Symbol Handling

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Symbol Handling

Symbols are a key part of GDB's operation.  Symbols include variables,
functions, and types.

Symbol Reading

GDB reads symbols from "symbol files".  The usual symbol file is the
file containing the program which GDB is debugging.  GDB can be
directed to use a different file for symbols (with the `symbol-file'
command), and it can also read more symbols via the `add-file' and
`load' commands, or while reading symbols from shared libraries.
   Symbol files are initially opened by code in `symfile.c' using the
BFD library (*note Support Libraries::).  BFD identifies the type of
the file by examining its header.  `find_sym_fns' then uses this
identification to locate a set of symbol-reading functions.
   Symbol-reading modules identify themselves to GDB by calling
`add_symtab_fns' during their module initialization.  The argument to
`add_symtab_fns' is a `struct sym_fns' which contains the name (or name
prefix) of the symbol format, the length of the prefix, and pointers to
four functions.  These functions are called at various times to process
symbol files whose identification matches the specified prefix.
   The functions supplied by each module are:
`XYZ_symfile_init(struct sym_fns *sf)'
     Called from `symbol_file_add' when we are about to read a new
     symbol file.  This function should clean up any internal state
     (possibly resulting from half-read previous files, for example)
     and prepare to read a new symbol file.  Note that the symbol file
     which we are reading might be a new "main" symbol file, or might
     be a secondary symbol file whose symbols are being added to the
     existing symbol table.
     The argument to `XYZ_symfile_init' is a newly allocated `struct
     sym_fns' whose `bfd' field contains the BFD for the new symbol
     file being read.  Its `private' field has been zeroed, and can be
     modified as desired.  Typically, a struct of private information
     will be `malloc''d, and a pointer to it will be placed in the
     `private' field.
     There is no result from `XYZ_symfile_init', but it can call
     `error' if it detects an unavoidable problem.
     Called from `symbol_file_add' when discarding existing symbols.
     This function needs only handle the symbol-reading module's
     internal state; the symbol table data structures visible to the
     rest of GDB will be discarded by `symbol_file_add'.  It has no
     arguments and no result.  It may be called after
     `XYZ_symfile_init', if a new symbol table is being read, or may be
     called alone if all symbols are simply being discarded.
`XYZ_symfile_read(struct sym_fns *sf, CORE_ADDR addr, int mainline)'
     Called from `symbol_file_add' to actually read the symbols from a
     symbol-file into a set of psymtabs or symtabs.
     `sf' points to the `struct sym_fns' originally passed to
     `XYZ_sym_init' for possible initialization.  `addr' is the offset
     between the file's specified start address and its true address in
     memory.  `mainline' is 1 if this is the main symbol table being
     read, and 0 if a secondary symbol file (e.g. shared library or
     dynamically loaded file) is being read.
   In addition, if a symbol-reading module creates psymtabs when
XYZ_symfile_read is called, these psymtabs will contain a pointer to a
function `XYZ_psymtab_to_symtab', which can be called from any point in
the GDB symbol-handling code.
`XYZ_psymtab_to_symtab (struct partial_symtab *pst)'
     Called from `psymtab_to_symtab' (or the `PSYMTAB_TO_SYMTAB' macro)
     if the psymtab has not already been read in and had its
     `pst->symtab' pointer set.  The argument is the psymtab to be
     fleshed-out into a symtab.  Upon return, `pst->readin' should have
     been set to 1, and `pst->symtab' should contain a pointer to the
     new corresponding symtab, or zero if there were no symbols in that
     part of the symbol file.

Partial Symbol Tables

GDB has three types of symbol tables:
   * Full symbol tables ("symtabs").  These contain the main
     information about symbols and addresses.
   * Partial symbol tables ("psymtabs").  These contain enough
     information to know when to read the corresponding part of the full
     symbol table.
   * Minimal symbol tables ("msymtabs").  These contain information
     gleaned from non-debugging symbols.
   This section describes partial symbol tables.
   A psymtab is constructed by doing a very quick pass over an
executable file's debugging information.  Small amounts of information
are extracted--enough to identify which parts of the symbol table will
need to be re-read and fully digested later, when the user needs the
information.  The speed of this pass causes GDB to start up very
quickly.  Later, as the detailed rereading occurs, it occurs in small
pieces, at various times, and the delay therefrom is mostly invisible to
the user.
   The symbols that show up in a file's psymtab should be, roughly,
those visible to the debugger's user when the program is not running
code from that file.  These include external symbols and types, static
symbols and types, and `enum' values declared at file scope.
   The psymtab also contains the range of instruction addresses that the
full symbol table would represent.
   The idea is that there are only two ways for the user (or much of the
code in the debugger) to reference a symbol:
   * By its address (e.g. execution stops at some address which is
     inside a function in this file).  The address will be noticed to
     be in the range of this psymtab, and the full symtab will be read
     in.  `find_pc_function', `find_pc_line', and other `find_pc_...'
     functions handle this.
   * By its name (e.g. the user asks to print a variable, or set a
     breakpoint on a function).  Global names and file-scope names will
     be found in the psymtab, which will cause the symtab to be pulled
     in.  Local names will have to be qualified by a global name, or a
     file-scope name, in which case we will have already read in the
     symtab as we evaluated the qualifier.  Or, a local symbol can be
     referenced when we are "in" a local scope, in which case the first
     case applies.  `lookup_symbol' does most of the work here.
   The only reason that psymtabs exist is to cause a symtab to be read
in at the right moment.  Any symbol that can be elided from a psymtab,
while still causing that to happen, should not appear in it.  Since
psymtabs don't have the idea of scope, you can't put local symbols in
them anyway.  Psymtabs don't have the idea of the type of a symbol,
either, so types need not appear, unless they will be referenced by
   It is a bug for GDB to behave one way when only a psymtab has been
read, and another way if the corresponding symtab has been read in.
Such bugs are typically caused by a psymtab that does not contain all
the visible symbols, or which has the wrong instruction address ranges.
   The psymtab for a particular section of a symbol file (objfile)
could be thrown away after the symtab has been read in.  The symtab
should always be searched before the psymtab, so the psymtab will never
be used (in a bug-free environment).  Currently, psymtabs are allocated
on an obstack, and all the psymbols themselves are allocated in a pair
of large arrays on an obstack, so there is little to be gained by
trying to free them unless you want to do a lot more work.


Fundamental Types (e.g., `FT_VOID', `FT_BOOLEAN').

These are the fundamental types that GDB uses internally.  Fundamental
types from the various debugging formats (stabs, ELF, etc) are mapped
into one of these.  They are basically a union of all fundamental types
that GDB knows about for all the languages that GDB knows about.

Type Codes (e.g., `TYPE_CODE_PTR', `TYPE_CODE_ARRAY').

Each time GDB builds an internal type, it marks it with one of these
types.  The type may be a fundamental type, such as `TYPE_CODE_INT', or
a derived type, such as `TYPE_CODE_PTR' which is a pointer to another
type.  Typically, several `FT_*' types map to one `TYPE_CODE_*' type,
and are distinguished by other members of the type struct, such as
whether the type is signed or unsigned, and how many bits it uses.

Builtin Types (e.g., `builtin_type_void', `builtin_type_char').

These are instances of type structs that roughly correspond to
fundamental types and are created as global types for GDB to use for
various ugly historical reasons.  We eventually want to eliminate
these.  Note for example that `builtin_type_int' initialized in
`gdbtypes.c' is basically the same as a `TYPE_CODE_INT' type that is
initialized in `c-lang.c' for an `FT_INTEGER' fundamental type.  The
difference is that the `builtin_type' is not associated with any
particular objfile, and only one instance exists, while `c-lang.c'
builds as many `TYPE_CODE_INT' types as needed, with each one
associated with some particular objfile.

Object File Formats


The `a.out' format is the original file format for Unix.  It consists
of three sections: `text', `data', and `bss', which are for program
code, initialized data, and uninitialized data, respectively.
   The `a.out' format is so simple that it doesn't have any reserved
place for debugging information.  (Hey, the original Unix hackers used
`adb', which is a machine-language debugger!)  The only debugging
format for `a.out' is stabs, which is encoded as a set of normal
symbols with distinctive attributes.
   The basic `a.out' reader is in `dbxread.c'.


The COFF format was introduced with System V Release 3 (SVR3) Unix.
COFF files may have multiple sections, each prefixed by a header.  The
number of sections is limited.
   The COFF specification includes support for debugging.  Although this
was a step forward, the debugging information was woefully limited.  For
instance, it was not possible to represent code that came from an
included file.
   The COFF reader is in `coffread.c'.


ECOFF is an extended COFF originally introduced for Mips and Alpha
   The basic ECOFF reader is in `mipsread.c'.


The IBM RS/6000 running AIX uses an object file format called XCOFF.
The COFF sections, symbols, and line numbers are used, but debugging
symbols are `dbx'-style stabs whose strings are located in the `.debug'
section (rather than the string table).  For more information, see
*Note Top: (stabs)Top.
   The shared library scheme has a clean interface for figuring out what
shared libraries are in use, but the catch is that everything which
refers to addresses (symbol tables and breakpoints at least) needs to be
relocated for both shared libraries and the main executable.  At least
using the standard mechanism this can only be done once the program has
been run (or the core file has been read).


Windows 95 and NT use the PE ("Portable Executable") format for their
executables.  PE is basically COFF with additional headers.
   While BFD includes special PE support, GDB needs only the basic COFF


The ELF format came with System V Release 4 (SVR4) Unix.  ELF is similar
to COFF in being organized into a number of sections, but it removes
many of COFF's limitations.
   The basic ELF reader is in `elfread.c'.


SOM is HP's object file and debug format (not to be confused with IBM's
SOM, which is a cross-language ABI).
   The SOM reader is in `hpread.c'.

Other File Formats

Other file formats that have been supported by GDB include Netware
Loadable Modules (`nlmread.c').

Debugging File Formats

This section describes characteristics of debugging information that
are independent of the object file format.


`stabs' started out as special symbols within the `a.out' format.
Since then, it has been encapsulated into other file formats, such as
   While `dbxread.c' does some of the basic stab processing, including
for encapsulated versions, `stabsread.c' does the real work.


The basic COFF definition includes debugging information.  The level of
support is minimal and non-extensible, and is not often used.

Mips debug (Third Eye)

ECOFF includes a definition of a special debug format.
   The file `mdebugread.c' implements reading for this format.


DWARF 1 is a debugging format that was originally designed to be used
with ELF in SVR4 systems.
   The DWARF 1 reader is in `dwarfread.c'.


DWARF 2 is an improved but incompatible version of DWARF 1.
   The DWARF 2 reader is in `dwarf2read.c'.


Like COFF, the SOM definition includes debugging information.

Adding a New Symbol Reader to GDB

If you are using an existing object file format (`a.out', COFF, ELF,
etc), there is probably little to be done.
   If you need to add a new object file format, you must first add it to
BFD.  This is beyond the scope of this document.
   You must then arrange for the BFD code to provide access to the
debugging symbols.  Generally GDB will have to call swapping routines
from BFD and a few other BFD internal routines to locate the debugging
information.  As much as possible, GDB should not depend on the BFD
internal data structures.
   For some targets (e.g., COFF), there is a special transfer vector
used to call swapping routines, since the external data structures on
various platforms have different sizes and layouts.  Specialized
routines that will only ever be implemented by one object file format
may be called directly.  This interface should be described in a file
`bfd/libXYZ.h', which is included by GDB.