Tale of Two ABIs

With GCC 5.2 just having been released, I figured it was time to upgrade my system to the latest-and-greatest in GNU compiler technology. So far the new compiler seems fine, but there’s a subtle issue that has been introduced to do with the “dual ABI” in the standard C++ library implementation, libstdc++. A Red Hat developer (“rhjason”) writes about it here. If I try to boil it down to the essence:

  • The C++11 standard has some complexity requirements which require re-engineered implementations of certain standard classes, among them std::string and std::list. This thereby requires an ABI change (perhaps the sizes of the structures have changed, or inline functions exist which now need to be implemented differently; given that std::list is a template, there’s really no getting around this).

    “Complexity requirements” refers to the algorithmic complexity (think ‘big-O’ notation). In particular std::list size() must now be O(1) – that is, it must take a constant amount of time regardless of the number of elements in the list (GCC bug). Previously the size() method worked by counting the elements in the list, which is O(n); there’s an explanation (in the form of an argument against) here. (I’m not sure if I agree with this argument).

  • Changing the ABI normally means changing the soname, the name of the dynamic library that you link against. In this case it would have been a bump from libstdc++.so.6 to libstdc++.so.7.

    This does, admittedly, come with problems. It’s possible to have some program (A) link against a library (B) and also against the C++ library (libstdc++.so.7). However, it may be the case that the library B was linked against the older version of the C++ library (libstdc++.so.6). When you execute A, then, it will dynamically link against two versions of the library. Because these libraries have (at least some) common symbol names, one will override the other. That means, for instance, that the library B will call some function but have the libstdc++.so.7 execute, which has the wrong ABI. There’s also the possibility of passing standard library objects (such as strings) between A and B, for which the ABI differs. Either case might lead to data structure corruption, incorrect behavior and possibly crashing.

    (Note that this problem is not limited to the C++ library. Any library which changes its ABI and bumps its soname potentially causes similar issues).

  • To combat these problems, the GCC/libstdc++ folk decided to put the old and new ABI into a single dynamic library (libstdc++.so.6).

    In many cases, nested inline namespaces (explanation) are used to avoid symbol clashes between the old and new ABI; however this is not possible in every case (because you can’t have a namespace inside a class, for instance). So, the compiler now understands ‘__attribute (( abi_tag(“cxx11”) ))’, which can be applied to an inline namespace or a declaration.

    (I do not understand why the tag should ever actually need to be applied to a namespace, and indeed it’s not really done in libstdc++. It seems that you do not need to supply the abi argument if you do – so you can have just ‘__attribute ((abi_tag))’ – but neither is it at all clear to me what the purpose of this would be. With a few experiments I see that it has some effect on warnings when -Wabi-tag is used, and might affect the abi tag that functions/variables inside the namespace “inherit” if they use an abi-tagged type).

  • You can select the ABI to compile against using the _GLIBCXX_USE_CXX11_ABI preprocessor macro (set it to 1 for the new ABI, or 0 for the old ABI). If the macro is not set it will be set to 1 when you include a C++ header.

So, this allows two ABIs to exist in a single dynamic library. As an added bonus you may get link-time errors if you try to link to a library using the other ABI. However, there is at least one significant issue with this strategy; Allan McRae (an Arch Linux guy) writes about it here:

This discovered an issue when building software using the new C++ ABI with clang, which builds against the new ABI (as instructed in the GCC header file), but does not know about the abi_tag attribute. This results in problems such as (for example) any function in a library with a std::string return type will be mangled with a [abi:cxx11] ABI tag. Clang does not handle these ABI tags, so will not add the tag to the mangled name and then linking will fail.

In other words, the GCC people have basically decided that other compilers don’t exist. This is, I have to say, pretty shitty. The LLVM guys are now forced to choose between supporting this non-standard abi_tag attribute or supporting only the non-C++11 ABI when using GNU libstdc++. Although I hope they go with the former (because it’ll make life easier for me personally) one could understand if they decided not to. I suspect the right way to handle changing ABI is to do it the way it’s always been done – by bumping the soname.


3 thoughts on “Tale of Two ABIs

  1. I personally also had segfaults within wxwidgets constructors when running a program which was linked against (using a new gcc) wx libraries compiled (I assume) with the old gcc. According to valgrind, they were within the wxString constructor while initializing wx.

    But I also run Debian Sid, and have compiled boost (*) myself (which the two programs where I saw the crash also linked against), so that’s a hodge-podge mess anyway. I really didn’t feel like following this further, so I just shrugged, compiled wx myself and then relinked the offending programs. That made the segfaults disappear.

    (*) Which, originally, was because Debian Sid had a gcc 5.1 upgrade that consistently failed to link Boost.Regex. Which they then rolled back, from what I gathered in a related bug report. My own damn fault for running unstable, I guess.

  2. Not having a size member was a silly design error. I recall that there was one in the original (HP or SGI STL) and it was removed to speed up one particular splice; but this was never necessary. You could just set the size to UNKNOWN_SIZE on splice and recompute it only when needed.

    As far as std is concerned, going back to 1997:

    size() “should have constant complexity”


    It was only a “should” and not a “shall”, but “should” is very strong: you need a serious, specific reason to dismiss a “should”. There was no arch specific, CPU specific reason to ignore the constant time size() strong recommandation; optimizing splice is not a specific reason.

    Of course, the absurd previous design mistake was corrected with a much bigger mistake and larger mess.

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