Andrei Gudkov <>

Software developers often forget about existence of linker. However, it is an essential step in producing executables. Linker along with ELF format provide rather complex platform, required by a compiler to correctly implement programming language features. It is relatively easy to understand the source of an error when only single object file is linked, but with many object files, the odds of encountering non-trivial error increase. Here I will demonstrate and explain two such errors. First one relates to inlining or, actually, to a situation when inlining fails and linker reports that there is an undefined reference to inline function. C and C++ work differently regarding inlining. Second problem is a subtle one. It relates to C++ only and results in that wrong function is used when called. Program compiles and links fine, but may crash in runtime or, even worse, work incorrectly.

Object file basics

First of all we need to understand object files on a basic level. Semantically, the heart of an object file is a dictionary of tuples {symbol_name, symbol_type, symbol_body}. Command line utility nm <path> can be used to dump what’s inside an object file. For example:

0000000000000000 T _Z10total_costdi
                 U _Z12adjust_priceP4Item
0000000000000037 T _Z9min_priceRKSt6vectorI4ItemSaIS0_EE
000000000000001c t _ZL13adjust_amountP4Item
0000000000000008 r _ZL2PI
0000000000000000 W _ZNKSt6vectorI4ItemSaIS0_EE4sizeEv
0000000000000000 W _ZNKSt6vectorI4ItemSaIS0_EEixEm
0000000000000000 r _ZStL19piecewise_construct

Every symbol is a function or a variable.

Symbol name is chosen by compiler. Different compilers and languages have different rules for naming. In C, where overloading is not allowed, names are exactly the same as given by a programmer. In C++ we have overloading, resulting in that there may be many functions with the same name but with different number and types of arguments. To uniquely distinguish between them, naming scheme is more complex in C++. Symbol names for C++ functions also include namespace name and argument types. For example, the function double total_cost(double price, int count); has the very same symbol name total_cost if compiled by gcc, but much more complex name _Z10total_costdi if compiled by g++.

Symbol body contains either the machine code (for functions) or binary value (for variables).

The most mysterious part is symbol type. It should not be confused with programming language types, such as integers and floats. Symbol type instructs linker on how to deal with this symbol during linking. There are many symbol types (see manual page nm(1) for all of them), but we will be interested only in the following few of them:

General rule is that uppercase characters stand for global symbol types, while lowercase characters denote local symbol types. As such, fourth variant, w, also exists but it is not very useful. Neither C nor C++ have a need for deduplicating symbols inside single object file because ODR rule prohibits multiple definitions of the same symbol inside single translation unit. If a programmer mistakenly created multiple definitions of the same variable or function in single translation unit, such error would be detected earlier, during compilation stage.

During linking, a number of error messages can be reported. The most common are:

  1. Undefined reference to <symbol_name>. This means that there was declaration of a symbol, it was actually referenced from somewhere, but definition was not found in any of the object files passed to the linker.

  2. Multiple definition of <symbol_name>. This means that there are multiple entries of some symbol name across object files and they cannot be deduplicated because of their types. For example, such error would be reported if these symbols had types T, T. However, W, W, T, W would be fine; W, W, W would also be fine. Linker retains only single body in the last two cases.

When inlining fails [C]

Now let’s focus on the scope of the article: the errors. Imagine the following piece of C code:

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/* util.h */ #ifndef __UTIL_H__ #define __UTIL_H__ inline double circle_area(double r) { static const double pi = 3.14159; return 2.0 * pi * r; } #endif /* __UTIL_H__ */ /* big.c */ #include "big.h" #include "util.h" #include <stdio.h> void print_big_pizza_area() { printf("%f\n", circle_area(50)); } /* small.c */ #include "small.h" #include "util.h" #include <stdio.h> void print_small_pizza_area() { printf("%f\n", circle_area(30)); } /* main.c */ void print_big_pizza_area(); void print_small_pizza_area(); int main(int argc, char* argv[]) { print_small_pizza_area(); print_big_pizza_area(); return 0; }

As you can see, there are two print_* functions, and each of them calls inline function circle_area(). The program above compiles and executes perfectly fine…​ until compiled with optimizations disabled (-O0). When compiled with -O3, compiler optimizations are in effect, and almost all functions declared as inline are actually inlined. Thus, the body of the function circle_area() will be expanded in all functions where it is referenced, namely print_small_pizza_area() and print_big_pizza_area(). Compiler won’t generate any symbols for circle_area(). There is just no need for that. Executable file will contain symbols for main(), print_small_pizza_area() and print_big_pizza_area(), but not for circle_area().

No-optimization build is entirely different. Compilers usually do not perform inlining in this mode. Instead, they treat inline function definitions as declarations only. In rare circumstances this happens even with -O3. For example, this happens when function recursively calls itself. Or when a function is too big but is referenced multiple times: compiler concludes that it is cheaper to call separate function instead of inlining it in all places. Inline keyword is a mere hint. If you need guaranteed inlining, you have to use compiler-dependent extensions, such as __attribute__((alway_inline)) in gcc.

When compiler decides not to inline a function, it generates a standard call and ignores the body of the inline function entirely. Now, when linker tries to produce executable file, it will see that function circle_area() is called, but it is itself not present in any of the object files. Linker reports "undefined reference" error.

There are two possible solutions. First one is to use inline together with static:

inline static double circle_size(double r);

Now if compiler decides not to inline a function, it will instantiate function in every object file where it is referenced from. It will assign symbol type t — local symbol — to instantiated functions. Linker, in turn, will include both functions into executable and link functions print_big_pizza_area() and print_small_pizza_area() with respective circle_area() copies, even though these copies are identical.


Second possible solution is to explicitly instantiate inline function in one (and only one) of the translation units by using extern keyword. For example, it would be natural to include source file util.c into above program and instantiate pizza_area() there. Of course, we want it to be globally visible, so no static is used.

#include "util.h"
extern inline double circle_size(double r);

Both approaches have drawbacks. Declaring inline functions as static leads to code size bloat. However, this is typically not an issue because failure to inline functions rarely happens in -O3 mode used for production builds. On the other hand, explicit instantiation of inline functions with extern requires programmers to keep declarations in sync in multiple places. Extern declarations must be updated every time new inline function is added or the signature of existing inline function is changed.

When inlining fails [C++]

C++ is different. There is no need to add static to inline functions in C++. When C++ compiler decides not to inline function, it automatically instantiates it with weak symbol type, W. Every object file where inline function is instantiated, gets such symbol. When linker assembles final executable, it retains only single version of every weak symbol, and this version is used whenever the function is referenced.

$ nm big.o
0000000000000000 W _Z11circle_aread
0000000000000000 T _Z20print_big_pizza_areav

$ nm small.o
0000000000000000 W _Z11circle_aread
0000000000000000 T _Z22print_small_pizza_areav

$ nm main.o
0000000000000000 T main

$ nm main
00000000000006f0 T _Z20print_big_pizza_areav
000000000000073d T _Z22print_small_pizza_areav
00000000000006d0 T main
0000000000000721 W _Z11circle_aread

Why does C++ use weak symbols? Mechanism of weak symbols is required not because of inlining, but because of templates. Templates are very similar to inline functions in that they are both forms of automatic code generation. Template functions and classes may be instantiated multiple times and with different sets of arguments. The author of the template may not know all the combinations and is not able to explicitly instantiate all combinations in source files. Definitions of functions and methods go directly to header files instead. When compiler sees that some template function or class is used with specific set of arguments, it automatically instantiates it in object file where it is used. For example, if 20 translation units use std::vector<int>, then all 20 object files will get symbols for std::vector<int>::push_back(), std::vector<int>::size(), etc. (That’s the reason why C++ projects take so much time to compile.)

C++ compiler avoids "multiple definition of …​" linking error by marking instantiated template functions and template class members with symbol type W. The same is true for inline functions, when they are not actually inlined but instantiated. Linker retains only single version of each weak symbol and uses it everywhere when it is referenced. Thus, whether optimization mode is -O0 or -O3, linker succeeds without any errors. No static or extern is required.

Wrong function body is used

At this point it should appear that C++ approach is more robust compared to C. Alas, weak symbols may create more subtle errors. It is relatively easy to create identically named but differently implemented inline functions, template functions or template classes in different translation units. All of them will be instantiated with W symbol type, and linker will erroneously retain only single version, which will be used everywhere. It won’t check that their bodies are different. Consider this example that seems harmless at first glance:

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// #include <iostream> inline double constant() { return 3.14159; } void print_pi() { std::cout << constant() << std::endl; } // #include <iostream> inline double constant() { return 2.71828; } void print_e() { std::cout << constant() << std::endl; } // void print_e(); void print_pi(); int main() { print_e(); print_pi(); return 0; }

After compiling with -O0, both source1.o and source2.o object files will contain symbol for function constant() with type W, but with different implementations. Linker will retain only one of these versions and generate a call to this version from both print_e() and print_pi() functions. Which function will be eliminated and which one will be preserved is undefined, but at least if using GNU linker it appears that the order of object files on the command line matters. In both cases the program works incorrectly:

$ g++ -c -O0
$ g++ -c -O0
$ g++ -c -O0
$ g++ main.o source1.o source2.o -o main
$ ./main
$ g++ main.o source2.o source1.o -o main
$ ./main

It is not very hard to stumble upon such error in large projects. Multiple programmers can easily create differently implemented inline functions with the same common name and argument types, such as inline int64_t current_time() or inline void escape(std::string* s). Unit tests for every single component will work fine, but when all components are linked together into single executable, program will demonstrate unexpected behavior. And good luck with debugging it!

The correct solution is to never litter global namespace. There are multiple ways to achieve it. One way is to use C approach and declare functions as static, but C++ provides more elegant way of isolation: named and anonymous namespaces. Using any of these three approaches fixes the error.

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// static inline static double constant() { return 2.71828; } // named namespace namespace source1_private_ns { inline double constant() { return 2.71828; } } // anonymous namespace namespace { inline double constant() { return 2.71828; } }

Using static will produce local (t) symbols instead of weak symbols (W). Using named namespace will incorporate namespace into symbol name, so that identically named functions will get differently named symbols. The same thing will happen if anonymous namespace is used, with added benefit that you do not need to choose a name for namespace yourself.