So what exactly is -ffunction-sections and how does it reduce binary size?

If you’d like a more up-to-date version of ShellCheck than what Raspbian provides, you can build your own on a Raspberry Pi Zero in a little over 21 hours.

Alternatively, as of last week, you can also download RPi compatible, statically linked armv6hf binaries of every new commit and stable release.

It’s statically linked — i.e. the executable has all its library dependencies built in — so you can expect it to be pretty big. However, I didn’t expect it to be 67MB:

build@d1044ff3bf67:/mnt/shellcheck# ls -l shellcheck
-rwxr-xr-x 1 build build 66658032 Jul 14 16:04 shellcheck

This is for a tool intended to run on devices with 512MiB RAM. strip helps shed a lot of that weight, and the post-stripped number is the one we’ll use from now on, but 36MB is still more than I expected, especially given that the x86_64 build is 23MB.

build@d1044ff3bf67:/mnt/shellcheck# strip --strip-all shellcheck
build@d1044ff3bf67:/mnt/shellcheck# ls -l shellcheck
-rwxr-xr-x 1 build build 35951068 Jul 14 16:22 shellcheck

So now what? Optimize for size? Here’s ghc -optlo-Os to enable LLVM opt size optimizations, including a complete three hour Qemu emulated rebuild of all dependencies:

build@31ef6588fdf1:/mnt/shellcheck# ls -l shellcheck
-rwxr-xr-x 1 build build 32051676 Jul 14 22:38 shellcheck

Welp, that’s not nearly enough.

The real problem is that we’re linking in both C and Haskell dependencies, from the JSON formatters and Regex libraries to bignum implemenations and the Haskell runtime itself. These have tons of functionality that ShellCheck doesn’t use, but which is still included as part of the package.

Fortunately, GCC and GHC allow eliminating this kind of dead code through function sections. Let’s look at how that works, and why dead code can’t just be eliminated as a matter of course:

An ELF binary contains a lot of different things, each stored in a section. It can have any number of these sections, each of which has a pile of attributes including a name:

  • .text stores executable code
  • .data stores global variable values
  • .symtab stores the symbol table
  • Ever wondered where compilers embed debug info? Sections.
  • Exception unwinding data, compiler version or build IDs? Sections.

This is how strip is able to safely and efficiently drop so much data: if a section has been deemed unnecessary, it’s simple and straight forward to drop it without affecting the rest of the executable.

Let’s have a look at some real data. Here’s a simple foo.c:

int foo() { return 42; }
int bar() { return foo(); }

We can compile it with gcc -c foo.c -o foo.o and examine the sections:

$ readelf -a foo.o
ELF Header:
  Magic:   7f 45 4c 46 01 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00
  Class:        ELF32
  Data:         2's complement, little endian
  Version:      1 (current)
  OS/ABI:       UNIX - System V
  ABI Version:  0
  Type:         REL (Relocatable file)
  Machine:      ARM

Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name       Type      Addr   Off    Size   ES Flg Lk Inf Al
  [ 0]            NULL      000000 000000 000000 00      0   0  0
  [ 1] .text      PROGBITS  000000 000034 000034 00  AX  0   0  4
  [ 2] .rel.text  REL       000000 000190 000008 08   I  8   1  4
  [ 3] .data      PROGBITS  000000 000068 000000 00  WA  0   0  1
  [ 4] .bss       NOBITS    000000 000068 000000 00  WA  0   0  1

Symbol table '.symtab' contains 11 entries:
   Num:    Value  Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
     9: 00000000    28 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    1 foo
    10: 0000001c    24 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    1 bar

There’s tons more info not included here, and it’s an interesting read in its own right. Anyways, both our functions live in the .text segment. We can see this from the symbol table’s Ndx column which says section 1, corresponding to .text. We can also see it in the disassembly:

$ objdump -d foo.o
foo.o:     file format elf32-littlearm

Disassembly of section .text:
00000000 <foo>:
   0:   e52db004   push    {fp}
   4:   e28db000   add     fp, sp, #0
   8:   e3a0302a   mov     r3, #42 ; 0x2a
   c:   e1a00003   mov     r0, r3
  10:   e28bd000   add     sp, fp, #0
  14:   e49db004   pop     {fp}
  18:   e12fff1e   bx      lr

0000001c <bar>:
  1c:   e92d4800   push    {fp, lr}
  20:   e28db004   add     fp, sp, #4
  24:   ebfffffe   bl      0 <foo>
  28:   e1a03000   mov     r3, r0
  2c:   e1a00003   mov     r0, r3
  30:   e8bd8800   pop     {fp, pc}

Now lets say that the only library function we use is foo, and we want bar removed from the final binary. This is tricky, because you can’t just modify a .text segment by slicing things out of it. There are offsets, addresses and cross-dependencies compiled into the code, and any shifts would mean trying to patch that all up. If only it was as easy as when strip removed whole sections…

This is where gcc -ffunction-sections and ghc -split-sections come in. Let’s recompile our file with gcc -ffunction-sections foo.c -c -o foo.o:

$ readelf -a foo.o
Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name          Type      Addr  Off  Size ES Flg Lk Inf Al
  [ 0]               NULL      00000 0000 0000 00      0   0  0
  [ 1] .text         PROGBITS  00000 0034 0000 00  AX  0   0  1
  [ 2] .data         PROGBITS  00000 0034 0000 00  WA  0   0  1
  [ 3] .bss          NOBITS    00000 0034 0000 00  WA  0   0  1
  [ 4]     PROGBITS  00000 0034 001c 00  AX  0   0  4
  [ 5]     PROGBITS  00000 0050 001c 00  AX  0   0  4
  [ 6] REL       00000 01c0 0008 08   I 10   5  4

Symbol table '.symtab' contains 14 entries:
   Num:    Value  Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
12: 00000000    28 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    4 foo
13: 00000000    28 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    5 bar

Look at that! Each function now has its very own section.

This means that a linker can go through and find all the sections that contain symbols we need, and drop the rest. We can enable it with the aptly named ld flag --gc-sections. You can pass that flag to ld via gcc using gcc -Wl,--gc-sections. And you can pass that whole thing to gcc via ghc using ghc -optc-Wl,--gc-sections

I enabled all of this in my builder’s .cabal/config:

  gcc-options: -Os -Wl,--gc-sections -ffunction-sections -fdata-sections
  ghc-options: -optc-Os -optlo-Os -split-sections

With this in place, the ShellCheck binary became a mere 14.5MB:

-rw-r--r-- 1 build build 14503356 Jul 15 10:01 shellcheck

That’s less than half the size we started out with. I’ve since applied the same flags to the x86_64 build, which brought it down from 23MB to 7MB. Snappier downloads and installs for all!

For anyone interested in compiling Haskell for armv6hf on x86_64, I spent weeks trying to get cross-compilation going, but in the end (and with many hacks) I was only able to cross-compile armv7. In the end I gave up and took the same approach as with the Windows build blog post: a Docker image runs the Raspbian armv6 userland in Qemu user emulation mode.

I didn’t even have to set up Qemu. There’s tooling from for building ARM Docker containers for IoT purposes. ShellCheck (ab)uses this to run emulated GHC and cabal. Everything Just Works, if slowly.

The Dockerfile is available on GitHub as koalaman/armv6hf-builder.

4 thoughts on “So what exactly is -ffunction-sections and how does it reduce binary size?”

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