Crate dynlink

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Welcome to the dynamic linker.

The job of the dynamic linker (dynlink) is:

  1. Load dynamic shared objects (DSOs) and their dependencies.
  2. Fixup all the relocations inside those DSOs.
  3. Manage TLS regions

On the surface, this isn’t too bad. But it’s mired in a long history, compatibility, deep magic for performance, and a lack of good, easy to understand “official” documentation. However, we will, in this crate, try to be as clear and forthcoming with what we are doing and why.

Basic Dynamic Linking Concepts

What is a dynamic shared object (DSO)? Practically speaking (and for our purposes), it’s an ELF file that has been prepared in such a way that we can load it into memory, fix it up a bit based on where we loaded it (the file is relocatable), and then call code within it. The overall process looks like this:


  1. Map the library into memory
  2. Register TLS template, if the library has one
  3. Register constructors, if any.
  4. Insert the library into the global dependency graph (a directed graph, possibly with cycles)
  5. For each dependency, recurse
  6. Add edges from the library to each dependency

Relocating (from a starting point DSO):

  1. If marked done, return.
  2. Recurse on all dependencies
  3. For each relocation entry, 3a. Fixup the relocation entry according to its contents, possibly looking up a symbol if necessary.
  4. Mark as done

Let’s talk about loading first. In step 1, for example, we need to iterate the program headers of the ELF file, looking for PT_LOAD statements. These statements tell us how to setup the virtual memory for this program. Since these DSOs are relocatable, we can load them at a specific base address. Each DSO gets loaded to its own base address and is mapped into memory according to the base address and the PT_LOAD entries. In Twizzler, we can leverage the powerful copy-from primitive to make this easier.

In steps 2 and 3 we are noting down information ahead of time. We want to record the loaded libraries for TLS purposes in this order, since we must reserve one exalted DSO to live right next to the thread pointer. On most systems, this is reserved for the executable. For us, it’s just the first DSO to be loaded. We also note down if this library has any constructors, that is, code that needs to be run before we can call any other code in the DSO.

In step 4, we just add the library into global context. At this point, we have recorded enough info that we can make this library namable and searchable for symbols. Finally, in the last two steps, we recurse on each dependency, and add edges to the graph to note dependencies. I should note that dependencies may have already been loaded (e.g. a library foo depends on bar and baz, and library bar depends on baz, only one copy of baz will be loaded), and thus if we try to load a library that already has been loaded according to some namespace, we can just point the graph to the existing node instead of loading up a fresh copy of the library. This is why the graph may have cycles, by the way.

When relocating a DSO, we need to ensure that it is fixed up to run at the base address we loaded it to. As a simple mental model, we can imagine that if we had some static variable, foo, that lives in a DSO. When linking, the linker has no idea where the dynamic linker will end up putting the DSO in memory. So when accessing foo, the compiler emits some relative address for reaching foo, say “0x300 + BASE”, where BASE is a 64-bit value in the code. But again, we don’t know the base address, so we need to emit an entry in a relocation table that tells the dynamic linker, “hey, when you load this DSO, go to this spot (where BASE is) and change it to the actual base address of the DSO”.

In practice, of course, its more complex, there are optimizations, there are indirections, etc, but this is basically the idea. In the steps listed above, we perform a post-order depth-first walk over the graph, performing all relocations that the DSO specifies.

One key idea that happens in relocations is symbol lookup. A relocation can say, “hey, write into me the address of the symbol foo”, and the dynamic linker will go look for that symbol’s address by name. This is possible because each DSO has a symbol table for symbols that it is advertising as useable for dynamic linking. The dynamic linker thus, when looking up symbols, transitively looks though a DSO’s dependencies until it finds the symbol. If it doesn’t, it falls back to a global lookup, where it traverses the entire graph looking for the symbol.

Basic Concepts for this crate


All of the work of dynlink happens inside a Context, which contains, essentially, a single “invocation” of the dynamic linker. It defines the symbol namespace, the compartments that exist, and manages the library dependency graph.


This crate calls DSOs Libraries, because in Twizzler, there is usually little difference.

Error Handling

This crate reports error with the error::DynlinkError type, which implements std::error::Error and miette’s Diagnostic.


We add one major concept to the dynamic linking scene: compartments. A compartment is a collection of DSOs that operate within a single, shared isolation group. Calls inside a compartment operate like normal calls, but cross-compartment calls or accesses may be subject to additional processing and checks. Compartments modify the dependency algorithm a bit:

When loading a DSO and enumerating dependencies, we check if a dependency can be satified within the same compartment. If so, dependencies act like normal. If not, we do a global compartment search for that same dependency (subject to restrictions, e.g., permissions). If we don’t find it there, we try to load it in either the same compartment as its parent (if allowed) or in a new compartment (only if we must). Thus the dependency graph is still correct, and still allows symbol lookup to work, even if libraries’ dependency relationships may cross compartment boundaries.


  • Compartments are an abstraction for isolation of library components, but they are not done yet.
  • Management of global context.
  • Management of individual libraries.
  • Definitions for symbols in the dynamic linker.
  • Implements ELF TLS Variant II. I highly recommend reading the Fuchsia docs on thread-local storage as prep for this code.