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Intermodular analysis of C and C++ projects in detail. Part 1

Starting from PVS-Studio 7.14, the C and C++ analyzer has been supporting intermodular analysis. In this two-part article, we'll describe how similar mechanisms are arranged in compilers and reveal some technical details of how we implemented intermodular analysis in our static analyzer.

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Before we inspect intermodular analysis, let's remember how compilation works in the C and C++ world. This article focuses on various technical solutions for object module layout. We'll also see how well-known compilers use intermodular analysis and how it's related to Link Time Optimizations (LTO).

If you're an expert in this field, you'll probably like the second part of the article. There we'll describe our solutions and the problems we have encountered during the implementation. By the way, the author doesn't consider himself an expert of compilers. Constructive criticism is always welcome.

Compilation phases

C and C++ projects are compiled in several steps.

Standards C18 (paragraph "Programming languages — C") and C++20 (paragraph .5.2 "Working Draft, Standard for Programming Language C++") defined 8 and 9 phases of translation, respectively.

Let's omit the details and look at the translation process abstractly:

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  1. The preprocessor performs preliminary operations on each compiled file before passing it to the compiler. At this stage, the text of all header files is substituted for the #include directives and all macros are expanded. Corresponds to phases 1-4.

  2. The compiler converts each preprocessed file into a file with machine code prepared for linking into an executable binary object file. Corresponds to phases 5-7.

  3. The linker merges all object files into an executable binary file, while resolving conflicts of matching symbols. Only at this stage, the code written in different files is linked as one. Corresponds to phase 8 and 9 of C18 and C++20 drafts, respectively.

As you can see, the program is made of the translation units. Each of these units is compiled independently of the other. Because of this, each individual translation unit has no information about the others. Thus, all entities (functions, classes, structures, etc.) in C and C++ programs have declaration and definition.

Look at the example:

// TU1.cpp

#include <cstdint>

int64_t abs(int64_t num) 
  return num >= 0 ? num : -num;

// TU2.cpp

#include <cstdint>

extern int64_t abs(int64_t num);

int main()
  return abs(0);
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The TU1.cpp has definition of the abs function, and the TU2.cpp file has its declaration and use. The linker determines which function is called if one definition rule (ODR) is not violated. ODR means limitation: each symbol should have only one definition.

To simplify the coordination of different translation units, a header file mechanism was created. This mechanism consists in declaring a clear interface. Later each translation unit, if necessary, will include a header file via the preprocessor #include directory.

Symbols and their categories

When the compiler meets a declaration that doesn't have a corresponding definition in the translation unit, it has to let the linker do its work. And, unfortunately, the compiler loses some optimizations that it could have performed. This stage is performed by the linker and is called Link Time Optimizations (LTO). The linking goes by entity names, i.e. by identifiers, or symbols. At the same stage intermodular analysis is also performed.

The compiler has to merge different object files into one, while linking all the references in the program. Here we need to inspect the latter in more detail. We are talking about symbols — basically, symbols are identifiers that occur in the program. Look at the example:

struct Cat      // <Cat, class, external>
  static int x; // <Cat::x, object, internal>

Cat::x = 0;

int foo(int arg) // <foo(int), function, external>
  static float symbol = 3.14f; // <foo(int)::symbol, object, internal>
  static char x = 2;           // <foo(int)::x, object, internal>
  static Cat dog { };          // <foo(int)::dog, object, internal>

  return 0;
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The compiler divides symbols into categories. Why? Not all symbols are supposed to be used in other translation units. We need to keep this in mind when linking. The same should be taken into account in static analysis. First, we need to determine which information to collect to share between modules.

The first category is linkage. Defines the symbol scope.

If a symbol has an internal linkage then the symbol can be referenced only in the translation unit where it is declared. If there is a symbol with the same name in another object module, this won't be a problem. But the linker will treat them as if they are different.

static int x3;     // internal
const int x4 = 0;  // internal

void bar()
  static int x5;   // internal

namespace          // all symbols are internal here
  void internal(int a, int b)
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If a symbol has an external linkage, then it is unique, intended for use in all program translation units, and will be placed in a common table. If the linker encounters more than one definition with an external linkage, it reports a violation of the one definition rule.

extern int x2; // external
void bar();    // external
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If a symbol doesn't have a linking type, then it will be visible only in the scope in which it is defined. For example, in a block of instructions that has its own scope (if, for, while, and so on).

int foo(int x1 /* no linkage */) 
  int x4;      // no linkage
  struct A;    // no linkage
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The second category — storage duration. It is the identifier's property that defines the rules according to which an object is created and destroyed.

Automatic storage duration – the object is placed in memory at the time of its definition and is released when the context of the program execution leaves the object's scope.

Static storage duration defines the resources that will be placed in memory at the start of the program and released at its termination.

Objects created with thread storage duration will be placed in the memory of each thread separately from each other. This is useful when we create thread-safe applications.

And finally, dynamic storage duration. Defines the resources placed in dynamic memory. The most difficult case for compilers and static analyzers. Such objects won't be destroyed automatically. Resources with dynamic storage duration are managed via pointers. It is convenient to control such resources with the help of control objects that have their own storage duration, which are obliged to release them on time (the RAII idiom).

All symbols are saved in an object file in a special section in the table. And now it's time for object files.

Object files

As mentioned above, the compiler converts translation units into binary object files organized in a special way. Different platforms have different object file formats. Let's look at the structure of the most common ones.

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COFF was originally used on UNIX systems (.o, .obj) and didn't support 64-bit architectures (because they didn't exist at that time). Later it was replaced by the ELF format. With the development of COFF, Portable Executable (PE) appeared. This format is still used in Windows (.exe, .dll).

Mach-o is an object file format on macOS. It differs from COFF in structure, but it performs the same functions. This format supports code storage for different architectures. For example, a single executable file can store code for both ARM and x86 processors.

ELF is an object file format on Unix systems. A small spoiler: we were inspired by ELF when creating object semantic modules for PVS-Studio.

All three formats have a similar structure, so we will inspect the general idea of dividing into sections, which is used in them. Let's inspect ELF as an example. Note that it is intended for storing executable program code. Since we inspect it in terms of static analysis, not all its components are interesting to us.

ELF Header:​
  Magic:   7f 45 4c 46 02 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00​
  Class:                             ELF64​
  Data:                              2's complement, little endian​
  Version:                           1 (current)​
  OS/ABI:                            UNIX - System V​
  ABI Version:                       0​
  Type:                              REL (Relocatable file)       ​
  Machine:                           Advanced Micro Devices X86-64​
  Version:                           0x1​
  Entry point address:               0x0​
  Start of program headers:          0 (bytes into file)​
  Start of section headers:          688 (bytes into file)​
  Flags:                             0x0​
  Size of this header:               64 (bytes)​
  Size of program headers:           0 (bytes)​
  Number of program headers:         0​
  Size of section headers:           64 (bytes)​
  Number of section headers:         12​
  Section header string table index: 1​
There are 12 section headers, starting at offset 0x2b0:​
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The header section contains information defining the file format: Magic, Class, Data, Version, etc. Besides, it contains information about the platform for which the file was generated.

Next in content is a list of header and program sections.

Section Headers:​
  [Nr] Name              Type            Off    Size   ES Flg Lk Inf Al​
  [ 0]                   NULL            000000 000000 00      0   0  0​
  [ 1] .strtab           STRTAB          0001b9 0000a3 00      0   0  1​
  [ 2] .text             PROGBITS        000040 000016 00  AX  0   0 16​
  [ 3] .rela.text        RELA            000188 000018 18     11   2  8​
  [ 4] .data             PROGBITS        000058 000005 00  WA  0   0  4​
  [ 5] .bss              NOBITS          00005d 000001 00  WA  0   0  1​
  [ 6] .comment          PROGBITS        00005d 00002e 01  MS  0   0  1​
  [ 7] .note.GNU-stack   PROGBITS        00008b 000000 00      0   0  1​
  [ 8] .eh_frame         X86_64_UNWIND   000090 000038 00   A  0   0  8​
  [ 9] .rela.eh_frame    RELA            0001a0 000018 18     11   8  8​
  [10] .llvm_addrsig     LLVM_ADDRSIG    0001b8 000001 00   E 11   0  1​
  [11] .symtab           SYMTAB          0000c8 0000c0 18      1   6  8​
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There are a lot of sections. For more information, see the ELF documentation. As an example, let's look at some of them:

  • strtab – there are mostly strings associated with entries from the symbol table (see symbol string table);

  • text – contains executable program instructions;

  • data – contains all initialized data that will be loaded when the program starts;

  • bss – also stores program data, but unlike the '.data' section, the data is not initialized;

  • symtab — a table of program symbols.

Now, let's look at contents of the sections. Since we are inspecting the subject area from the side of intermodular analysis, we will focus on the symbol table.

Symbol table '.symtab' contains 8 entries:​
   Num:    Value          Size Type    Bind   Vis       Ndx Name​
     0: 0000000000000000     0 NOTYPE  LOCAL  DEFAULT   UND​
     1: 0000000000000000     0 FILE    LOCAL  DEFAULT   ABS sym.cpp​
     2: 0000000000000004     1 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT     4 foo(int)::x​
     3: 0000000000000000     1 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT     5 foo(int)::dog​
     4: 0000000000000000     4 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT     4 foo(int)::symbol​
     5: 0000000000000000     0 SECTION LOCAL  DEFAULT     2 .text​
     6: 0000000000000000    22 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT     2 foo(int)​
     7: 0000000000000000     0 NOTYPE  GLOBAL DEFAULT   UND Cat::x​
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It consists of records that have a certain structure. This is the simplest database, convenient for multiple reads. Moreover, all data is aligned in memory. Thanks to this, we can simply load them into the structure to work with them further.

Some compilers use their own object file formats to store intermediate information there. These include the LLVM bitcode (.bc), which stores an intermediate representation of LLVM IR in binary format, or GCC Gimple (.wpo). All this information is used by compilers to implement Link Time Optimizations, in which intermodular analysis is also involved.

Intermodular analysis in compilers

Let's move closer to the topic of the article. Before trying to implement anything, let's look at how similar tasks were solved in other tools. Compilers perform a large number of code optimizations. These include dead code elimination, loop unrolling, tail-recursion elimination, constant evaluation, etc.

For example, here you can read the list of available optimizations for GCC. I'm sure it will take you a few minutes only to scroll through this document. However, all conversions are performed within specific translation units. Because of this, some useful information is lost and, as a result, the effectiveness of optimizations is lost as well. Intermodular analysis is designed to solve this problem. It is successfully used in compilers for Link Time Optimizations. We have already briefly described the basic idea of how it works in the previous article.

The first compiler (my favorite one) — Clang. It belongs to the group of compilers that use LLVM for code generation. Such compilers have a modular architecture. Its scheme is shown in the picture:

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It contains three parts:

  • Frontend. Translates code in a specific language (C, C++, and Objective-C in the case of Clang) into an intermediate representation. At this stage, we can already perform many language-specific optimizations;

  • Middle-end. Here are utilities that analyze or modify the intermediate representation. In LLVM, it is represented as an abstract assembler. It is much more convenient to make optimizations on it, since the set of its functionality is limited to a minimum. Remember how many ways are there to initialize variables in C++? There are none in LLVM Intermediate Representation (in the usual sense). All values are stored in stack memory in the form of virtual registers. These registers are handled via a limited set of commands (load/store, arithmetic operations, function calls);

  • Backend. Generates executable modules for a specific architecture.

Such an architecture has many advantages. If you need to create your own compiler that will work on most architectures, you can just write your frontend for LLVM. Moreover, out of the box, you will have general optimizations, such as dead code elimination, loop unrolling, etc. If you are developing a new architecture, then in order to support a large set of popular compilers for it, you can implement only backend for LLVM.

Link Time Optimizations work at the intermediate representation level. Let's see an example of how it looks in a human-readable form:

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You can convert the simple.cpp source code file to an intermediate form using a special command. For the sake of the result's brevity, in the picture I also applied most of the optimizations that removed all unnecessary code. We are talking about converting the original version of the intermediate representation into an SSA form. If possible, any variable assignments are removed in it and initializations of virtual registers are replaced. Of course, after any transformations, the direct connection with the source code in C or C++ is lost. However, the external symbols significant for the linker will remain. In our example, this is the add function.

However, we're missing the point. Let's go back to Link Time Optimizations. The LLVM documentation describes 4 steps.

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  1. Reading files with object code or intermediate representation. The linker reads the object files in random order and collects the information into a global symbol table.

  2. Symbol Resolution. The linker finds symbols for which there is no definition, replaces weak ones, remembers "live symbols", etc. It doesn't need to know the exact contents of the source files with an intermediate representation. At this stage, it is important that the program does not violate the one definition rule.

  3. Optimization of files with intermediate representation. For each object file, the linker provides the symbols they need. After that the optimizer performs equivalent transformations based on the collected information. For example, at this stage, unused functions in the program or unreachable code are removed based on the data flow analysis in the entire program. The result of this step is a merged object file containing data from all translation units. To understand exactly how LLVM goes through the modules, we need to investigate its source code. However, this article isn't about that.

  4. Symbol Resolution after optimizations. Wen need to update the symbol table. At this stage, symbols that are associated with those deleted in the third stage are detected and are also deleted. The linker continues working as usual.

We can't forget about GCC — a set of compilers for C, C++, Objective-C, Fortran, Ada, Go, and D. It also has Link Time Optimizations. However, they are arranged a bit differently.

During translation, GCC also generates its intermediate representation — GIMPLE. However, unlike LLVM, GIMPLE is not stored as separate files, but next to the object code in a special section. Besides, it's more similar to the program's source code even though it's a separate language with its own grammar. Look at the example from the documentation.

To store GIMPLE, GCC uses the ELF format. By default, they contain only the program's bytecode. But if we specify the -ffat-lto-objects flag, then GCC will put the intermediate code in a separate section next to the finished object code.

In the LTO mode, object files generated by GCC contain only GIMPLE bytecode. Such files are called slim and are designed so that utilities such as ar and nm understand LTO sections.

In general, LTO to GCC is performed in two stages.

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  1. The first stage is writer. GCC creates a streaming representation of all internal data structures necessary for code optimization. This includes information about symbols, types, and an intermediate GIMPLE representation for function bodies. This process is called LGEN.

  2. The second stage is reader. GCC passes through the object modules for the second time with the intermodular information already written in them and merges them into one translation unit. This step is called LTRANS. Then optimizations are performed on the finished object file.

This approach works well on small programs. However, since all translation units are linked into one together with intermediate information, further optimizations are performed in one thread. Besides, we have to load the entire program into memory (not just the global symbol table), and this can be a problem.

Therefore, GCC supports a mode called WHOPR, in which object files are linked by pieces. The linking is based on a call graph. This allows us to perform the second stage parallelized and not load the entire program into memory.

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  1. At the LGEN stage, a set of files with an intermediate representation of GIMPLE (wpo1) is generated in the same way as in normal mode.

  2. Further, at the WPA stage, based on the analysis of function calls (Call Site), the received files are grouped into a set of combined files (wpo2).

  3. At the LTRANS stage, local transformations are performed on each .wpo2 file, after which the linker merges them into an executable file.

With this implementation, we can run LTO in parallel threads (with the exception of the WPA stage). We do not have to load large files into RAM.


A lot of things in this part of the article is just background information delivered from the point of view of the author. As noted in the beginning, the author isn't an expert in this subject. That is why it seems interesting to him to understand the peculiarities of the mechanisms written by great minds. Most of them are hidden behind tools that simplify the development. And this is certainly correct. However, it's useful to know what's going on under the hood of the machines we use every day. If this article was entertaining, welcome to the second part, in which we will apply the information we gained after inspecting the solutions above.

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