Aren’t statically linked executables huge?

It depends. Linking a stripped hello world program with glibc results in 600kb. Linking it with uclibc in about 7kb. Linking OpenBSD’s stripped ksh, which will be stali’s default shell, statically against uclibc results in a 170kb binary – linking it dynamically against glibc results in 234kb. Of course this won’t scale with every binary, for example we expect surf being about 5-6MB in size, but the normal Unix userland will be rather small, compared to most popular linux distros.

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Aren’t whole libraries linked into a static executable?

No. Good libraries implement each library function in separate object (.o) files, this enables the linker (ld) to only extract and link those object files from an archive (.a) that export the symbols that are actually used by a program. Additionally, link-time optimization and dead code elimination (available in most modern GNU and LLVM based toolchains) allows for the extraction of necessary code on a function-by-function basis, while eliminating all unused library code, resulting in a smaller, faster, and more secure executables.

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What’s wrong with glibc?

We think nearly everything is wrong with it. Its enormous complexity, its lack of good structure and well separated object files (otherwise linking trivial programs wouldn’t result in 600kb overhead) and even worse than that, its design decision to use dlopen for certain “separated” library features (NSS, locales, IDN, …), which makes it nearly impossible to use glibc for static linking in non-trivial programs. Unfortunately, for certain tools we will ship glibc for pragmatic reasons.

Of course Ulrich Drepper thinks that dynamic linking is great, but clearly that’s because of his lack of experience and his delusions of grandeur.

Aren’t statically linked executables less secure?

Several people argue (with implicitly requiring ABI-stability) that dynamically linked executables benefit from security fixes in libraries they depend on. While this is true to some extent, statically linked executables aren’t en-masse affected by vulnerabilities in the dynamic libraries installed on your system in the first place.

We know that there is some overhead in re-compiling all affected executables if a dependent library is insecure, but we don’t see this as a critical disadvantage, because we also focus on a small and maintainable userland, where only one tool for each task exists.

Another argument often heard is that static functions have predictable addresses, whereas dynamic linking provides the ability of address randomization. We have two answers to this. The first is: it is simple to use position-independent code in static executables and (assuming a modern kernel that supports address randomization for executables) fully position-independent executables are easily created on all modern operating systems. The second is: In reality, address randomization is predictable and we usually see the same addresses when a dynamic library is loaded or has been pre-loaded again and again. Thus we consider this as an issue with low impact and this is not a real focus for us.

If you are really concerned about the security of statically linked executables, have a look at what great ldd exploits exist.

Another security issue with dynamic linking is versioning, see this excerpt for some insight.

Also a security issue with dynamically linked libraries are executables with the suid flag. A user can easily run dynamic library code using LD_PRELOAD in conjunction with some trivial program like ping. Using a static executable with the suid flag eliminates this problem completely.

Apart from that we link against libraries with low footprint (eg uclibc instead of glibc when possible). This leads to an increased likelihood of lesser vulnerabilities, simply because lesser code contains fewer bugs from a statistical point of view.

See also: * On the Effectiveness of Address-Space Randomization

Aren’t statically linked executables consuming more memory?

We believe that due to the small size of the base system the opposite will be the case. First of all, the kernel will load each static executable’s .rodata, .data, .text and .comment sections only once for all instances into memory. Second, because each static binary has only been linked with the object files necessary, it has already been optimized at linkage time for memory consumption. When loading it, we don’t require the kernel to map all dependent dynamic libraries into memory from which our binary might only use 5% of the functions they provide. So, in reality, the memory footprint is becoming less, and the dead code hold in memory (or paged) reduces overall consumption. This is also true for programs, like surf, which don’t use all webkit/gtk/glib functions.

Isn’t starting statically linked executables slower?

In nearly all cases the answer is “No”. In the theoretical case of a huge static executable, the payload might be loading the executable into memory; but we focus on small, static executables. In experiments, the execution time of a static executable was about 4000% faster than its dynamically linked counterpart when no dependent libraries (except glibc) were pre-loaded, and 100% faster when the dependent libraries were pre-loaded. We believe the overhead for looking up all needed symbols in the dynamically loaded libraries seems to be very expensive. On modern hardware this is only noticeable with endlessly executing the static and dynamic executable in a loop for several minutes and counting the number of executions.

A general conclusion is, the more dynamic libraries an executable depends on, the slower it’ll start, regardless if the libraries are preloaded or not. This also means that usually big static executables (which we try to avoid) easily outperform dynamic executables with lots of dependencies. If a big static executable is already running, executing another one is nearly instantaneously, because the payload is already in the memory. In the dynamic case the startup is not instantaneously because the dynamic linker has to make sure that there were no updates in the dependencies.

So all in all dynamic executables are painfully slow, regardless of what inelegant hacks people came up with in the past. There is zero evidence that dynamic linking makes executables faster. There is only some evidence that preloading dynamic libraries vs not preloading dynamic libraries improves the startup of dynamic executables. But the introduction of preloading comes at a cost as well, the kernel will have to do much more work when supporting such contrivances.

Dynamic linking also greatly increases the complexity of the kernel VM and makes it much slower. And kludgy solutions to this make things more complicated and add many more points of total failure.

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