The cabbage patch for linker scripts

| categories: fedora

Quick quiz: what package provides ld? If you said binutils and not gcc, you are a winner! That's not actually the story, I just tend to forget which package to look at when digging into problems. This is actually a story about binutils, linker scripts, and toolchains.

Usually by -rc4, the kernel is fairly stable so I was a bit surprised when the kernel was failing on arm64:

ld: cannot open linker script file ldscripts/aarch64elf.xr: No such file or directory

There weren't many changes to arm64 so it was pretty easy to narrow down the problem to a seemingly harmless change. If you are running a toolchain on a standard system such as Fedora, you will probably expect it to "just work". And it should if everything goes to plan! binutils is a very powerful library though and can be configured to allow for emulating a bunch of less standard linkers, if you run ld -V you can see what's available:

$ ld -V
GNU ld version 2.29.1-23.fc28
  Supported emulations:
   aarch64linux
   aarch64elf
   aarch64elf32
   aarch64elf32b
   aarch64elfb
   armelf
   armelfb
   aarch64linuxb
   aarch64linux32
   aarch64linux32b
   armelfb_linux_eabi
   armelf_linux_eabi
   i386pep
   i386pe

This is what's on my Fedora system. Depending on how your toolchain is compiled, the output may be different. A common variant toolchain setup is the 'bare metal' toolchain. This is (generally) a toolchain that's designed to compile binaries to run right on the hardware without an OS. The kernel technically meets this definition and provides all its own linker scripts so in theory you should be able to compile the kernel with a properly configured bare metal toolchain. What the harmless looking change did was switch the emulation mode from linux to one that works with bare metal toolchains.

So why wasn't it working? Looking across the system, I found no trace of the file aarch64elf.xr, yet clearly it was expecting it. Because this seemed to be something internal to the toolchain, I decided to try another one. Linaro helpfully provides toolchains for compiling arm targets. Turns out the Linaro toolchain worked. strace helpfully showed where it was picking up the file1:

lstat("/opt/gcc-linaro-7.1.1-2017.08-x86_64_aarch64-linux-gnu/aarch64-linux-gnu/lib/ldscripts/aarch64elf.xr", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=5299, ...}) = 0

So clearly the file was supposed to be included. Looking at the build log for Fedora's binutils, I could definitely see the scripts being installed. Further down the build log, there was also a nice rm -rf removing the directory where these scripts were installed to. This very deliberately exists in the spec file for building binutils with a comment about gcc. The history doesn't make it completely clear, but I suspect this was either intended to avoid conflicts with something gcc generated or it was 'borrowed' from gcc to remove files Fedora didn't care about. Linaro, on the other hand, chose to package the files with their toolchain. Given Linaro has a strong embedded background, it would make sense for them to care about emulation modes that might be used on more traditional embedded hardware.

For one last piece of the puzzle, if all the linker scripts are rm -rf'd why does the linker work at all, shouldn't it complain? The binutils source has the answer. If you trace through the source tree, you can find a folder with all the emulation options, along with the template they use for generating the structure representation. There's a nice check for $COMPILE_IN to actually build a linker script into the binary. The file genscripts.sh is actually responsible for generating all the linker scripts and will compile in the default script. This makes sense, since you want the default case to be fast and not hit the file system.

I ended up submitting a revert of the patch since this was a regression, but it turns out Debian suffers from a similar problem. The real take away here is toolchains are tricky. Choose yours carefully.


  1. You also know a file is a bit archaic when it has a comment about the Solaris linker