[c++] How does the compilation/linking process work?
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Compiling isn't quite the same as creating an executable file! Instead, creating an executable is a multistage process divided into two components: compilation and linking. In reality, even if a program "compiles fine" it might not actually work because of errors during the linking phase. The total process of going from source code files to an executable might better be referred to as a build.
Compilation refers to the processing of source code files (.c, .cc, or .cpp) and the creation of an 'object' file. This step doesn't create anything the user can actually run. Instead, the compiler merely produces the machine language instructions that correspond to the source code file that was compiled. For instance, if you compile (but don't link) three separate files, you will have three object files created as output, each with the name .o or .obj (the extension will depend on your compiler). Each of these files contains a translation of your source code file into a machine language file -- but you can't run them yet! You need to turn them into executables your operating system can use. That's where the linker comes in.
Linking refers to the creation of a single executable file from multiple object files. In this step, it is common that the linker will complain about undefined functions (commonly, main itself). During compilation, if the compiler could not find the definition for a particular function, it would just assume that the function was defined in another file. If this isn't the case, there's no way the compiler would know -- it doesn't look at the contents of more than one file at a time. The linker, on the other hand, may look at multiple files and try to find references for the functions that weren't mentioned.
You might ask why there are separate compilation and linking steps. First, it's probably easier to implement things that way. The compiler does its thing, and the linker does its thing -- by keeping the functions separate, the complexity of the program is reduced. Another (more obvious) advantage is that this allows the creation of large programs without having to redo the compilation step every time a file is changed. Instead, using so called "conditional compilation", it is necessary to compile only those source files that have changed; for the rest, the object files are sufficient input for the linker. Finally, this makes it simple to implement libraries of pre-compiled code: just create object files and link them just like any other object file. (The fact that each file is compiled separately from information contained in other files, incidentally, is called the "separate compilation model".)
To get the full benefits of condition compilation, it's probably easier to get a program to help you than to try and remember which files you've changed since you last compiled. (You could, of course, just recompile every file that has a timestamp greater than the timestamp of the corresponding object file.) If you're working with an integrated development environment (IDE) it may already take care of this for you. If you're using command line tools, there's a nifty utility called make that comes with most *nix distributions. Along with conditional compilation, it has several other nice features for programming, such as allowing different compilations of your program -- for instance, if you have a version producing verbose output for debugging.
Knowing the difference between the compilation phase and the link phase can make it easier to hunt for bugs. Compiler errors are usually syntactic in nature -- a missing semicolon, an extra parenthesis. Linking errors usually have to do with missing or multiple definitions. If you get an error that a function or variable is defined multiple times from the linker, that's a good indication that the error is that two of your source code files have the same function or variable.
How does the compilation and linking process work?
(Note: This is meant to be an entry to 's C++ FAQ. If you want to critique the idea of providing an FAQ in this form, then the posting on meta that started all this would be the place to do that. Answers to that question are monitored in the C++ chatroom, where the FAQ idea started out in the first place, so your answer is very likely to get read by those who came up with the idea.)
The skinny is that a CPU loads data from memory addresses, stores data to memory addresses, and execute instructions sequentially out of memory addresses, with some conditional jumps in the sequence of instructions processed. Each of these three categories of instructions involves computing an address to a memory cell to be used in the machine instruction. Because machine instructions are of a variable length depending on the particular instruction involved, and because we string a variable length of them together as we build our machine code, there is a two step process involved in calculating and building any addresses.
First we laying out the allocation of memory as best we can before we can know what exactly goes in each cell. We figure out the bytes, or words, or whatever that form the instructions and literals and any data. We just start allocating memory and building the values that will create the program as we go, and note down anyplace we need to go back and fix an address. In that place we put a dummy to just pad the location so we can continue to calculate memory size. For example our first machine code might take one cell. The next machine code might take 3 cells, involving one machine code cell and two address cells. Now our address pointer is 4. We know what goes in the machine cell, which is the op code, but we have to wait to calculate what goes in the address cells till we know where that data will be located, i.e. what will be the machine address of that data.
If there were just one source file a compiler could theoretically produce fully executable machine code without a linker. In a two pass process it could calculate all of the actual addresses to all of the data cells referenced by any machine load or store instructions. And it could calculate all of the absolute addresses referenced by any absolute jump instructions. This is how simpler compilers, like the one in Forth work, with no linker.
A linker is something that allows blocks of code to be compiled separately. This can speed up the overall process of building code, and allows some flexibility with how the blocks are later used, in other words they can be relocated in memory, for example adding 1000 to every address to scoot the block up by 1000 address cells.
So what the compiler outputs is rough machine code that is not yet fully built, but is laid out so we know the size of everything, in other words so we can start to calculate where all of the absolute addresses will be located. the compiler also outputs a list of symbols which are name/address pairs. The symbols relate a memory offset in the machine code in the module with a name. The offset being the absolute distance to the memory location of the symbol in the module.
That's where we get to the linker. The linker first slaps all of these blocks of machine code together end to end and notes down where each one starts. Then it calculates the addresses to be fixed by adding together the relative offset within a module and the absolute position of the module in the bigger layout.
Obviously I've oversimplified this so you can try to grasp it, and I have deliberately not used the jargon of object files, symbol tables, etc. which to me is part of the confusion.