Zircon program loading and dynamic linking

In Zircon, the kernel is not directly involved in normal program loading. (The one necessary exception is bootstrapping the userspace environment at system startup; see userboot.) Instead, the kernel merely provides the building blocks (VMO, process, VMAR, thread) from which userspace program loading is built.

ELF and the system ABI

The standard Zircon userspace environment uses the ELF format for machine-code executable files, and provides a dynamic linker and C/C++ execution environment that are based on ELF. Zircon processes can use system calls only via the vDSO, which is provided by the kernel in ELF format and uses the C/C++ calling conventions common to ELF-based systems for the machine. Userspace code (given the appropriate capabilities) can use the system call building blocks directly to create processes and load programs into them without using ELF. But Zircon's standard ABI for machine code uses ELF as described here.

Background: traditional ELF program loading

ELF was introduced with Unix System V Release 4 and became the common standard executable file format for most Unix-like systems, today including Linux and all the BSD variants as well as Solaris and many others. In these systems, the kernel integrates program loading with filesystem access via the POSIX execve API. There are some variations in how they load ELF programs, but most follow a pattern close to this:

  1. The kernel loads the file by name, and checks whether it's ELF or some other kind of file that system supports. This is where #! script handling is done, as well non-ELF format support when present.

  2. The kernel maps the ELF image according to its PT_LOAD program headers. For an ET_EXEC file, this places the program‘s segments at fixed addresses in memory specified in p_vaddr. For an ET_DYN file, the system chooses the base address where the program’s first PT_LOAD gets loaded, and following segments are placed according to their p_vaddr relative to the first segment's p_vaddr. Usually the base address is chosen randomly (ASLR).

  3. If there was a PT_INTERP program header, its contents (a range of bytes in the ELF file given by p_offset and p_filesz) is looked up as a file name to find another ELF file called the ELF interpreter. This must be an ET_DYN file; the kernel loads it in the same way as it loaded the executable, but always at a location of its own choosing. The interpreter program is usually the ELF dynamic linker with a name like /lib/ld.so.1 or /lib/ld-linux.so.2, but the kernel loads whatever file is named.

  4. The kernel sets up the stack and registers for the initial thread, and starts the thread running with the PC at the chosen entry point address.

    • The entry point is the e_entry value from the ELF file header, adjusted by base address. When there was a PT_INTERP, the entry point is that of the interepreter rather than the main executable.
    • There is an assembly-level protocol of register and stack contents that the kernel sets up for the program to receive its argument and environment strings and an auxiliary vector of useful values. When there was a PT_INTERP, these include the base address, entry point, and program header table address from the main executable‘s ELF headers. This information allows the dynamic linker to find the main executable’s ELF dynamic linking metadata in memory and do its work. When dynamic linking startup is complete, the dynamic linker jumps to the main executable's entry point address.

Zircon program loading is inspired by this tradition, but does it somewhat differently. A key reason for the traditional pattern of loading the executable before loading the dynamic linker is that the dynamic linker's randomly-chosen base address must not intersect with the fixed addresses used by an ET_EXEC executable file. Zircon does not support fixed-address program loading (ELF ET_EXEC files) at all, only position-independent executables or PIEs, which are ELF ET_DYN files.

The launchpad library

The main implementation of program loading resides in the launchpad library. It has a C API in <launchpad/launchpad.h> but is not formally documented. The launchpad API is not described here. Its treatment of executable files and process startup forms the Zircon system ABI for program loading. The lowest userspace layers of the system implement the same protocols. It's anticipated that in the future most process launching in the system will be done by a system service that uses launchpad in its implementation, rather than by direct use of the library.

Filesystems are not part of the lower layers of Zircon API. Instead, program loading is based on VMOs and on IPC protocols used via channels.

A program loading request starts with:

  • a handle to a VMO containing the executable file (ZX_RIGHT_READ and ZX_RIGHT_EXECUTE rights are required)
  • a list of argument strings (to become argv[] in a C/C++ program)
  • a list of environment strings (to become environ[] in a C/C++ program)
  • a list of initial handles, each with a handle info entry

Three types of file are handled:

  • a script file starting with #!

    The first line of the file starts with #! and must be no more than 127 characters long. The first non-whitespace word following #! is the script interpreter name. If there's anything after that, it all together becomes the script interperter argument.

    • The script interpereter name is prepended to the original argument list (to become argv[0]).
    • If there was a script interpreter argument, it's inserted between the interpreter name and the original argument list (to become argv[1], with the original argv[0] becoming argv[2]).
    • The program loader looks up the script interpreter name via the loader service to get a new VMO.
    • Program loading restarts on that script interpreter VMO with the modified argument list but everything else the same. The VMO handle for the original executable is just closed; the script interpreter only gets the original argv[0] string to work with, not the original VMO. There is a maximum nesting limit (currently 5) constraining how many such restarts will be allowed before program loading just fails.
  • an ELF ET_DYN file with no PT_INTERP

    • The system chooses a random base address for the first PT_LOAD segment and then maps in each PT_LOAD segment relative to that base address. This is done by creating a VMAR covering the whole range from the first page of the first segment to the last page of the last segment.

    • A VMO is created and mapped at another random address to hold the stack for the initial thread. If there was a PT_GNU_STACK program header with a nonzero p_memsz, that determines the size of the stack (rounded up to whole pages). Otherwise, a reasonable default stack size is used.

    • The vDSO is mapped into the process (another VMO containing an ELF image), also at a random base address.

    • A new thread is created in the process with thread_create().

    • A new channel is created, called the bootstrap channel. The program loader writes into this channel a message in the processargs protocol format. This bootstrap message includes the argument and environment strings and the initial handles from the original request. That list is augmented with handles for:

      • the new process itself
      • its root VMAR
      • its initial thread
      • the VMAR covering where the executable was loaded
      • the VMO just created for the stack
      • optionally, a default job so the new process itself can create more processes
      • optionally, the vDSO VMO so the new process can let the processes it creates make system calls themselves

      The program loader then closes its end of the channel.

    • The initial thread is launched with the process_start() system call:

      • entry sets the new thread‘s PC to e_entry from the executable’s ELF header, adjusted by base address.
      • stack sets the the new thread's stack pointer to the top of the stack mapping.
      • arg1 transfers the handle to the bootstrap channel into the first argument register in the C ABI.
      • arg2 passes the base address of the vDSO into the second argument register in the C ABI.

      Thus, the program entry point can be written as a C function:

      noreturn void _start(zx_handle_t bootstrap_channel, uintptr_t vdso_base);

  • an ELF ET_DYN file with a PT_INTERP

    In this case, the program loader does not directly use the VMO containing the ELF executable after reading its PT_INTERP header. Instead, it uses the PT_INTERP contents as the name of an ELF interpreter. This name is used in a request to the loader service to get a new VMO containing the ELF interpeter, which is another ELF ET_DYN file. Then that VMO is loaded instead of the main executable's VMO. Startup is as described above, with these differences:

    • An extra message in the processargs protocol is written to the bootstrap channel, preceding the main bootstrap message. The ELF interpreter is expected to consume this loader bootstrap message itself so that it can do its work, but then leave the second bootstrap message in the channel and hand off the bootstrap channel handle to the main program's entry point. The loader bootstrap message includes only the necessary handles added by the program loader, not the full set that go into the main bootstrap message, plus these:

      • the original VMO handle for main ELF executable
      • a channel handle to the loader service

      These allow the ELF interpreter to do its own loading of the executable from the VMO and to use the loader service to get additional VMOs for shared libraries to load. The message also includes the argument and environment strings, which lets the ELF interpreter use argv[0] in its log messages, and check for environment variables like LD_DEBUG.

    • PT_GNU_STACK program headers are ignored. Instead, the program loader chooses a minimal stack size that is just large enough to contain the loader bootstrap message plus some breathing room for the ELF interpreter‘s startup code to use as call frames. This “breathing room” size is PTHREAD_STACK_MIN in the source, and is tuned such that with a small bootstrap message size the whole stack is only a single page, but a careful dynamic linker implementation has enough space to work in. The dynamic linker is expected to read the main executable’s PT_GNU_STACK and switch to a stack of reasonable size for normal use before it jumps to the main executable's entry point.

The program loader chooses three randomly-placed chunks of the new process‘s address space before the program (or dynamic linker) gets control: the vDSO, the stack, and the dynamic linker itself. To make it possible for the program’s own startup to control its address space more fully, the program loader currently ensures that these random placements are always somewhere in the upper half of the address space. This is for the convenience of sanitizer runtimes, which need to reserve some lower fraction of the address space. This behavior will change in the future so there is some way to support the sanitizer cases but other processes will get fully random placement to maximize the benefits of ASLR.

The processargs protocol

<zircon/processargs.h> defines the protocol for the bootstrap message sent on the bootstrap channel by the program loader. When a process starts up, it has a handle to this bootstrap channel and it has access to system calls via the vDSO. The process has only this one handle and so it can see only global system information and its own memory until it gets more information and handles via the bootstrap channel.

The processargs protocol is a one-way protocol for messages sent on the bootstrap channel. The new process is never expected to write back onto the channel. The program loader usually sends its messages and then closes its end of the channel before the new process has even started. These messages must communicate everything a new process will ever need, but the code that receives and decodes messages in this format must run in a very constrained environment. Heap allocation is impossible and nontrivial library facilities may not be available.

See the header file for full details of the message format. It's anticipated that this ad hoc protocol will be replaced with a formal IDL-based protocol eventually, but the format will be kept simple enough to be decoded by simple hand-written code.

A bootstrap message conveys:

  • a list of initial handles
  • a 32-bit handle info entry corresponding to each handle
  • a list of name strings that a handle info entry can refer to
  • a list of argument strings (to become argv[] in a C/C++ program)
  • a list of environment strings (to become environ[] in a C/C++ program)

The handles serve many purposes, indicated by the handle info entry type:

  • essential handles for the process to make system calls: process, VMAR, thread, job
  • channel to the loader service
  • vDSO VMO
  • filesystem-related handles: current directory, file descriptors, name space bindings (these encode an index into the list of name strings)
  • special handles for system processes: resource, VMO
  • other types used for higher-layer or private protocol purposes

Most of these are just passed through by the program loader, which does not need to know what they're for.

The loader service

In dynamic linking systems, an executable file refers to and uses at runtime additional files containing shared libraries and plugins. The dynamic linker is loaded as an ELF interperter and is responsible getting access to all these additional files to complete dynamic linking before the main program's entry point gets control.

All of Zircon's standard userspace uses dynamic linking, down to the very first process loaded by userboot. Device drivers and filesystems are implemented by userspace programs loaded this way. So program loading cannot be defined in terms of higher-layer abstractions such as a filesystem paradigm, as traditional systems have done. Instead, program loading is based only on VMOs and a simple channel-based protocol.

This loader service protocol is how a dynamic linker acquires VMOs representing the additional files it needs to load as shared libraries.

This is a simple RPC protocol, defined in <zircon/processargs.h>. As with the processargs protocol, it's anticipated that this ad hoc protocol will be replaced with a formal IDL-based protocol eventually, but the format will be kept simple enough to be decoded by simple hand-written code. The code sending loader service requests and receiving their replies during dynamic linker startup may not have access to nontrivial library facilities.

An ELF interpreter receives a channel handle for its loader service in its processargs bootstrap message, identified by the handle info entry PA_HND(PA_SVC_LOADER, 0). All requests are synchronous RPCs made with channel_call(). Both requests and replies start with the zx_loader_svc_msg_t header; some contain additional data; some contain a VMO handle. Request opcodes are:


    The program loader sends the script interperter name from a #! script and gets back a VMO to execute in place of the script.

  • LOADER_SVC_OP_LOAD_OBJECT: string -> VMO handle

    The dynamic linker sends the name of an object (shared library or plugin) and gets back a VMO handle containing the file.

  • LOADER_SVC_OP_CONFIG : string -> reply ignored

    The dynamic linker sends a string identifying its load configuration. This is intended to affect how later LOADER_SVC_OP_LOAD_OBJECT requests decide what particular implementation file to supply for a given name.

  • LOADER_SVC_OP_DEBUG_PRINT: string -> reply ignored

    This is a simple ad hoc logging facility intended for debugging the dynamic linker and early program startup issues. It‘s convenient because the early startup code is using the loader service but doesn’t have access to many other handles or complex facilities yet. This will be replaced in the future with some simple-to-use logging facility that does not go through the loader service.


    This is intended to be a developer-oriented feature and might not ordinarily be available in production runs.

    The program runtime sends a string naming a debug configuration of some kind and gets back a VMO to read configuration data from. The sanitizer runtimes use this to allow large options text to be stored in a file rather than passed directly in environment strings.

  • LOADER_SVC_OP_PUBLISH_DATA_SINK: string, VMO handle -> reply ignored

    This is intended to be a developer-oriented feature and might not ordinarily be available in production runs.

    The program runtime sends a string naming a data sink and transfers the sole handle to a VMO it wants published there. The data sink string identifies a type of data, and the VMO‘s object name can specifically identify the data set in this VMO. The client must transfer the only handle to the VMO (which prevents the VMO being resized without the receiver’s knowledge), but it might still have the VMO mapped in and continue to write data to it. Code instrumentation runtimes use this to deliver large binary trace results.

Zircon's standard ELF dynamic linker

The ELF conventions described above and the processargs and loader service protocols are the permanent system ABI for program loading. Programs can use any implementation of a machine code executable that meets the basic ELF format conventions. The implementation can use the the vDSO system call ABI, the processargs data, and the loader service facilities as it sees fit. The exact details of what handles and data they will receive via these protocols depend on the higher-layer program environment. Zircon's system processes use an ELF interpreter that implements basic ELF dynamic linking, and a simple implementation of the loader service.

Zircon‘s standard C library and dynamic linker have a unified implementation originally derived from musl. It’s identified by the PT_INTERP string ld.so.1. It uses the DT_NEEDED strings naming shared libraries as loader service object names.

The simple loader service maps requests into filesystem access:

  • script interperter and debug configuration names must start with / and are used as absolute file names.
  • data sink names become subdirectories in /tmp, and each VMO published becomes a file in that subdirectory with the VMO's object name
  • object names are searched for as files in system lib/ directories.
  • load configuration strings are taken as a subdirectory name, optionally preceded by a ! character. Subdirectories by that name in system lib/ directories searched are searched before lib/ itself. If there was a ! prefix, only those subdirecotries are searched. For example, sanitizer runtimes use asan because that instrumentation is compatible with uninstrumented library code, but !dfsan because that instrumentation requires that all code in the process be instrumented.

A version of the standard runtime instrumented with LLVM AddressSanitizer is identified by the PT_INTERP string asan/ld.so.1. This version sends the load configuration string asan before loading shareed libraries. When SanitizerCoverage is enabled, it publishes a VMO to the data sink name sancov and uses a VMO name including the process KOID.