Redundant symbols

So I’ve decided to dust off my link collision script and see what the situation is nowadays. I’ve made sure that all the suppression file use non-capturing groups on the regular expressions – as that should improve the performance of the regexp matching – make it more resilient to issues within the files (metasploit ELF files are barely valid), and run it through.

Well, it turns out that the situation is bleaker than ever. Beside the obvious amount of symbols with a too-common name, there are still a lot of libraries and programs exporting default bison/flex symbols the same way I found them in 2008:

Symbol yylineno@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 59 times
Symbol yyparse@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 53 times
Symbol yylex@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 49 times
Symbol yy_flush_buffer@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 48 times
Symbol yy_scan_buffer@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 48 times
Symbol yy_scan_bytes@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 48 times
Symbol yy_scan_string@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 48 times
Symbol yy_create_buffer@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 47 times
Symbol yy_delete_buffer@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 47 times

Note that at least one library got to export them to be listed in this output; indeed these symbols are present in quite a long list of libraries. I’m not going to track down each and every of them though, but I guess I’ll keep an eye on that list so that if problems arise that can easily be tracked down to this kind of collisions.

Action Item: I guess my next post is going to be a quick way to handle building flex/bison sources without exposing these symbols, for both programs and libraries.

But this is not the only issue — I’ve already mentioned a long time ago that a single installed system already brings in a huge number of redundant hashing functions; on the tinderbox as it was when I scanned it, there were 57 md5_init functions (and this without counting different function names!). Some of this I’m sure boils down to gnulib making it available, and the fact that, unlike the BSD libraries, GLIBC does not have public hashing functions — using libcrypto is not an option for many people.

Action item: I’m not very big of benchmarks myself, never understood the proper way to go around getting the real data rather than being fooled by the scheduler. Somebody who’s more apt at that might want to gather a bunch of libraries providing MD5/SHA1/SHA256 hashing interfaces, and produce some graphs that can let us know whether it’s time to switch to libgcrypt, or nettle, or whatever else that provides us with good performance as well as with a widely-compatible license.

The presence of duplicates of memory-management symbols such as malloc and company is not that big of a deal, at first sight. After all, we have a bunch of wrappers that use interposing to account for memory usage, plus another bunch to provide alternative allocation strategies that should be faster depending on the way you use your memory. The whole thing is not bad by itself, but when you get one of graphviz’s libraries (libgvpr) to expose malloc something sounds wrong. Indeed, if even after updating my suppression filter to ignore the duplicates coming from gperftools and TBB, I get 40 copies of realloc() something sounds extremely wrong:

Symbol realloc@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 40 times

Now it is true that it’s possible, depending on the usage patterns, to achieve a much better allocation strategy than the default coming from GLIBC — on the other hand, I’m also pretty sure that GLIBC’s own allocation improved a lot in the past few years so I’d rather use the standard allocation than a custom one that is five or more years old. Again this could use some working around.

In the list above, Thunderbird and Firefox for sure use (and for whatever reason re-expose) jemalloc; I have no idea if libhoard in OpenFOAM is another memory management library (and whether OpenFOAM is bundling it or not), and Mercury is so messed up that I don’t want to ask myself what it’s doing there. There are though a bunch of standalone programs listed as well.

Action item: go through the standalone programs exposing the memory interfaces — some of them are likely to bundle one of the already-present memory libraries, so just make them use the system copy of it (so that improvements in the library trickle down to the program), for those that use custom strategies, consider making them optional, as I’d expect most not to be very useful to begin with.

There is another set of functions that are similar to the memory management functions, which is usually brought in by gnulib; these are convenience wrappers that do error checking over the standard functions — they are xmalloc and friends. A quick check, shows that these are exposed a bit too often:

Symbol xmemdup@ (64-bit UNIX - System V AMD x86-64) present 37 times

In this case they are exposed even by the GCC tools themselves! While this brings me again to complain that gnulib show now actually be libgnucompat and be dynamically linked, there is little we can do about these in programs — but the symbols should not creep in system libraries (mandb has the symbols in its private library which is marginally better).

Action item: check the libraries exposing the gnulib symbols, and make them expose only their proper interface, rather than every single symbol they come up with.

I suppose that this is already quite a bit of data for a single blog post — if you want a copy of the symbols’ index to start working on some of the action items I listed, just contact me and I’ll send it to you, it’s a big too big to just have it published as is.

Trouble in GNU: an opportunity for improving?

I have posted a note about the way FSF (America) started acting like a dictator with the GNU project and the software maintained under its umbrella, which lead to the splitting of GnuTLS — which is something that Nikos is not currently commenting on, simply because he’s now negotiating what’s going to happen with it.

Well, the next step has been Paolo stepping down as GNU maintainer, after releasing a new version of sed. This actually made me think a bit more. What’s going on with sed, grep and the like? Well, most likely they’ll get a new maintainer and they’ll keep going that way. But should we see this as an opportunity? You probably remember that some time ago I suggested we could be less GNU — or at least, less reliant on GNU.

So while I’m definitely not going to fork sed myself ­– I have enough trouble with unpaper especially considering that while in America I didn’t have a scanner, which is a necessity to develop it – but there definitely is room for improvement with it. First of all, it would be a good choice to start with, to get rid of the damn gnulib and eventually implementing what is an extension of glibc itself as an external library (something like libgsupc). Even if this didn’t work on anything but FreeBSD and Linux, it would still be an improvement, and I’m pretty sure it would be feasible without needing that hairy mess of code that, in the source code for sed takes five times as much as the sed sources themselves — 200KiB are the sources for the program, 1.1MiB is the gnulib copies.

Having a new, much less political project to oversee the development of core system utilities would also most likely consolidate some projects that are currently being developed outside of GNU altogether, or simply don’t fit with their scope because they are Linux-specific, which would probably make for a better final user experience. Plus things like keeping man pages actually up to date instead of relying on the info manuals, would almost certainly help!

So can any of you think of other ways to improve the GNU utilities by breaking out of GNU’s boundaries (which is what Nikos and Paolo seem to be striving for), maybe it is possible to get something that is better for everybody and Free at the same time. Myself I know I need to spend some time to fix the dependency upon readline that is present in GnuTLS just for the utilities..

GNU software (or, gnulib considered harmful and other stories)

The tinderbox right now seems to be having fun trying to play catch-up with changes in GNU software: GCC, Automake, glibc and of course GnuTLS. Okay it’s true that compatibility problems are not a prerogative of GNU, but there are some interesting problems with this whole game, especially for what concerns inter-dependencies.

So, there is a new C library in town, which, if we ignore the whole x32 dilemma, has support for ISO C11 as its major new feature. And what is the major change in this release? The gets() function has finally been removed. This is good, as it was a very nasty thing to use, and nobody in his sane mind would use it…

tbamd64 ~ # scanelf -qs -gets -R /bin /opt /sbin /lib /usr
gets  /opt/flexlm/bin/lmutil

Okay nevermind those who actually use it, the rest of the software shouldn’t be involved, should it? You wish. What happens is that since gnulib no longer only carries replacements for GNU extensions but also includes code that is not present on glibc itself, and extra warnings about use of deprecated features, it now comes with its own re-declaration of gets() to feature a prominent warning if it’s used. And of course, that makes it fail badly with the new gnulib.

Obviously, this has been fixed in gnulib already, since it was planned for gets() to be removed, but it takes quite a bit of time for a fix in gnulib to trickle down to the packages using it, which is one of my previous main complaints about it. Which means that Gentoo will have to patch the same code over and over again in almost all GNU software, since almost all of it uses gnulib.

Luckily for me only two packages have hit (with this problem, at least) that I’m in the herd of: GnuTLS and libtasn1 which is a dep of it. The former is fixed in version 3 which is also masked but I’m testing as well, while the latter is fixed in the current ~arch (I really don’t care about 2.16 in stable yet!), so there is nothing to patch there. The fact that GCC 4.6 itself fails to build with this version of glibc is obviously a different problem altogether, and so is the fact that we need Boost 1.50 for a number of packages to work with the new glibc/gcc combination, as 1.49 is broken with the new C library and 1.48 is broken with the new compiler.

Now to move on to something different: Automake 1.12 was released a couple of months ago and is now in ~arch, causing trouble although not as bad as it could have been. Interestingly enough, one of the things that they did change in this version was removing $(mkdir_p) as I wrote in my guide — but that seems to have been a mistake.

What should have been removed in 1.12 was the default use of AM_PROG_MKDIR_P, while the mkdir_p define should have been kept around until version 1.13. Stefano said he’s going to revert that change in automake 1.12.2, but I guess it’s better if we deal with it right away instead of waiting for 1.13 to hit us….

Of course there is a different problem with the new automake as well: GNU gettext hasn’t been updated to support the new automake versions, so using it causes deprecation warnings with 1.12 (and will fail with 1.13 if it’s not updated). And of course a number of projects are now using -Werror on automake, like it wasn’t enough trouble to use it on the source code itself.

And of course the problem with Gentoo, according to somebody, is the fact that my tinderbox bugs (those dozen a day) are filed with linked build logs instead of attached ones. Not the fact that the same somebody commits new versions of critical packages without actually doing anything to test them.

A special kind of bundling

I know it was a very long time since I last posted about bundled libraries, and a long time since I actually worked on symbol collisions which is the original reason why I started working on Ruby-Elf — even though you probably wouldn’t tell nowadays, given how many more tools I implemented over the same library.

Since the tinderbox was idling, due to the recent changes in distfiles storage I decided to update the database of symbols. This actually discovered more than a few bugs in my code, for which I should probably write a separate blog post. In the mean time I’m just going to ask here what I already asked on my streams over to and Twitter: if you have access to an HP-UX machine, could you please check if there is an elf.h header, with a license permissive enough that I can look at it? I could fetch the entries from GNU binutils, but I’d rather not, since it’ll be mixing and matching code licensed under GPL-2 (only) and GPL-3 — although arguably constant names shouldn’t be copyrightable.

The Ruby-Elf code will be pushed tomorrow, as today gitorious wasn’t very collaborative, and I’ll probably follow with a blog post on the topic anyway.

Once I was able to get the output of the harvest and analyse script, I found an interesting, albeit worrisome, surprise. A long list of packages use gnulib’s MD5 code. The problem is that gnulib is not your average utility library: it isn’t installed and linked to, it is imported into the sources of the project using it. The original reason to design it this way was that it would provide replacement functions for the GNU extension interfaces, or even standard interfaces, that aren’t present on some systems, so that you wouldn’t have to stick to a twenty year old standard when you could have reduced the code logic by using modern interfaces.

What happens now? Well, gnulib carries not only replacement code for functions that are implemented in glibc abut not on other systems, but also a long list of interfaces that are not implemented in glibc either! And as it happens, even an MD5 implementation. Such an implementation is replicated at least 115 times into the tinderbox system, standing to the visible symbols — there might be a lot more, for when you hide the symbols or build a non-exported executable, my tools are not going to find them.

This use of gnulib is unlikely to go away anytime soon… unfortunately the more packages use gnulib, the more a security bug in gnulib would easily impact the distribution as a whole for a very long time. People, can we stop using gnulib like it was glib? Please? Just create a libgnutils or something, and make gnulib look for that before using its own modules, so that there is a chance to use a shared, common library instead… especially since some of the users of gnulib are libraries themselves, which cause the symbol collisions problem that is the original reason why I’m looking at this code…

Sigh! Rant out….

Using Gnulib to improve software portability

This article was originally published on

Many, if not most, free and open source software projects are developed primarily on Linux-based systems using the GNU C Library (glibc). Projects that use glibc are likely to depend on functions that are not available on systems that use different C libraries, such as the different BSD flavors. When packages are built on systems that don’t use glibc they often fail, because the other C libraries are missing functions found in glibc. The GNU Portability Library can help developers with cross-platform programming needs.

In the past there were many different libraries, such as publib, that tried to provide alternatives to the functions that are missing in the main C library. Unfortunately, handling compatibility libraries proved to be difficult. The additional libraries would require additional tests when running configuration scripts prior to compilation, and add dependencies for non-glibc systems.

As the number of new functions provided by the glibc increased, the GNU project started looking at the requirements for portability of programs on operating systems based on different libraries, and eventually created the GNU Portability Library (Gnulib) project.

Normally, a library is code that is compiled as a shared or static file, and then linked into the final executable. Gnulib is a source code library, more similar to a student’s collection of notes than a usual compiled library. Gnulib can’t be compiled separately; the code in it is intended to be copied into the projects using it.

###Using Gnulib

Two requirements limit Gnulib use, one technical and the other legal. First, the software you use it with must also use GNU Autotools, as Gnulib provides tests for replacements of functions and headers written in the M4 language, ready for usage with GNU Autoconf.

Second, it has to be licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) or the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), as the code inside Gnulib is mostly (but not entirely) released under the GPL itself. Some of it is also released under the LGPL, and some of it is available as public domain software.

If you’re working on software released under other licenses, such as the BSD license or Apple Public Source License (APSL), it’s better to avoid the use of functions that are not available in a library licensed with more open terms. For example, you could take the libraries present in a BSD-licensed C library to replace missing functions in the current library, whichever license the software is using. Alternative, you could find replacement functions in other BSD-licensed software or create a “cleanroom” implementation without copying code from GPLed software, leaving the external interface the same but using different code.

It’s usually easy to re-implement functions or just copy missing functions from another project when they are not available through another C library, especially when they are simple functions that consist of less than 10 lines of code. Unfortunately, many projects depend firmly on GNU extensions, and won’t build with replacement functions, or the code is already so complex that adding cases to maintain manually is an extra encumbrance for developers.

What Gnulib provides is not only the source code of the missing functions, but an entire framework to allow a project to depend on GNU extensions, while retaining portability with non-GNU based systems.

The core of the framework is the gnulib-tool script, which is the automated tool for extracting and manipulating source code from Gnulib. Using gnulib-tool, you can see the list of available modules (gnulib-tool –list) or test them (one by one, or all together, using the –test or –megatest options), but more importantly you can automatically maintain the replacement functions for a source tree.

A practical example should help explain the concept. Let’s say that there’s a foofreak package that uses the strndup() function (not available on BSD systems for instance) and the timegm() functions (not available on Solaris). To make the source portable, a developer can run gnulib-tool –import strndup timegm from the same directory of the source code, and the script will copy (in the default directories) the source code and the M4 autoconf tests for strndup(), timegm(), and their dependencies – for example, strndup() depends on strnlen().

After running, gnulib-tool tells you to make a few changes to your code to allow the replacement to be checked and used when needed. It requires the Makefile in lib/ to be generated from the configure script, so it has to be added to AC_OUTPUT or AC_CONFIG_FILES. At the same time the lib/ subdirectory has to be added to the SUBDIRS variable in the The M4 tests are not shipped with other packages, so they must be copied in the m4/ directory, and that has to be added as an include directory for aclocal. Finally, two macros have to be called within the to initialize the checks (gl_EARLY and gl_INIT).

You can specify the name of the subdirectories and the prefix of the macros by running gnulib-tool with the parameters –source-base, –m4-base, and –macro-prefix, respectively. It’s also important to note that the replacement functions are built in an auxiliary library called libgnu (by default, but the name can be overridden by using the –lib parameter), so the part of the software using those functions has to be linked against this too.

If later on your project also wants to use the iconv() function, gnulib-tool can detect the currently imported modules and add the required iconv module without rewriting everything from scratch. This makes it simple to add new modules when you use new functions.

The different replacement functions are called “modules” by gnulib-tool, and they consist of some source code, some header files, and an M4 macro test. As some functions depend on the behavior of other functions, the modules depend one on the other, so adding a single module can generate quite a few additional checks and replacements, which make sure that the behavior is safe.

As some modules are licensed under the GPL, while other are licensed under the LGPL, a package licensed under the latter might want to make sure that no GPL modules are pulled in, as that would break the license. To avoid adding GPLed modules, you can use gnulib-tool’s –lgpl option, which forces the use of LGPL modules.

You can also use alternative code to provide a replacement function instead of using the Gnulib modules, and to avoid problems with dependencies. Gnulib-tool has an –avoid option that prevents specified Gnulib modules from being pulled in.

Following the previous example, if foofreak already contains a strnlen() function, used when the system library doesn’t provide one, it would be possible to use that, instead of importing the strnlen() module from Gnulib, by issuing the command gnulib-tool –import strndup timegm –avoid strnlen. With this syntax the strnlen module will be ignored and the function already present in foofreak will be used. While this option is provided, it’s usually not advisable to use it if you don’t really know what you’re doing. A better alternative would be dropping strnlen() from the code where it was used, and using the replacement provided by Gnulib instead.


Gnulib is an interesting tool for people working with GPL- or LGPL-licensed software that needs to be portable without dropping the use of GNU extensions, but it has some drawbacks. The major drawback is the license restrictions, which requires non-(L)GPL-licensed software to look elsewhere for replacements. It also requires the use of the GNU toolchain with Autotools, as it would be quite difficult to mimic the same tests with something like SCons or Jam.

Finally, the source code sharing between projects breaks one of the basic advantages in the use of libraries: the reuse of the same machine code. When the same function, required by 10 or 20 programs, has to be built inside the executable itself as the system does not provide it, there will be 10 or 20 copies of the same code in memory and on disk, and they may behave in different ways, leading to problems if they are linked inside a library used by third-party software.

Gnulib is worth a try, but you should not use it in critical software or software that might have a limited audience. In those situations, avoid the use of extension functions when possible, and add replacement functions only when they’re actually needed. There’s no point in having a replacement function for something that is works on 90% of modern systems and breaks only on obsolete or obscure operating systems or C libraries, especially if the software is written to be run on modern machines.