 <_init+0x18>

$ readelf --relocs
Relocation section '.rela.plt' at offset 0x478 contains 2 entries:
  Offset          Info           Type           Sym. Value    Sym. Name + Addend
000000200858  000400000007 R_X86_64_JUMP_SLO 0000000000000000 foo + 0

So, we see that function makes a call to code at 0x4d0. Disassembling this, we see an interesting call, we jump to the value stored in 0x200382 past the current %rip (i.e. 0x200858), which we can then see the relocation for — the symbol foo.

It is interesting to keep following this through; let's look at the initial value that is jumped to:

$ objdump --disassemble-all

Disassembly of section .got.plt:

0000000000200840 <.got.plt>:
  200840:       98                      cwtl
  200841:       06                      (bad)
  200842:       20 00                   and    %al,(%rax)
  200858:       d6                      (bad)
  200859:       04 00                   add    $0x0,%al
  20085b:       00 00                   add    %al,(%rax)
  20085d:       00 00                   add    %al,(%rax)
  20085f:       00 e6                   add    %ah,%dh
  200861:       04 00                   add    $0x0,%al
  200863:       00 00                   add    %al,(%rax)
  200865:       00 00                   add    %al,(%rax)

Unscrambling 0x200858 we see its initial value is 0x4d6 — i.e. the next instruction! Which then pushes the value 0 and jumps to 0x4c0. Looking at that code we can see it pushes a value from the GOT, and then jumps to a second value in the GOT:

00000000000004c0 <foo@plt-0x10>:
 4c0:   ff 35 82 03 20 00       pushq  0x200382(%rip)        # 200848 <_GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_+0x8>
 4c6:   ff 25 84 03 20 00       jmpq   *0x200384(%rip)        # 200850 <_GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_+0x10>
 4cc:   0f 1f 40 00             nopl   0x0(%rax)

What's going on here? What's actually happening is lazy binding — by convention when the dynamic linker loads a library, it will put an identifier and resolution function into known places in the GOT. Therefore, what happens is roughly this: on the first call of a function, it falls through to call the default stub, which loads the identifier and calls into the dynamic linker, which at that point has enough information to figure out "hey, this is trying to find the function foo". It will go ahead and find it, and then patch the address into the GOT such that the next time the original PLT entry is called, it will load the actual address of the function, rather than the lookup stub. Ingenious!

Out of this indirection falls another handy thing — the ability to modify the symbol binding order. LD_PRELOAD, for example, simply tells the dynamic loader it should insert a library as first to be looked-up for symbols; therefore when the above binding happens if the preloaded library declares a foo, it will be chosen over any other one provided.

In summary — code should be read-only always, and to make it so that you can still access data from other libraries and call external functions these accesses are indirected through a GOT and PLT which live at compile-time known offsets.

In a future post I'll discuss some of the security issues around this implementation, but that post won't make sense unless I can refer back to this one :)