a.out

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a.out
Filename extension none, .o, .so
Developed by AT&T
Type of format Binary, executable, object, shared libraries

a.out is a file format used in older versions of Unix-like computer operating systems for executables, object code, and, in later systems, shared libraries. The name stands for assembler output according to Dennis Ritchie in his paper The Development of the C Language.

a.out remains the default output file name for executables created by certain compilers/linkers when no output name is specified, even though these executables are no longer in the a.out format.[1]

Use[edit]

An a.out format for the PDP-7, similar to the a.out format used on the PDP-11, appeared in the first edition of UNIX.[2] It was superseded by the COFF format in AT&T Unix System V, which was in turn superseded by the ELF format in System V Release 4.

Though Berkeley Unix continued using the a.out format for some time, modern BSD-systems have since switched to ELF. NetBSD/i386 switched formally from a.out to ELF in its 1.5 release. FreeBSD/i386 switched to ELF during the 2.2 to 3.0 transition.

The a.out support for debug information is done through the use of special entries in the symbol table called stabs. The stabs format has also been used in many COFF and ELF variations.

Linux also used a.out until kernel 1.2 (ELF support was added in the experimental 1.1.52), when it was superseded by ELF for that platform as well.[3] Linux's transition to ELF was more or less forced due to the complex nature of building a.out shared libraries on that platform, which included the need to register the virtual address space at which the library was located with a central authority, as the a.out ld.so in Linux was unable to relocate shared libraries.[4] The various BSD flavours were able to continue using a.out binaries long after Linux was forced to switch to ELF, due to the somewhat more flexible nature of the BSD a.out format compared to that of Linux.[5][6] MINIX 3 switched to ELF in the 3.2.0 release.

Format[edit]

a.out executables typically came in one of several variants: OMAGIC, NMAGIC, QMAGIC, or ZMAGIC.

OMAGIC
The OMAGIC format had contiguous segments after the header, with no separation of text and data. This format was also used as object file format.
NMAGIC
The NMAGIC format was similar to OMAGIC, however the data segment was loaded on the immediate next page after the end of the text segment, and the text segment was marked read-only.
ZMAGIC
The ZMAGIC format added support for demand paging. The length of the code and data segments in the file had to be multiples of the page size.
QMAGIC
QMAGIC binaries were typically loaded one page above the bottom of the virtual address space, in order to permit trapping of null pointer dereferences via a segmentation fault. The a.out header was merged with the first page of the text segment, typically saving a page worth of memory
CMAGIC
Old versions of Linux use this format for core dumps.

An a.out file consists of up to seven sections, in the following order:

exec header
Contains parameters used by the kernel to load a binary file into memory and execute it, and by the link editor ld to combine a binary file with other binary files. This section is the only mandatory one.
text segment
Contains machine code and related data that are loaded into memory when a program executes. May be loaded read-only.
data segment
Contains initialized data; always loaded into writable memory.
text relocations
Contains records used by the link editor to update pointers in the text segment when combining binary files.
data relocations
Like the text relocation section, but for data segment pointers.
symbol table
Contains records used by the link editor to cross-reference the addresses of named variables and functions (symbols) between binary files.
string table
Contains the character strings corresponding to the symbol names.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Rupert Wood (8 April 2002). "What to do with a.out". gcc-help mailing list. http://gcc.gnu.org/ml/gcc-help/2002-04/msg00075.html. Retrieved 2007-04-28.
  2. ^ Dennis Ritchie (3 November 1971). a.out — assembler and link editor output (PDF). Bell Labs. Retrieved 2006-11-24. 
  3. ^ Daniel Barlow (14 July 1996). "The Linux ELF HOWTO (v1.29)". Retrieved 2008-03-28. 
  4. ^ Ulrich Drepper (20 August 2006). How To Write Shared Libraries (PDF). 4.0. Section 1.1 (A Little Bit of History). Archived from the original on 16 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-20. "When introducing shared libraries certain design decisions had to be made to work in the limitations of a.out. (...) For all these reasons and more, Linux converted early on to using ELF (Executable Linkage Format) as the binary format." 
  5. ^ Eric Youngdale (1 April 1995). "The ELF Object File Format: Introduction". Archived from the original on 10 March 2009. Retrieved 6 May 2012. "(...) it is not impossible to design shared library implementations that work with a.out. The current Linux shared libraries are certainly one example; another example is SunOS-style shared libraries which are currently used by BSD-du-jour. SunOS-style shared libraries contain a lot of the same concepts as ELF shared libraries (...)" 
  6. ^ "BSD Myths". Archived from the original on 17 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-10. "There were no pressing reasons to switch earlier. In particular, FreeBSD did not (and does not) have the problems building shared libraries that spurred the Linux conversion from a.out to ELF." 

External links[edit]