Position-Independent Code with GCC for ARM Cortex-M

Welcome to ‘Alice in Wonderland‘! For a university research project using an ARM Cortex-M33 we are evaluating position-independent code as way to load applications or part of it with a bootloader. It sounds simple: just add -fPIC to the compiler settings and you are done.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. That option opened up a ‘rabbit hole’ with lots of wonderful, powerful and strange things. Something you might not have been aware of what could be possible with the tools you have at hand today. Leading to the central question: how is position-independent code going to work with an embedded application on an ARM Cortex-M?

Let’s find out! Let’s start a journey through the wonderland…

Outline

Position-Independent code (or PIC) is what is suitable for shared library code or if you want to use a loader to load and execute code anywhere in your address space. Basically it means that the code can run ‘anywhere’.

Some use cases:

  • Copy code from slower FLASH to faster SRAM for execution.
  • Build a library which can be loaded by different applications at runtime.
  • Execute a loadable task anywhere in the memory
  • Build application image position independent to minimize future update size
  • Provide the a library to many devices in the field, and each device can load or have that library in different memory ranges, e.g. to have flexible memory arrangements
  • Support a loading mechanism to load code e.g. from a memory device/SD card and then run anywhere in the memory

In essence: a library shall be using position-independent-code (PIC) so it can be placed and run at different addresses on a device. With using PIC the data amount for firmware updates over low bandwidth network connections like LoRa could be minimized too.

There can be certainly an unlimited number of use cases. So I’m not going to address any of them in this article directly. Instead I want you to give the insights so you can pick and choose your own implementation.

For most applications running on ARM Cortex-M, PIC is not needed or even might be the wrong solution, because usually there is no dynamic loading of code involved. But with the growing usage of bootloaders and loadable ‘applets’ especially in the ‘IoT’ world, PIC could be an interesting solution.

While PIC is standard for Linux and host development, it is far less known to the embedded world. On one hand because standard vendor tooling does not cover it with examples, on the other hand it is rather complex and requires knowledge and a loader of some kind. Nevertheless I think understanding how PIC works on an ARM Cortex-M is interesting and provides insights into the workings of compiler and linker, which can be useful even if you don’t consider using PIC.

In this article I’m using the MCUXpresso IDE with the LPC55S16-EVK. But you should be able to apply the principles to any other IDE or board.

NXP LPC55S16-EVK Board

๐Ÿ’ก I’m using the LPC55S16 which is an ARM Cortex-M33. However the GNU ARM Embedded compiler in version 9.31 has an issue preventing properly PIC code for M33 (warning: thumb-1 mode PLT generation not currently supported). As a workaround code can be generated for the M4 instead.

GCC -fPIC Option

The GNU compiler (GCC) has a dedicated option to generate position independent code:

So what is the effect of this option? For this we need to have a look at some code examples.

Building a Shared Library

The example on GitHub includes a ‘subproject’ to build a shared library (.so) or ‘shared object’.

The make file builds the shared library (libmystuff.so) which then can be used in the application.

Notice the nice ‘shared’ icon in Eclipse for the library:

The reason is because the ELF type is ‘DYN (shared object file)’, confirmed by

arm-none-eabi-readelf -l "libmystuff.so" > "libmystuff.so.readelf.dis"
Elf file type is DYN (Shared object file)
Entry point 0x174
There are 3 program headers, starting at offset 52

Program Headers:
  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x00000000 0x00000000 0x00190 0x00190 R E 0x10000
  LOAD           0x000190 0x00010190 0x00010190 0x00088 0x0008c RW  0x10000
  DYNAMIC        0x000190 0x00010190 0x00010190 0x00078 0x00078 RW  0x4

 Section to Segment mapping:
  Segment Sections...
   00     .hash .dynsym .dynstr .rel.dyn .text 
   01     .dynamic .got .bss 
   02     .dynamic 

Variable Data Access

PIC sounds it is all about code, but it is about variables too. The idea of having a library loaded anywhere in the memory means that the data needs to be position independent too.

For this, let’s have a look at two functions accessing a global variable:

int var;

void foo(void) {
  var = 1;
}

void bar(void) {
  var = 2;
}

Let’s check the disassembly of this code, without using PIC, just as you would use it in a normal way:

00000000 <foo>:
   0:	4b01      	ldr	r3, [pc, #4]	; (8 <foo+0x8>)
   2:	2201      	movs	r2, #1
   4:	601a      	str	r2, [r3, #0]
   6:	4770      	bx	lr
   8:	00000000 	.word	0x00000000
			8: R_ARM_ABS32	.bss.var
00000000 <bar>:
   0:	4b01      	ldr	r3, [pc, #4]	; (8 <bar+0x8>)
   2:	2202      	movs	r2, #2
   4:	601a      	str	r2, [r3, #0]
   6:	4770      	bx	lr
   8:	00000000 	.word	0x00000000
			8: R_ARM_ABS32	.bss.var

The compiler adds a 32bit absolute relocation (R_ARM_ABS32). This relocation is a constant in the code at the end of the function which gets resolved by the linker. The code loads that address PC-relative into the register r3:

ldr	r3, [pc, #4]

and uses a register indirect addressing:

str	r2, [r3, #0]

From a data access flow point of view it looks like this: Each function accessing the variable includes a PC-relative constant which holds the address of the variable. In the example I assume that the variable ‘var’ is located at address 0x2000’0000 in RAM.

Variable Access without -fPIC

Green color is used for RAM (R/W) and orange for FLASH (RO). Note that in above picture the functions foo and bar are both position independent already: they could be placed anywhere in the address space.

๐Ÿ’ก Keep in mind that we did not look into how foo and bar get called. This will be a discussion later on. Just let’s focus first on the variable access, trust me.

For a position-independent library the above is not ideal in several ways:

  • The address of the variable is fixed by the linker at link time. If the variable needs to be at a different place in memory, then a loader at runtime needs to go through a list and patch every reference to that variable. This is doable, but will take time for the loading process. But access is very efficient in the code.
  • For embedded targets the code is usually in FLASH memory. The constant(s) in the code are in FLASH memory too, requiring the loader to deal with this (load first in RAM, patch and then program FLASH or program the flash in multiple iterations which is not feasible).
  • While the code could be moved, the data cannot until the loader would patch all references to the variables and their addresses.

Variables Access with -fPIC: GOT

Now let’s have a look at the same code compiled with -fPIC compiler option:

00000000 <foo>:
   0:	4b03      	ldr	r3, [pc, #12]	; (10 <foo+0x10>)
   2:	447b      	add	r3, pc
   4:	4a03      	ldr	r2, [pc, #12]	; (14 <foo+0x14>)
   6:	589b      	ldr	r3, [r3, r2]
   8:	2201      	movs	r2, #1
   a:	601a      	str	r2, [r3, #0]
   c:	4770      	bx	lr
   e:	bf00      	nop
  10:	0000000a 	.word	0x0000000a
			10: R_ARM_GOTPC	_GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_
  14:	00000000 	.word	0x00000000
			14: R_ARM_GOT32	var

00000000 <bar>:
   0:	4b03      	ldr	r3, [pc, #12]	; (10 <bar+0x10>)
   2:	447b      	add	r3, pc
   4:	4a03      	ldr	r2, [pc, #12]	; (14 <bar+0x14>)
   6:	589b      	ldr	r3, [r3, r2]
   8:	2202      	movs	r2, #2
   a:	601a      	str	r2, [r3, #0]
   c:	4770      	bx	lr
   e:	bf00      	nop
  10:	0000000a 	.word	0x0000000a
			10: R_ARM_GOTPC	_GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_
  14:	00000000 	.word	0x00000000
			14: R_ARM_GOT32	var

You will notice that there is now more code (additional indirection) and two relocations which are using the GOT (Global Offset Table):

  • R_ARM_GOTPC: PC relative offset to the Global Offset Table
  • R_ARM_GOT32: offset of variable inside the Global Offset Table

The important point here is that R_ARM_GOTPC is a relative offset between the current PC and a section where there is a GOT (Global Offset Table) which contains the effective addresses of the variables. The when placing code and data knows the relative offsets between the sections.

So what happens is the following:

It loads a the the address of the GOT which is an offset between the current PC position and the actual location of the section which contains the GOT in R3:

ldr	r3, [pc, #12]
add	r3, pc

Then it loads the offset of the variable inside the GOT table (entry inside GOT) into R2:

ldr	r2, [pc, #12]

Finally, loads the address from the GOT entry:

ldr	r3, [r3, r2]

Here, R3 points to the variable and can be used to store the value in R2:

movs	r2, #2
str	r2, [r3, #0]

The picture below shows the relationship of the entries:

Variable Access with GOT and -fPIC

Note that above picture shows the GOT in RAM, but it could be in FLASH memory too.

So what we do have with this?

  1. The loader is faster, as it only needs to update the GOT and not all the different variable references in the code.
  2. The variables can be moved anywhere in RAM
  3. The variable access is slower, as one extra indirection
  4. The distance between the code section and the GOT section is fixed: if I move the code section, I do have to move/place the GOT section too: the code section and the section with the GOT needs to have the same distance.

So with this, I could have a code section followed by a GOT section and load both anywhere into RAM: I would have to update the variable addresses in the GOT table and accesses and code will be position-independent.

Setup the GOT Table

The question is: how to setup or fill the GOT table with the addresses of the variables? One way would be to provide the needed information to the loader (e.g. with a table or something similar). Another way would be for the loader to read the information from the library/object file: this is for example what the loader in Linux does, but that’s certainly out-of-scope for an embedded loader on a microcontroller.

Another way is to have the linker generate that information: that way I can link (well, load) a position independent library or object file into my application. I could use the linker information as data structure for an embedded loader too.

For this, I need to tell the Linker to create the needed initialization for the GOT. This requires the correct settings in the linker files. On MCUXpressso IDE, the easiest way is to disable the automatic managed linker script:

Disabled Managed Linker Script

To make sure the GOT gets initialized during startup code, add the .got initialization to the linker file:

/*------------------------------------------------------------- */
/*--- Initialization of Global Offset Table ------------------- */
        LONG(LOADADDR(.got));
        LONG(    ADDR(.got));
        LONG(  SIZEOF(.got));
/*------------------------------------------------------------- */

Copy-Down data selection in Linker File

Check in the linker .map file that the initialization data gets added:

Copy-Down Data created in linker map file

In the above case the GOT table (.got) is allocated at address 0x2000’0064 (SRAM) with a size of 0x10 and the initalization data gets copied from 0x1ba (FLASH).

.got section in linker map file

That way the GOT gets initialized during the ‘copy-down’ in the startup code:

Execution of copy-down for GOT during startup

The above is using RAM for the GOT so you easily can change it during runtime. To have the GOT directly in FLASH memory:

Do not have it listed as above for the startup code initialization, e.g. comment it out:

Disabled .got in RAM

Instead, just place it into Flash:

Placing .got into FLASH

This places the GOT table into flash memory:

.got in FLASH memory

With this we have reached position-independent data processing :-).

Function Calls: PLT

So far we talked about variables. But what about function calls?

Let’s first check a simple case of a function call inside a library, this time without -fPIC: it calls a function inside the library and an external one:

void foo(void) {
  var++;
}

extern void foobar(void);
void bar(void) {
  foo();
  foobar();
}

Checking the assembly code gives this:

00000000 <bar>:
   0:	b508      	push	{r3, lr}
   2:	f7ff fffe 	bl	0 <bar>
			2: R_ARM_THM_CALL	foo
   6:	f7ff fffe 	bl	0 <foobar>
			6: R_ARM_THM_CALL	foobar
   a:	bd08      	pop	{r3, pc}

So this all looks good as it uses relative branch-and-link (bl) instructions. So if the library does calls inside, all is fine. But what about if I want to call the library functions from outside?

For these it needs something similar but more complex: the PLT or Procedure Linkage Table.

One could think that the previous approach of using the GOT could be used for function calls too: there would be just an additional indirection for the function call. Actually this is what would happen if using function pointers for calling the library functions: function pointers are just data pointing to a code to be executed.

But actually the whole position-independent code is driven by a larger concept: dynamic loading or shared libraries. This concept is used on Windows with DLL (Dynamic Link LIbraries) or Shared Objects (.so) on Linux: the ability to share code between processes and between applications. It means that a code can be re-used and shared: and for this it needs to be position-independent too. And this is handled by a ‘loader’ which loads the executable and as well any referenced (shared) libraries.

I’m not going too much into the details how these loaders work, because in this article I don’t want (or need) a runtime loader: instead I want to have position-independent code which can be ‘loaded’ by the debugger or the bootloader: to they are the very simplistic loaders in my case.

So what the loader has to do is to ‘bind’ the call from the executable to library. This is done with an extra indirection: That binding allows to have the shared library placed anywhere in the memory and position independent.

On a loader like the one on Linux or Windows which loads the executable, one main goal is loading speed: In many cases a library can have many, many functions, but probably the executable using the library only needs a few. That’s why on loading of the application and library, the bindings are not resolved immediately. They are ‘delayed’ and done only done ‘on demand’ for each first call of the library function.

For this there in addition to the GOT an extra PLT (Procedure Linkage Table) which acts as a ‘trampoline’:

The image below shows the sequence when the library function ‘func’ gets called the first time:

  1. The library function gets called in the application code. The call does not go directly to the library, but to a PLT entry instead. The PLT entry is is small piece of code and acts as trampoline
  2. The trampoline reads the GOT entry and uses this as the destination address for the jump.
  3. If it is the first time of the function call, then the GOT entry points after the JMP instruction of step two. So the jump will just land after the jump instruction itself.
  4. The trampoline prepares for the resolver which shall resolve the binding ‘on demand’. That binder is a special entry in the PLT table at the beginning.
  5. The ‘binder’ gets called. He gets all the information (which library function to call and which GOT entry to update, so will perform the binding.
  6. Finally, the resolver calls the destination function in the library

The next time that library function gets called, the GOT entry contains the address of the shared library function: With one indirection the call ends up in the library:

Let’s see how this works. In the application I call a function in the library:

i = MyLib_Calc(3);

Disassemble the ELF/Dwarf file with

arm-none-eabi-objdump -Dz --source LPC55S16_PositionIndependentCode.axf > app.diss

In the disassembly the call to the library function looks like this:

 i = MyLib_Calc(3);
2d4:	2003      	movs	r0, #3
2d6:	f001 fddb 	bl	1e90 <.plt+0x30>  // call library function using PLT
2da:	4603      	mov	r3, r0
2dc:	4a0a      	ldr	r2, [pc, #40]	; (308 <main+0x38>)
2de:	6013      	str	r3, [r2, #0]

It calls the stup in the PLT table:

bl	1e90 <.plt+0x30> // call library function with PLT entry

which is:

Disassembly of section .plt:

00001e60 <.plt>:
    1e60:	b500      	push	{lr}
    1e62:	f8df e008 	ldr.w	lr, [pc, #8]	; 1e6c <.plt+0xc>
    1e66:	44fe      	add	lr, pc
    1e68:	f85e ff08 	ldr.w	pc, [lr, #8]!
    1e6c:	1fffe194 	svcne	0x00ffe194
    ...
    1e90:	f24e 1c78 	movw	ip, #57720	; 0xe178
    1e94:	f6c1 7cff 	movt	ip, #8191	; 0x1fff
    1e98:	44fc      	add	ip, pc
    1e9a:	f8dc f000 	ldr.w	pc, [ip]
    1e9e:	e7fc      	b.n	1e9a <.plt+0x3a>

first it does this first:

1e90:	f24e 1c78 	movw	ip, #57720	; 0xe178
1e94:	f6c1 7cff 	movt	ip, #8191	; 0x1fff
1e98:	44fc      	add	ip, pc
1e9a:	f8dc f000 	ldr.w	pc, [ip]

This loads 0x1FFF’E178 into the ip (R12) register. This is the PC-relative offset to the GOT entry for the PLT. with ‘add ip,pc’ it calculates the GOT entry for the PLT:

0x1FFF'E178 (offset)  +  0x1E98 (PC) + 4 = 0x2000'0014 

The memory at 0x2000’0014 has the following:

0x2000'0014:    00001E61

With this it jumps to the address 0x1E60 (the 1 bit is the thumb bit) which contains the following stub:

00001e60 <.plt>:
    1e60:	b500      	push	{lr}
    1e62:	f8df e008 	ldr.w	lr, [pc, #8]	; 1e6c <.plt+0xc>
    1e66:	44fe      	add	lr, pc
    1e68:	f85e ff08 	ldr.w	pc, [lr, #8]!
    1e6c:	1fffe194 	svcne	0x00ffe194

Here it loads the destination address from the PLT in a PC-relative way:

add lr,pc:
0x1FFF'E194 (offset) + 0x1E66 (PC) + 4 = 0x1FFF'FFFE

ldr.w pc,[lr,#8]
0x1FFF'FFFE (lr) + 0x8 = 0x2000'0006

So it jumps to the destination address written in the GOT entry at 0x2000’0006.

One point is missing so far: how to bind the address in the GOT to the shared library function?

Program Header

The answer is not easy: because we are building a shared library, this means all the needed information to load the library is in the Program Header.

arm-none-eabi-readelf -l "libmystuff.so" > "libmystuff.so.readelf.dis"

gives

Elf file type is DYN (Shared object file)
Entry point 0x174
There are 3 program headers, starting at offset 52

Program Headers:
  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x00000000 0x00000000 0x00190 0x00190 R E 0x10000
  LOAD           0x000190 0x00010190 0x00010190 0x00088 0x0008c RW  0x10000
  DYNAMIC        0x000190 0x00010190 0x00010190 0x00078 0x00078 RW  0x4

 Section to Segment mapping:
  Segment Sections...
   00     .hash .dynsym .dynstr .rel.dyn .text 
   01     .dynamic .got .bss 
   02     .dynamic 

Such a program header is present for a normal ELF/Dwarf file too: this is what the debugger uses to load the program and program it to the target. The above list shows ‘segments’ and ‘sections’. Sections is what we deal with in the linker file with the SECTIONS block. The ELF/Dwarf file is organized in ‘segments’ which contain the ‘sections’.

  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x00000000 0x00000000 0x00190 0x00190 R 

Means “load the information with offset 0x0 in the file to the virtual (target destination) address, initialize it with the data at the physical address with the size 0x190 on the file which is the same size in memory, and this is for a R(ead-only) area”.

With

  Segment Sections...
   00     .hash .dynsym .dynstr .rel.dyn .text 

we can see that the .text (code) is part of this segment (0). But now we have in our application not only the program headers from the main application, but as well the program header of the shared library. If we try to link our application with the shared library we will get a linker error:

error: PHDR segment not covered by LOAD segment

It means that we need to tell the linker what to do with the program headers.

In the most simplistic way we have to add a PHDRS entry to the linker file (see https://sourceware.org/binutils/docs/ld/PHDRS.html for details):

PHDRS
{
  code         PT_LOAD;
  data         PT_LOAD;
}

And then assign for each section to which program header they belong, for example:

 /*------------------------------------------------------------- */
    /* PLT section contains code for accessing the dynamically linked functions
     * this measn functions from shared libraries in a position independent manner */
    .plt : ALIGN(4)
    {
        *(.plt)
        . = ALIGN(4);
    } >PROGRAM_FLASH :code
    
    /* The global offset table is the table for indirectly accessing the global variables
     * The table contains addresses of the global variables. The text section contains 
     * a address of the GOT base and a offset in it to access the appropriate variables.
     * This is done to access the variables in a position independent manner. */
    .got : ALIGN(4)
    {
        _sgot = .;
        *(.got)
    } >SRAM AT> PROGRAM_FLASH :data
    
    /* got.plt section contains entries which is used with the PLT to access the functions 
     * in a position independent manner. */
    .got.plt : ALIGN(4)
    {
         _sgot_plt = .;
        *(.got.plt)
        _edata = .;
    } >SRAM AT> PROGRAM_FLASH :data
 /*------------------------------------------------------------- */

๐Ÿ’ก Notice the ‘:code’ and ‘:data’ at the end of each section.

With this you should be able to link with the shared library.

Embedded Binding

Linking works, but it means that we still need to load the shared library. Instead writing a loader plus a method to bind the addresses at runtime, I’m using a simpler approach: the GOT entries bind with using a binding helper routine. The linker for the application will *not* include the shared library in the application: instead it is having the references and GOT entries to the shared library.

I’m using type for each binding like this:

/*! \brief
 * The information needed to perform the binding.
 * The offsets are the code offsets inside (Virtual address) from the beginning.
 * The got_plt index is used to identify the got PLT index.
 */
typedef struct {
  const char *name; /*!< name of function */
  size_t offset;    /*!< offset in loaded .code section */
  int got_plt_idx;  /*!< index in .got_plt table */
} binding_t;

An example binding table looks like this:

static const binding_t bindings[] =
{
    {"MyLib_Calc", 0x0000, 4},
    {"MyLib_Mul2", 0x0014, 5},
    {"MyLib_Init", 0x0018, 3},
};

The binding is performed by the function below. ‘relocStart’ is the address where the shared library has been loaded:

extern unsigned int _sgot, _sgot_plt; /* symbols provided by the linker */

void BindLibrary(void *relocStart) {
  for(int i=0; i<sizeof(bindings)/sizeof(bindings[0]); i++) {
    ((uint32_t*)&_sgot_plt)[bindings[i].got_plt_idx] = (uint32_t)(relocStart+bindings[i].offset);
  }
}

Where to get the needed information? The ‘readelf’ of the shared library lists the program headers with the segments and relocation (VirtAddr,, PhysAddr) information:

Elf file type is DYN (Shared object file)
Entry point 0x174
There are 3 program headers, starting at offset 52

Program Headers:
  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x00000000 0x00000000 0x0018c 0x0018c R E 0x10000
  LOAD           0x00018c 0x0001018c 0x0001018c 0x0008c 0x00090 RW  0x10000
  DYNAMIC        0x00018c 0x0001018c 0x0001018c 0x00080 0x00080 RW  0x4

 Section to Segment mapping:
  Segment Sections...
   00     .hash .dynsym .dynstr .rel.dyn .text 
   01     .dynamic .got .bss 
   02     .dynamic 

Another way is to look at the disassembly which provides the position-indpendent-code plus the offsets:

Disassembly of section .text:

00000174 <MyLib_Calc>:
#include "myLib.h"

static int glob;

int MyLib_Calc(int x) {
  glob++;
 174:	4a02      	ldr	r2, [pc, #8]	; (180 <MyLib_Calc+0xc>)
 176:	6813      	ldr	r3, [r2, #0]
 178:	3301      	adds	r3, #1
 17a:	6013      	str	r3, [r2, #0]
  return x*2;
}
 17c:	0040      	lsls	r0, r0, #1
 17e:	4770      	bx	lr
 180:	00010218 	.word	0x00010218

00000184 <MyLib_Mul2>:

int MyLib_Mul2(int x) {
  return x*2;
}
 184:	0040      	lsls	r0, r0, #1
 186:	4770      	bx	lr

00000188 <MyLib_Init>:

void MyLib_Init(void) {
}
 188:	4770      	bx	lr
 18a:	bf00      	nop

Notice the variable access in the above code to ‘glob’: this won’t work, so we have to look at the variables again for shared libraries.

Variables, again

We looked at how variables are accessed with -fPIC. Unfortunately adding -shared for shared libraries compilate things a bit more.

The concept with variables and shared libraries is that code is shared, but each process using the shared library has its own set of data. So in the case with an OS like Linux the loader is reserving the memory and your are done. In our case this is not needed. Still, the shared library needs to have a way to access data through the GOT.

The solution is to use the following compiler options:

-msingle-pic-base -mpic-register=r9 -mno-pic-data-is-text-relative -fPIC

This reserves the register R9 for PIC accessing and treats the register as read-only. Additionally it specifies that the displacement between text and data segments is fixed as discussed earlier. With this the access to the GOT is relative to R9:

Disassembly of section .text:

00000174 <MyLib_Calc>:
#include "myLib.h"

static int glob;

int MyLib_Calc(int x) {
  glob++;
 174:	4b03      	ldr	r3, [pc, #12]	; (184 <MyLib_Calc+0x10>)
 176:	f859 2003 	ldr.w	r2, [r9, r3]
 17a:	6813      	ldr	r3, [r2, #0]
 17c:	3301      	adds	r3, #1
 17e:	6013      	str	r3, [r2, #0]
  return x*2;
}
 180:	0040      	lsls	r0, r0, #1
 182:	4770      	bx	lr
 184:	0000000c 	.word	0x0000000c

00000188 <MyLib_Mul2>:

int MyLib_Mul2(int x) {
  return x*2;
}
 188:	0040      	lsls	r0, r0, #1
 18a:	4770      	bx	lr

0000018c <MyLib_Init>:

void MyLib_Init(void) {
}
 18c:	4770      	bx	lr
 18e:	bf00      	nop

The runtime environment is responsible to set up R9. In our case this is the startup code, where we do this like this:

    __asm("LDR r9, =_sgot"); /* shared library data accesses go through R9 */
    main();

With this we have both data and code position independent using a shared library :-).

Debugging relocated or loaded code

There remains one thing: how to debug code which has been moved around and/or is loaded dynamically? The solution is to tell gdb where the symbols are. For this we have to look again at the program header table of the shared library:

Elf file type is DYN (Shared object file)
Entry point 0x174
There are 3 program headers, starting at offset 52

Program Headers:
  Type           Offset   VirtAddr   PhysAddr   FileSiz MemSiz  Flg Align
  LOAD           0x000000 0x00000000 0x00000000 0x00190 0x00190 R E 0x10000
  LOAD           0x000190 0x00010190 0x00010190 0x00088 0x0008c RW  0x10000
  DYNAMIC        0x000190 0x00010190 0x00010190 0x00078 0x00078 RW  0x4

 Section to Segment mapping:
  Segment Sections...
   00     .hash .dynsym .dynstr .rel.dyn .text 
   01     .dynamic .got .bss 
   02     .dynamic 

The shared library is loading its code (.code) to the virtual (effective) address 0x0000’0000. Assuming I have loaded the .code of it at addres 0x718, then I can use the following gdb command in the debugger:

add-symbol-file ./Debug/libmystuff.so 0x718

The offset is the difference between the address in the header and the effective address in the memory. I can verify the resolution of a symbol with

info address MyLib_Mul2

which will tell me the address of it.

With this, I can debug moved/relocated/loaded code:

๐Ÿ™‚

Summary

Uff! I hope you are still with me and reading. So if you ended up here (without cheating of course): congratulations, you made it into rabbit hole to the wonderland and back to the real world. You should now have all the knowledge to use position-independent code with shared libraries for your embedded project. Keep in mind that using PIC is not simple and with the extra indirections (GOT and PLT) there is a performance hit. But to have the ability to move code anywhere in the address space can be very useful.

As said at the beginning: this technology is not for everyone and every application. But it gives you hopefully yet another tool into your hands you can use.

๐Ÿ’ก I know this is a complex topic, and I was thinking if I should make a short video with PIC in action. Post a comment if you are interested and I see what I can do.

Happy positioning ๐Ÿ™‚

Links

11 thoughts on “Position-Independent Code with GCC for ARM Cortex-M

  1. Very good article about a useful topic.

    This is something that I’ve wanted to explore especially in a FreeRTOS system where I add another executable which can access FreeRTOS (and system resources).

    Liked by 1 person

    • A full ‘executable’ or a FreeRTOS task? What I had in mind too was the ability to dynamically load tasks into the memory (FLASH or RAM) and execute it there. The ‘loader & binder’ I have used in this article is minimal, but could be extended to a more general ‘thread loader’ with FreeRTOS to accomplish what ‘higher-end’ RTOS or OS are doing.

      Like

      • “A full โ€˜executableโ€™ or a FreeRTOS task?”

        Actually both – Ideally a full executable that can take advantage of the FreeRTOS functions along with some base (ie IO – namely USB) tasks.

        I’m really thinking of a more full-featured bootloader.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This level of functionality would be a useful addition to the RT Series crossover processers since they’re suited to applications that could otherwise be done with more complex and expensive devices. I suppose it would be possible to download a shared library containing LVGL functions and make a system equipped with a touchscreen display different graphics and GUI objects. On the subject of shared libraries , can the compiler generate a checksum of it? There is great potential for corruption or security issues with this added flexibility.

    Liked by 1 person

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