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Epic journey with statically and dynamically-linked libraries (.a, .so)

maelvls profile image Maël Valais Originally published at on ・19 min read

Between May and June 2016, I worked with ocamlyices2, an OCaml package that binds to the Yices C++ library. Both projects (as well as many Linux projects) are built using the "Autotools" suite.

The Autotools suite includes tools like autoconf, automake and libtool. These tools generate a bunch of shell scripts and Makefiles using shell scripts and the M4 macro language. The user of your projects ends up two simple commands to build your project:

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Why did I bother with this? As part of my PhD, I worked on a tool, touist, which uses SMT solvers like Yices. The touist CLI was written in OCaml (a popular language among academics, including my supervisor), which meant I had to go through hoops to interoperate with C/C++ solvers like Yices.

My first challenge with ocamlyices2 was the fact that I needed a statically-linked libyices.a. And since Yices depends on GMP, I had to dive deep into Yices2's and find a way to select the static version of GMP.

But building a static library libyices.a was not enough. I was to build in PIC mode (position-independant code, enabled with -fPIC in gcc). The position-independant code is required when you want to embed a static library into a dynamically-linked library. That's due to the fact that OCaml requires both the .so and .a versions of the "stub" library (a stub library is a C library that wraps another C library using OCaml C primitives). And naturally, Yices' build system had not been written to support building a static PIC libyices.a.

I remember these days as an epic struggle against old build systems. This experience taught me everything about autoconf, Makefiles, position-independant code, gcc, ldd and libtool. And in this post, I want to share these discoveries and how I progressed into contributing to the ocamlyices2 project.

Here is a diagram showing the dependencies between libraries. Ocamlyices2 depends on Yices and Yices depends on GMP.

                            build:   dune
             touist         lang:    ocaml
                |           output:  touist binary (statically linked)
                |depends on
           ocamlyices2      build:   autoconf + make
                |           lang:    ocaml + C
                |           output:  libyices2_stubs.a
                |depends on
                v           build:   autoconf + hacky make
              yices         lang:    C++
                |           output:  libyices.a (with PIC enabled)
                |depends on
                v           build:   autoconf + automake + libtool
               gmp          lang:    C, assembly
                            output:  libgmp.a (with PIC enabled)
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The most important thing about this diagram is that since we need a PIC-enabled static library libyices.a in order to build the "binding libraries": the shared library yices2.cmxs and the static library libyices2_stubs.a.

And in order to get this PIC-enabled libyices.a, I needed to make sure that the GMP library picked by the Yices ./configure would be static and PIC-enabled.

In early 2016, the Yices build system was limited to building a shared library with no support for cross-compilation (a requirement to build on Windows) and no support for enforcing PIC in libgmp.a and libyices.a.

Yices2 & autoconf: an attempt at fixing a limited build system

I remember the warmth that we had in May 2016. My daughter had turned three and we were still living in a tiny appartment since I was technically still a student.

My first patch to the ocamlyices2 project took over a month of intense work. The stake was immense: I aimed at revamping the whole Yices2 build system. The original build system didn't allow developers to statically build libyices.a. More generally, it was a pain to work with: most configuration was happening at ./configure time, but a ton of things had still to be passed at make time (e.g., make VAR=value).

This change (25f5eb15) brought a ton of features. But the most important ones were:

  1. Better ./configure && make experience. Instead of having some parts of the build configuration being passed as Makefile variables, I moved everything to nice flags that you would pass to ./configure.
  2. Proper PIC support. Sometimes, Yices' ./configure would pick up a libgmp.a that would not be "PIC". So I wrote a new M4 macro, CSL_CHECK_STATIC_GMP_HAS_PIC, that would do the PIC check using libtool. For example, the developer would be able to ask for a static library with PIC support:
   ./configure --with-pic --enable-static --disable-shared --with-pic-gmp=$PWD/with-pic/libgmp.a
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  1. Static libyices.a. The original build system did not
  2. Using libtool. Instead of hand-crafted targets for building the static & dynamic libraries, libtool allowed me to build both with very little effort (at the cost of slightly longer build times). I remember trying to fiddle with the Makefile to be able to get PIC/non-PIC as well as dynamic/static .o units. Using libtool made it so easier to build simultanously the static and dynamic versions of libyices (libyices.a and
  3. Cross-compilation. I wanted to be able to release binaries for Windows users, which meant that I needed to cross-compile from a Cygwin environment to a Win32 executable.

I also fixed weird bugs like a failure on Alpine 3.5 due to a race condition in Yes, you heard well! A race condition in a build system!

Not sure, but 25f5eb15 might be my biggest commit ever:

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What a massive commit message, right?!

Oviously, I still needed to use all the new features that I had just addeed to the Yices ./configure. So I proposed a second patch (ccb5a563) with changes to the ocamlyices2's own ./configure; that took the form of new flags so that I would be able to build a static libyices.a by specifying the static version of the GMP library libgmp.a.

I also used the new cross-compilation capability of the Yices ./configure so that it would be possible to build ocamlyices2 on Windows. The compilation would rely on the POSIX-compliant Cygwin suite and cross-compile to a native Win32 executable using MinGW32 (which a port of GCC).

Author: Maël Valais
Date: Fri May 5 16:18:46 2017 +0200
Commit: ccb5a563

ocamlyices2: only build the static stub using static libgmp.a.

The library libgmp.a will be searched in system dirs or you can use the flag
--with-static-gmp= when running ./configure for setting your own libgmp.a. If
no libgmp.a is found, the shared library is used. You can force the use of
shared gmp library with --with-shared-gmp.

If --with-shared-gmp is not given, the libgmp.a that has been found
will be included in the list of installed files. The reason is because
if we want to build a shared-gmp-free binary, zarith will sometimes pick the
shared library (with -lgmp) over the static lbirary libgmp.a.

Including libgmp.a in the distribution of ocamlyices2 is a convenience for
creating gmp-shared-free binaries.

Why do we prefer using a static version of libgmp.a?

This is because we build a non-PIC static version of libyices.a. If
we wanted to build both static and shared stubs, we should either
- build a PIC libyices.a but it would conflict with the non-PIC one
- build a shared library

For now, I chose to just skip the shared stubs (


* turn on -fPIC (in only if non-static gmp
* added a way to link statically to libgmp.a (--with-static-gmp)
* use -package instead of -I/lib for compiling *.c in ocamlc

This option uses the change I made to the build system of libyices.
Why? Because I want the possibility of producing binaries that do
not need any dll alongside.

Guess the host system and pass it to libyices ./configure
It is now possible to use ./configure for mingw32 cross-compilation.
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A month past and I soon realized that GMP was not embedded at all in libyices.a. I could see the symbols as undefined (U) when running nm libyices.a. It took me a while to figure this out... back to tweaking the fragile Yices ./configure!

Along the way, I also realized how different Linux distributions are. Arch Linux is notably lacking support for partial linking (ld -r). Which meant I had to add a flag for this specific purpose in commit 38200b0a:

Author: Maël Valais
Date: Fri Jun 16 21:18:37 2017 +0200
Commit: 38200b0a

libyices: added option --without-gmp-embedded

This option will disable the partial linking that allows to embed
GMP into libyices.a (only with --enable-static).

For example, on Arch linux, the partial linking command

    ld -r -lgmp *.o -o libyices.o

would fail even if is correclty installed. It seems that 'ld -r'
would only work with a static libgmp.a (but the arch linux repo only installs
the shared gmp library).

Why this `ld -r`? This command is the only way I found to compile a
static libyices.a from either a shared or a static libgmp and produce
a gmp-depend-free libyices.a.

Two solutions:

1. Drop the necessity for building a libyices.a free of gmp dependency.
   In this case, I could remove the `ld -r`.
   It would then create a libyices.a that depends on libgmp.a/so.
2. Separate the gmp-dependency-free libyices.a from the normal
   gmp-dependent libyices.a. For example, I could use the option

So I went with solution (2).

This option disables the embedding of GMP inside libyices.a. This
'embedding' is made using partial linking (ld -r) which seems to
be failing on Arch Linux when using the shared GMP library.
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Although I had already added a check (CSL_CHECK_STATIC_GMP_HAS_PIC in 25f5eb15) to make sure that the user-provided libgmp was PIC when using --with-pic, I realized that it was trickier that what I thought in 55c8e92a...

Author: Maël Valais
Date: Sat Jun 17 14:09:12 2017 +0200
Commit: 55c8e92a

libyices: with --enable-static and --with-pic, enforce PIC libgmp.a

One problem I came across was that most of the time, when I was doing

    ./configure --enable-static --with-pic

the produced libyices.a would still contain non-PIC libgmp.a, although
being itself PIC. In this commit, I enforce that if --with-pic is given,

1) either --with-pic-gmp has been given, in this case we use that for
   creating the PIC libyices.a;
2) or --with-pic-gmp has not been given and thus we try to simply use the
   shared gmp through -lgmp.

Reminder: we also check that the system libgmp.a or the libgmp.a given with
--with-static-gmp is PIC. If it is the case, the PIC libgmp.a will be used
for --with-pic.
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Now, I also had to fix ocamlyices2's ./configure since ld -r (partial linking) was not supported on Arch Linux (see [PR's CI failure](pull request]( I remember waiting for hours for the CI to run on all imaginable systems: Debian, Ubuntu, Suse, Arch Linux, Alpine, CentOS, Fedora, macOS and Windows...

Commits df7c89a1 and 70dc5de5) fix the partial linking issue on Arch Linux:

Author: Maël Valais
Date: Sat Jun 17 16:52:59 2017 +0200
Commit: df7c89a1

ocamlyices2: added --with-libyices and --with-libyices-include-dir

These options allow to give your own libyices.a and the include directory
where the libyices headers are.
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Author: Maël Valais
Date: Sat Jun 17 17:01:58 2017 +0200
Commit: 70dc5de5

ocamlyices2: use --without-gmp-embedded by default

After giving it some thoughts, the need for having a self-contained libyices.a
(which would only need -lyices, no -lgmp needed) in ocamlyices2 is pointless
as 'zarith' will still need '-lgmp' anyway.

The Makefile will still put libgmp.a and libyices.a inside src/ so that
the static version of gmp is used (with -L.) instead of the shared version.

Rationale: disabling the partial linking fixes the build on Arch Linux, which
(I re-tested on a docker image) cannot accept partial linking with -lgmp when
only is available. Here is the failing command:

    ld -r *.o -lgmp -o libyices.o
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Final result of the Yices2 build system

The experience with the re-written ./configure (here) is very different from the original one. When the user wants to compile the library with PIC, they get a warning if one of the dependencies is not PIC. There is a much finer control over what the user wants: dynamic vs. static, PIC vs. non-PIC. But also more control over dependencies like GMP, since the user must be able to pass a static or dynamic version of libgmp.

The ./configure that you can see here gained many features like --with-shared-gmp or --with-pic.

% ./configure --help
configure' configures Yices 2.5.2 to adapt to many kinds of systems.

Usage: ./configure [OPTION]... [VAR=VALUE]...

System types:
--build=BUILD configure for building on BUILD [guessed]
--host=HOST cross-compile to build programs to run on HOST [BUILD]

Optional Features:
--enable-shared[=PKGS] build shared libraries [default=yes]
--enable-static[=PKGS] build static libraries [default=yes]
--disable-libtool-lock avoid locking (might break parallel builds)
--enable-mcsat Enable support for MCSAT. This requires the libpoly

Optional Packages:
--with-pic[=PKGS] try to use only PIC/non-PIC objects [default=use
Full path to a static GMP library (e.g., libgmp.a)
Directory of include file "gmp.h" compatible with
static GMP library
--with-pic-gmp= Full path to a relocatable GMP library (e.g.,
Directory of include file "gmp.h" compatible with
relocatable GMP library
Full path to libpoly.a
Path to include files compatible with libpoly.a
(e.g., /usr/local/include)
Full path to a relocatable libpoly.a
Path to include files compatible with the
relocatable libpoly.a
--with-shared-gmp By default, a static version of the GMP library will
be searched. This option forces the use of the
shared version. This applies for both shared and
static libraries.
--without-gmp-embedded (Only when --enable-static) By default, the static
library libyices.a created will be partially linked
(ld -r) so that the GMP library is not needed
afterwards (i.e., only -lyices is needed). If you
want to disable the partial linking (and thus -lgmp
and -lyices will be needed), you can use this flag.
--with-mode=MODE The mode used during compilation/distribution. It
can be one of release, debug, devel, profile, gcov,
valgrind, purify, quantify or gperftools. (default:
--with-static-name=name (Windows only) when building simultanously shared
and static libraries, allows you to give a different
name for the static version of libyices.a.

I also added a ton of diagnostic information that appears at the end of ./configure. That's very useful when you want to make sure that ./configure has picked up the right version of libgmp:

configure: Summary of the configuration:
SED: /usr/bin/sed
LN_S: ln -s
MKDIR_P: /usr/local/opt/coreutils/libexec/gnubin/mkdir -p
CC: gcc
LD: /Library/Developer/CommandLineTools/usr/bin/ld
AR: ar
RANLIB: ranlib
STRIP: strip
GPERF: gperf
NO_STACK_PROTECTOR: -fno-stack-protector
STATIC_GMP: /usr/local/lib/libgmp.a
PIC_GMP: /usr/local/lib/libgmp.a

Version: Yices 2.5.2
Host type: x86_64-apple-darwin19.4.0
Install prefix: /Users/mvalais/code/ocamlyices2/ext/yices
Build mode: release

For both static and shared library:
CFLAGS: -fvisibility=hidden -Wall -Wredundant-decls -O3 -fomit-frame-pointer -fno-stack-protector

For static library libyices.a:
Enable: yes
Libgmp.a found: yes
Libgmp.a path: /usr/local/lib/libgmp.a
Libgmp.a is pic: yes (non-PIC is faster for the static library)
PIC mode for libyices.a: default
Use shared gmp instead of libgmp.a: no
Embed gmp in libyices.a: yes

For shared library:
Enable: yes
Libgmp.a with PIC found: yes
Libgmp.a path: /usr/local/lib/libgmp.a
Use shared gmp instead of libgmp.a: no

A final word about the Makefile: since all the build configuration is handled by ./configure, you don't have to pass any variables at make time anymore, which really helps when you need to make multiple times in a row and don't want to type the variables every single time.

Inpecting static and dynamic libraries

Here are two tips that I learned along the way. First, I very often need to know what libraries an executable is depending on:



% otool -L /bin/ls
/usr/lib/libutil.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1.0.0)
/usr/lib/libncurses.5.4.dylib (compatibility version 5.4.0, current version 5.4.0)
/usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1281.100.1)

Linux (Alpine Linux 3.9)

ldd /bin/ls
/lib/ (0x7fc9b2c84000) => /lib/ (0x7fc9b2c84000)

I also had to dig into the symbols of libraries in order to make sure that static libraries contained all the needed symbols:

% nm ext/libyices_pic_no_gmp/lib/libyices.a
00000000000ef6c0 t _convert_rba_tree
0000000000049a20 t _convert_simple_value
00000000000c2f70 t _convert_term_to_bit
00000000000d97e0 t _convert_term_to_conditional
0000000000049700 t _convert_term_to_val
0000000000049b30 t _convert_val
00000000000028b0 T _yices_or
0000000000002fa0 T _yices_or2
0000000000002ca0 T _yices_or3
0000000000003480 T _yices_pair
000000000002ad30 t _yices_parse
0000000000006420 T _yices_parse_bvbin
00000000000064b0 T _yices_parse_bvhex
0000000000004200 T _yices_parse_float
0000000000004180 T _yices_parse_rational
000000000000b150 T _yices_parse_term
000000000000b090 T _yices_parse_type
U _memcpy
U _memset
U _memset_pattern16
U ___error
0000000000145280 S ___gmp_0
000000000017dcf0 D ___gmp_allocate_func
00000000001099e0 T ___gmp_assert_fail
0000000000109980 T ___gmp_assert_header
0000000000145460 S ___gmp_binvert_limb_table
000000000014527c S ___gmp_bits_per_limb
0000000000109a60 T ___gmp_default_allocate
0000000000109ae0 T ___gmp_default_free
0000000000109a90 T ___gmp_default_reallocate
0000000000145290 S ___gmp_digit_value_tab

The letter before the symbol is the "symbol type" (from man nm):

Each symbol name is preceded by its value (blanks if undefined). This value is followed by one of the following characters, representing the symbol type:

  • U = undefined,
  • T (text section symbol),
  • D (data section symbol),
  • S (symbol in a section other than those above).

If the symbol is local (non-external), the symbol's type is instead represented by the corresponding lowercase letter. A lower case u in a dynamic shared library indicates a undefined reference to a private external in another module in the same library.

For example, the symbol _yices_parse_float is an external symbol, meaning that this symbol isn't static to libyices.a. On the other side, _convert_simple_value is statically defined (t).

Contributing the new Yices build system to upstream

On 16 June 2016, I sent an email to Bruno Dutertre, one of the developers at SRI (the company behind the Yices SMT solver). I proposed all these changes with links to the various patches on GitHub. Unfortunately, it didn't work out, and the reason might be that the whole patch was enormous and very hard to review.

Hi Maël,

Thanks for the message and for your efforts. We'll look into your updates.

We know that the Yices build system is unconventional because most of the work is done in the Makefiles rather that in the configure script. There are historical reason for this (and it should be able to build PIC libraries without problems).

By the way, Yices is now open-source (GPL) on github: Take a look when you have time,

Thanks again,


I wish we had a unit-test framework for autoconf. The autoconf ecosystem generates very fragile scripts and the only way to test them is to run them with all possible flag combinations, which is pretty much impossible.

  • Update 31 May 2020: added the ascii "dependency" diagram to give a better sense of what the challenge was.

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