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The Apache HTTP Server Reference Manual
by Apache Software Foundation
Paperback (6"x9"), 862 pages
ISBN 9781906966034
RRP £19.95 ($29.95)

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14.3  Background

On modern Unix derivatives there exists a nifty mechanism usually called dynamic linking/loading of Dynamic Shared Objects (DSO) which provides a way to build a piece of program code in a special format for loading it at run-time into the address space of an executable program.

This loading can usually be done in two ways: Automatically by a system program called ld.so when an executable program is started or manually from within the executing program via a programmatic system interface to the Unix loader through the system calls dlopen()/dlsym().

In the first way the DSO’s are usually called shared libraries or DSO libraries and named libfoo.so or libfoo.so.1.2. They reside in a system directory (usually /usr/lib) and the link to the executable program is established at build-time by specifying -lfoo to the linker command. This hard-codes library references into the executable program file so that at start-time the Unix loader is able to locate libfoo.so in /usr/lib, in paths hard-coded via linker-options like -R or in paths configured via the environment variable LD_LIBRARY_PATH. It then resolves any (yet unresolved) symbols in the executable program which are available in the DSO.

Symbols in the executable program are usually not referenced by the DSO (because it’s a reusable library of general code) and hence no further resolving has to be done. The executable program has no need to do anything on its own to use the symbols from the DSO because the complete resolving is done by the Unix loader. (In fact, the code to invoke ld.so is part of the run-time startup code which is linked into every executable program which has been bound non-static). The advantage of dynamic loading of common library code is obvious: the library code needs to be stored only once, in a system library like libc.so, saving disk space for every program.

In the second way the DSO’s are usually called shared objects or DSO files and can be named with an arbitrary extension (although the canonical name is foo.so). These files usually stay inside a program-specific directory and there is no automatically established link to the executable program where they are used. Instead the executable program manually loads the DSO at run-time into its address space via dlopen(). At this time no resolving of symbols from the DSO for the executable program is done. But instead the Unix loader automatically resolves any (yet unresolved) symbols in the DSO from the set of symbols exported by the executable program and its already loaded DSO libraries (especially all symbols from the ubiquitous libc.so). This way the DSO gets knowledge of the executable program’s symbol set as if it had been statically linked with it in the first place.

Finally, to take advantage of the DSO’s API the executable program has to resolve particular symbols from the DSO via dlsym() for later use inside dispatch tables etc. In other words: The executable program has to manually resolve every symbol it needs to be able to use it. The advantage of such a mechanism is that optional program parts need not be loaded (and thus do not spend memory) until they are needed by the program in question. When required, these program parts can be loaded dynamically to extend the base program’s functionality.

Although this DSO mechanism sounds straightforward there is at least one difficult step here: The resolving of symbols from the executable program for the DSO when using a DSO to extend a program (the second way). Why? Because "reverse resolving" DSO symbols from the executable program’s symbol set is against the library design (where the library has no knowledge about the programs it is used by) and is neither available under all platforms nor standardized. In practice the executable program’s global symbols are often not re-exported and thus not available for use in a DSO. Finding a way to force the linker to export all global symbols is the main problem one has to solve when using DSO for extending a program at run-time.

The shared library approach is the typical one, because it is what the DSO mechanism was designed for, hence it is used for nearly all types of libraries the operating system provides. On the other hand using shared objects for extending a program is not used by a lot of programs.

ISBN 9781906966034The Apache HTTP Server Reference ManualSee the print edition