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Rethinking dynamic linking a bit (was: Re: Depends/Recommends from libraries)

On 03/08/2017 11:33 PM, Adam Borowski wrote:
> I'd like to discuss (and then propose to -policy) the following rule:
> # Libraries which don't provide a convenient means of conditionally loading
> # at runtime (this includes most libraries for languages such as C), SHOULD
> # NOT declare a "Depends:" or "Recommends:" relationship, directly or
> # indirectly, on packages containing anything more than dormant files. 
> # Those include, among others, daemons, executables in $PATH, etc.  Any such
> # relationship should be instead declared by programs that use the library
> # in question -- it is up to them to decide how important the relationship
> # is.

For $DAYJOB I had to work on Mac OS X a bit, and they have an interesting
feature there: weakly binding to a shared library. The main reason this
exists is the following: suppose you want to create a binary that will
work on earlier versions of the operating system, but can also make use of
newer features if they're available on the target system. There are two
cases how new features can be added:

 - new symbols added to libraries
 - new libraries added

To handle the first case, the compiler defines a minimum version that the
program wants to support, and the standard include headers contain some
preprocessor magic that will mark all symbols as weak symbols if they're
from a newer operating system version.

To handle the second case there's a linker flag that allows you to weakly
bind to an entire library. The dynamic linker will not error out if the
library doesn't exist.

To make that work in the program, the code needs to check for symbol
availability, e.g.:

    if (some_fancy_function)

The first case is already supported with the current linker infrastructure
on Debian: you can compile a library with a symbol (without the weak
marker), and then link a program where you import that symbol, but the
header (when included in the program) marks the symbol as weak, so the
absence of that symbol is not an error for the dynamic linker. See the
postscript of this email for an example.

However, the second case might be even more interesting here: if the
library is imported "weakly", and it doesn't exist when running the
program, the program will start regardless, and all the symbols from the
library will be NULL pointers for the underlying code, and that condition
can be detected.

Now on Mac OS X this is used to support targeting older version of the
operating system for proprietary software. And the first part about
using weak symbols (but linking fully against the library) is not very
interesting to Debian (even though that's the part that already works),
since we don't care that binaries support older versions of the same
library. (In contrast to people writing proprietary software.)

But for Debian we could use the second idea for optional runtime library
dependencies. For example, a lot of software in the core system
currently links against libselinux.so - while most people don't use
that at all. On the other hand, there have been several cases in the
past where maintainers of core software declined to build against another
shared library to not increase the size of the most minimal installation
any further. With weakly linking against optional shared libraries, we
can decrease the size of the base system further without sacrificing

The plan related to infrastructure would actually be quite reasonable:

 - Add a new ELF dynamic header tag that has the same semantics that
   DT_NEEDED has, except for the fact that if the library is not found,
   it is not considered an error.

 - Add a new linker flag to weakly link against a library and generate
   this tag instead of DT_NEEDED. All symbols imported from that
   library will automatically be considered weak imports in the final

 - Update the dynamic linker in glibc to support this.

 - Make sure gcc doesn't optimize away if (symbol) checks. I believe it
   already doesn't do that for symbols explicitly marked as weak, but it
   may still do that for symbols that are not marked as weak during
   compilation. (One would have to check.) And when linking an entire
   library weakly, one doesn't know at compile time that all of these
   symbols will be weak imports.

 - Update shlibdeps to produce Recommends: instead of Depends: for
   libraries that are linked weakly, with the option for the package
   Maintainer to change that to Suggests.

 - Update shlibdeps to Pre-Depend: on glibc with the dynamic linker
   that supports this if the new header type is found.

With that in place, one could then start to modify software to make
use of this feature where this is applicable.

Benefits (in the long term):

 - Smaller base system
 - Easier to add new features to core components without stepping on
   people's toes. (And since we now have build profiles, bootstrapping
   shouldn't be a problem.)
 - Executables that need to be copied into the initramfs could benefit
   from that, making the initramfs smaller and hence faster.


 - Another (IMHO minor) potential source of bugs: if a program is
   linked weakly against a library but doesn't check for symbol
   availability before using them, then the program will crash
   (0-pointer deref).

I'm not saying this will solve all problems described in this thread,
because the general underlying issue (described by others in this
thread in a much better way) of having stuff work out of the box (and
hence be installed by default) vs. unused stuff not being installed
is not a technical problem that can be solved, but rather a problem
of preferences, where we'll always have to weigh the options.

But my proposal would fix the issue that dependencies towards libraries
are forced to be hard 'Depends:' at the moment, even if a Recommends:
or Suggests: is semantically more correct for that - which could help
mitigate these issues.



PS: Weak symbol import on Debian example (library must still exist
though, so this is just to illustrate the principle, even though we
probably aren't interested in the symbol-resolved version here):

cat > lib.h <<EOF
#pragma once

void do_print() __attribute__((weak));
void do_print();
cat > lib.c <<EOF
#include "lib.h"
#include <stdio.h>

void do_print()
  puts("Hello World!");
touch lib_dummy.c
cat > prog.c <<EOF
#include <stdio.h>

#include "lib.h"

int main()
    if (do_print)
        puts("Library doesn't contain symbol.");
    return 0;
mkdir with_sym
mkdir without_sym
gcc -Wall -fPIC -DLIB_COMPILE -shared -Wl,-soname,libweaktest.so.0 -o with_sym/libweaktest.so.0 lib.c
ln -s libweaktest.so.0 with_sym/libweaktest.so
gcc -Wall -fPIC -DLIB_COMPILE -shared -Wl,-soname,libweaktest.so.0 -o without_sym/libweaktest.so.0 lib_dummy.c
gcc -Wall -o prog prog.c -L./with_sym -lweaktest
LD_LIBRARY_PATH=./with_sym ./prog
LD_LIBRARY_PATH=./without_sym ./prog