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VDSO on amd64

Contact: Konstantin Belousov <>

A VDSO, or Virtual Dynamic Shared Object, is a shared object (more commonly called dynamic library) that is inserted into the executed image by a joint effort of the kernel and the dynamic linker. It does not exists on disk as a standalone .so, and there are no instructions in the ELF format that cause the insertion. It is done by the system to implement some functionality for the C runtime implementation components.

FreeBSD already has a lot of features typically done using VDSO (in Linux), but really not requiring that complication. The main reason why it is possible is the often mentioned co-evolution of the kernel and C runtime. We can naturally introduce features that require implementation both in kernel, and support in the userspace parts, since FreeBSD is developed as a whole. Surprisingly, it also allows the kernel and dynamic linker to know much less (and not enforce anything) about userspace consumers of interfaces.

For instance, a syscall-less wall clock was implemented long ago, by the kernel providing a time hands blob in the shared page, and the C library knowing about its location and the supported algorithms. There is no need for a VDSO that interposes some libc symbols or provides services that are named by known symbols to userland.

From all the years of experience with this pseudo-VDSO approach, the only feature that was impossible to implement without providing real VDSO support was the signal trampoline DWARF annotations, for the benefit of stack unwinders.

When the kernel delivers signal to userland, it changes some key registers (like the instruction pointer, the stack pointer, and whatever else is needed by the architecture) and pushes the saved image of the whole usermode CPU state (context) onto the user stack. Then, control is passed to a small piece of code located in the shared page (signal trampoline), which calls the user handler function and on return from the handler issues a sigreturn(2) syscall to reload the old context.

From this description, it is clear that the state of the machine during trampoline execution is quite different from the normal C calling frames. Unwinders that handle things like C++ exceptions, Rust panics, or other similar mechanisms in specific language runtimes, need to understand the specialness of the trampoline frame. The current approach is to hardcode the detection of the trampoline, e.g. by matching the instruction pointer against sysctl kern.proc.sigtramp.

DWARF annotations are enough to provide the required information to unwinders to make the trampoline frame not special anymore, but the problem is that there is no way for unwinders to find the annotation without introducing even more specialness. Instead, we can insert a VDSO that only serves to appear in the enumeration of DSOs loaded into the process, with either dl_iterate_phdr(3) (in-process) or r_debug (remote), with PT_GNU_EH_FRAME header pointing to the root of DWARF info.

This is exactly what the VDSO on FreeBSD does: it wraps signal trampoline bits and their DWARF annotation (.cfi) into a shared object, which is put into the shared page and linked by rtld(1) into the set of preloaded objects upon image activation.

Efforts were made to strip as many unneeded structures and as much padding as possible from the VDSO image, because it consumes space in the shared page. It was pushed as far as the common denominator of lld and ld.bfd allowed, with several tricks done by linker scripts and some use of seemingly undocumented linker options.

We need at least two VDSOs for amd64: a 64-bit one for native binaries and a 32-bit one for ia32 binaries. With the size of each VDSO around 1.5KB, space becomes really tight in the shared page, which needs space for other stuff as well, like timehands or random generator seeds.

Build scripts enforce that VDSOs do not grow larger than 2K; if they do, we need to extend shared page to become at least two shared pages. Scripts also enforce that VDSO are pure position-independent, not requiring relocations for either code or metadata (.cfi).

Sponsor: The FreeBSD Foundation

Last modified on: March 10, 2022 by Joseph Mingrone