A softer –as-needed

Following my previous blog about un-released autoconf I wanted to write a bit about an unreleased change in binutils’ ld, that Sébastien pointed me at a few days ago. Unfortunately, since things piled up, the code is now actually released, and I briefly commented about it in the as needed by default bug. The change is only in the un-keyworded snapshot of pre-2.20 binutils so it’s not released to users, which makes it worth commenting before hand anyway.

The change is as follows:

--as-needed now links in a dynamic library if it satisfies undefined symbols in regular objects, or in other dynamic libraries. In the latter case the library is not linked if it is found in a DT_NEEDED entry of one of the libraries already linked.

If you know how --as-needed works and the ELF-related terms, you should be able already to guess what it’s actually doing. If you’re not in the known with this, you should probably read again my old post about it. Basically the final result of this is that the first situation:

Messy linking diagram

gets expanded in the wished linking situation:

Hoped linking situation

instead of the broken one that wouldn’t work.

This is all good, you’d expect, no? I have some reserves about it. First of all, the reason for this change is to accommodate the needs of virtual implementation libraries like blas and similar. In particular the thread refers to the requirements of gsl to not link its blas implementation leaving it to the user linking the final application. While I agree that’s a desired feature, it has to be noted that all the libraries needs to keep the same ABI, otherwise just changing it on the linker call is not going to work. Which means that you can technically change the implementation by using the LD_PRELOAD environment variable to interpose the new symbols at runtime, allowing to change the possible implementation at runtime without having to relink anything.

Of course, using LD_PRELOAD is not very handy especially if you want to do it on a per-command basis or anything like that. But one could probably wonder “Why on Earth didn’t someone think of a better method for it before?” and then answer to himself after a bit of search “Someone already did!”. Indeed a very similar situation arouse on FreeBSD 5 series since there were multiple PThread implementations available. Since the ABI of the implementations is the same, they can be switched at both link editing time and at runtime linking. And to make it easier to switch it at runtime, they created a way to configure it through the /etc/libmap.conf file.

Indeed, the method to choose different implementations of PThread under FreeBSD used before libmap.conf introduction was the same that gsl wants to use. The result of which already shown that --as-needed was unusable on FreeBSD because of a similar problem: libpthread was never added to the dependencies of any library and was supposed to be linked on the final executable, that might not have any requirement for PThread by itself.

So basically the whole reasoning for softening up --as-needed is to allow working around a missing feature in the GNU runtime linker. Which is what, to me, makes it wrong. Not wrong in the sense of the wrong thing to do, but the wrong reason to do it. But it’s not that simple. Indeed this change means that there will be much less build failures with --as-needed, making it much much more likely to become part of the default options of the compiler once binutils 2.20 is released. On the other hand, I think I’ll submit a patch for ld to warn when the new code is triggered.

My reasoning is quite simple: libraries should be, as much as possible, be linked completely so that all their dependencies are well stated, especially since leaving them to the final executable to link can create a huge mess (think if the final executable is linked on a system where a different, ABI-incompatible, dependency is present, the final executable will have subtle problems running, like unexpected crashes and the like), and also, if ten executables need a single library, which forgets to state its dependency on, just as an example, libexpat, you get ten links to libexpat that needs to be re-created (while the original library will not be picked up at all by the way, so will still expect the ABI of the previous version), rather than just one.

Since indeed the softer --as-needed makes it much simpler to enable it by default, I think it’s not a good idea to revert from the new behaviour, but having a warning that would say something like “-lexpat salvaged for -lfoo” would make it easy to identify the issue and assess on a case by case basis whether this is an intended situation or just a bug. So that the latter can be corrected.

On the other hand I also have a case of failure with recursive linking, coming out of the next PulseAudio release, which I need to get fixed, hopefully before PulseAudio is released.

One thought on “A softer –as-needed

  1. It would be nice if there was an option to revert to the old behaviour. Something like –as-needed-strict. Or maybe there’s a general –err* option for the linker that will turn your new warning into an error?

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