Compilers and libraries

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\[ %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%% %%%% This text file is part of the source of %%%% `Introduction to High-Performance Scientific Computing' %%%% by Victor Eijkhout, copyright 2012-2020 %%%% %%%% mathjax.tex : macros to facility mathjax use in html version %%%% %%%% %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%% \newcommand\inv{^{-1}}\newcommand\invt{^{-t}} \newcommand\bbP{\mathbb{P}} \newcommand\bbR{\mathbb{R}} \newcommand\defined{ \mathrel{\lower 5pt \hbox{${\equiv\atop\mathrm{\scriptstyle D}}$}}} \newcommand\macro[1]{$\langle$#1$\rangle$} \newcommand\dtdxx{\frac{\alpha\Delta t}{\Delta x^2}} \] 22.1 : File types in programming
22.1.1 : Introduction to file types
22.1.2 : About `text' files
22.1.3 : Source versus program
22.1.4 : Binary files
22.2 : Simple compilation
22.2.1 : Compilers
22.2.2 : Compile a single file
22.2.3 : Multiple files: compile and link
22.2.4 : Looking into binary files: nm
22.2.5 : Compiler options : Symbol table inclusion : Optimization level
22.3 : Libraries
22.3.1 : Static libraries
22.3.2 : Shared libraries
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22 Compilers and libraries

22.1 File types in programming

crumb trail: > compile > File types in programming


In this section you will be introduced to the different types of files that you encounter while programming.

22.1.1 Introduction to file types

crumb trail: > compile > File types in programming > Introduction to file types

Your file system has many files, and for purposes of programming we can roughly divide them into `text file', which are readable to you, and `binary files', which are not meaningfully readable to you, but which make sense to the computer.

The unix command file can tell you what type of file you are dealing with.

$$ file README.txt
README.txt: ASCII text
$$ mkdir mydir
$$ file mydir
mydir: directory
$$ which ls

This command can also tell you about binary files. Here the output differs by operating system.

$$ which ls

# on a Mac laptop:
$$ file /bin/ls
/bin/ls: Mach-O 64-bit x86_64 executable

# on a Linux box
$$ file /bin/ls
/bin/ls: ELF 64-bit LSB executable, x86-64


Apply the file command to sources for different programming language. Can you find out how file figures things out?

In figure  you find a brief summary of file types. We will now discuss them in more detail.

Text files
SourceProgram text that you write
Headeralso written by you, but not really program text.
Binary files
Object fileThe compiled result of a single source file
LibraryMultiple object files bundled together
ExecutableBinary file that can be invoked as a command
Data filesWritten and read by a program

FIGURE 22.1: Different types of files

22.1.2 About `text' files

crumb trail: > compile > File types in programming > About `text' files

Readable files are sometimes called text file s; but this is not a concept with a hard definition. One not-perfect definition is that text files are ascii files, meaning files where every byte uses `7-bit ascii': the first bit of every byte is zero.

This definition is incomplete, since modern programming languages can often use unicode , at least in character strings. (For a tutorial on ascii and unicode, see chapter 6 of  [Eijkhout:TeXscience] .)

22.1.3 Source versus program

crumb trail: > compile > File types in programming > Source versus program

There are two types of programming languages:

  1. In an interpreted language you write human-readable source code and you execute it directly: the computer translates your source line by line as it encounters it.
  2. In a compiled language your code whole source is first compiled to a program, which you then execute.

Examples of interpreted languages are Python , Matlab , Basic , Lisp . Interpreted languages have some advantages: often you can write them in an interactive environment that allows you to test code very quickly. They also allow you to construct code dynamically, during runtime. However, all this flexibility comes at a price: if a source line is executed twice, it is translated twice. In the context of this book, then, we will focus on compiled languages, using C and Fortran as prototypical examples.

So now you have a distinction between the readable source code, and the unreadable, but executable, program code. In this tutorial you will learn about the translation process from the one to the other. The program doing this translation is known as a compiler . This tutorial will be a `user manual' for compilers, as it were; what goes on inside a compiler is a different branch of computer science.

22.1.4 Binary files

crumb trail: > compile > File types in programming > Binary files

Binary files fall in two categories:

  • executable code,
  • data

Data files can be really anything: they are typically output from a program, and their format is often specific to that program, although there are some standards, such as hdf5 . You get a binary data file if you write out the exact bytes of certain integers or floating point numbers, rather than a readable representation of that number.


Why don't programs write their results to file in readable form?

\begin{enrichment} How do you write/read a binary file in C and Fortran? Use the function hexdump to make sense of the binary file. Can you generate the file from Fortran, and read it from C? (Answer: yes, but it's not quite straightforward.) What does this tell you about binary data?


In this tutorial you will mostly be concerned with executable binary files. We then distinguish between:

  • program files, which are executable by themselves;
  • object files, which are like bit of programs; and
  • library files, which combine object files, but are not executable.

Object files come from the fact that your source is often spread over multiple source files, and these can be compiled separately. In this way, an object file , is a piece of an executable: by itself it does nothing, but it can be combined with other object files to form an executable.

If you have a collection of object files that you need for more than one program, it is usually a good idea to make a library form an executable. Often, libraries are written by an expert and contain code for specialized purposes such as linear algebra manipulations. Libraries are important enough that they can be commercial, to be bought if you need expert code for a certain purpose.

You will now learn how these types of files are created and used.

22.2 Simple compilation

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation


In this section you will learn about executables and object files.

22.2.1 Compilers

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Compilers

Your main tool for turning source into a program is the compiler . Compilers are specific to a language: you use a different compiler for C than for Fortran. You can also have two compilers for the same language, but from different `vendors'. For instance, while many people use the open source gcc or clang compiler families, companies like Intel and IBM offer compilers that may give more efficient code on their processors.

22.2.2 Compile a single file

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Compile a single file

FIGURE 22.2: Compiling a single source file

Let's start with a simple program that has the whole source in one file.

\srclisting{One file: hello.c }{code/compile/c/hello.c}

Compile this program with your favorite compiler; we will use gcc in this tutorial, but substitute your own as desired.

TACC note

On TACC clusters, the Intel compiler icc is preferred.

As a result of the compilation, a file a.out is created, which is the executable.

%% gcc hello.c
%% ./a.out
hello world

You can get a more sensible program name with the -o option:

%% gcc -o helloprog hello.c
%% ./helloprog
hello world

This process is illustrated in figure  .

22.2.3 Multiple files: compile and link

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Multiple files: compile and link

FIGURE 22.3: Compiling a program from multiple source files

Now we move on to a program that is in more than one source file.

Main program: fooprog.c

// fooprog.c
extern void bar(char*);

int main() {
  bar("hello world\n");
  return 0;

Subprogram: foosub.c

// foosub.c
void bar(char *s) {


As before, you can make the program with one command.


However, you can also do it in steps, compiling each file separately and then linking them together. This is illustrated in figure  .


The -c option tells the compiler to compile the source file, giving an object file . The third command then acts as the linker , tieing together the object files into an executable. (With programs that are spread over several files there is always the danger of editing a subroutine definition and then forgetting to update all the places it is used. See the `make' tutorial, section  , for a way of dealing with this.)

22.2.4 Looking into binary files: nm

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Looking into binary files: nm

Most of a binary file consists of the same instructions that you coded in C or Fortran, just in machine language, which is much harder to understand. Fortunately, you don't need to look at machine language often. What often interests you about object files is what functions are defined in it, and what functions are used in it.

For this, we use the

Each object file defines some routine names, and uses some others that are undefined in it, but that will be defined in other object files or system libraries. Use the nm command to display this:

[c:264] nm foosub.o
0000000000000000 T _bar
                 U _printf

Lines with T indicate routines that are defined; lines with U indicate routines that are used but not define in this file. In this case, printf is a system routine that will be supplied in the linker stage.

Sometimes you will come across stripped binary file, and nm will report No symbols . In that case nm -D may help, which displays `dynamic symbols'.

22.2.5 Compiler options

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Compiler options

Above you already saw some compiler options :

  • Specifying -c tells the compiler to only compile, and not do the linking stage; you would do this in case of separate compilation.
  • The option -o gives you the opportunity to specify the name of the output file; without it, the default name of an executable is a.out .

There are many other options, some of them a de facto standard, and others specific to certain compilers. Symbol table inclusion

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Compiler options > Symbol table inclusion

The -g option tells the compiler to include the table} in the binary. This allows you to use an interactive debugger (section  ) since it relates machine instructions to lines of code, and machine addresses to variable names. Optimization level

crumb trail: > compile > Simple compilation > Compiler options > Optimization level

Compilers can apply various levels of optimization to your code. The typical optimization levels are specified as -O0 `minus-oh-zero', -O1 , -O2 , -O3 . Higher levels will typically give faster execution, as the compiler does increasingly sophisticated analysis on your code.

The following is a fairly standard set of options:

icc -g -O2 -c myfile.c

As an example, let's look at Given's rotations :

// rotate.c
void rotate(double *x,double *y,double alpha) {
  double x0 = *x, y0 = *y;
  *x = cos(alpha) * x0 - sin(alpha) * y0;
  *y = sin(alpha) * x0 + cos(alpha) * y0;
Run with optimization level 0,1,2,3 we get:

Done after 8.649492e-02
Done after 2.650118e-02
Done after 5.869865e-04
Done after 6.787777e-04

From level zero to one we get (depending on the run) an improvement of $2\times$ to $3\times$. Can you find an obvious factor of two?

Use the optimization report facility of your compiler to see what other optimizations are applied. One of them is a good lesson in benchmark design!

Generally, optimizations leave the semantics of your code intact. (Makes kinda sense, not?) However, at higher levels, usually level 3, the compiler is at liberty to make transformations that are not legal according to the language standard, but that in the majority of cases will still give the right outcome. For instance, the C language specifies that arithmetic operations are evaluated left-to-right. Rearranging arithmetic expressions is usually safe, but not always. Be careful when applying higher optimization levels!

22.3 Libraries

crumb trail: > compile > Libraries


In this section you will learn about libraries.

FIGURE 22.4: Compiling a single source file

If you have written some subprograms, and you want to share them with other people (perhaps by selling them), then handing over individual object files is inconvenient. Instead, the solution is to combine them into a library.

22.3.1 Static libraries

crumb trail: > compile > Libraries > Static libraries

First we look at static libraries , for which the archive utility ar is used. A static library is linked into your executable, becoming part of it. This may lead to large executables; you will learn about shared libraries next, which do not suffer from this problem.

The use of a library to build a program is illustrated in figure  .

Create a directory to contain your library (depending on what your library is for this can be a system directory such as /usr/bin ), and create the library file there.


The nm command tells you what's in the library, just like it did with object files, but now it also tells you what object files are in the library:

%% nm ../lib/libfoo.a

00000000 T _bar
         U _printf

The library can be linked into your executable by explicitly giving its name, or by specifying a library path:


22.3.2 Shared libraries

crumb trail: > compile > Libraries > Shared libraries

Although they are somewhat more complicated to use, shared libraries have several advantages. For instance, since they are not linked into the executable but only loaded at runtime, they lead to (much) smaller executables. They are not created with ar , but through the compiler. For instance:


You can again use nm :

%% nm ../lib/

../lib/ module):
00000fc4 t __dyld_func_lookup
00000000 t __mh_dylib_header
00000fd2 T _bar
         U _printf
00001000 d dyld__mach_header
00000fb0 t dyld_stub_binding_helper

Shared libraries are not actually linked into the executable; instead, the executable needs the information where the library is to be found at execution time. One way to do this is with \n{{LD_LIBRARY_PATH}:


Another solution is to have the path be included in the executable:

%% gcc -o foo fooprog.o -L../lib -Wl,-rpath,`pwd`/../lib -lfoo
%% ./foo
hello world

The link line now contains the library path twice:

  1. once with the -L directive so that the linker can resolve all references, and
  2. once with the linker directive -Wl,-rpath,`pwd`/../lib which stores the path into the executable so that it can be found at runtime.

Use the command your executable uses. (On Mac OS X, use otool -L instead.)

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