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12 Linux GNU Binary Utilities Binutils Commands with Examples (as, ld, ar, nm, objcopy, objdump, size, strings, strip, c++flint, addr2line, readelf Command Examples)

GNU BinutilsThe GNU Binary Utilities, usually called as binutils, is a collection of development tools that handle assembly files, object files, and libraries.

The new generation of programming languages that came in the last few years are really masking the functionality of these utilities, as they happen in the background. So, many developers are not exposed to these tools.

But, if you are a developer who is working on Linux / UNIX platform, it is essential to understand the various commands that are available as part of GNU development tools.

The following are the 12 different binutils commands that are covered in this tutorial.

  1. as – GNU Assembler Command
  2. ld – GNU Linker Command
  3. ar – GNU Archive Command
  4. nm – List Object File Symbols
  5. objcopy – Copy and Translate Object Files
  6. objdump – Display Object File Information
  7. size – List Section Size and Toal Size
  8. strings – Display Printable Characters from a File
  9. strip – Discard Symbols from Object File
  10. c++filt – Demangle Command
  11. addr2line – Convert Address to Filename and Numbers
  12. readelf – Display ELF File Info

These tools will help you to manipulate your binary, object and library files effectively.

Out of these 12 utilities, as and ld are of the most important, they are the default backend of GNU Compiler Collection (gcc). GCC only does the job that compiles from C/C++ to assembly language, and its as and ld’s job to output executable binary.

Prepare a Sample Code

To understand how all these commands work, first, let’s prepare some sample assembly code from C code by using gcc -S. All the experiments shown here, are done on a x86 64bits linux box.

Below is the C code, which just use the return value of external function as return code. There is no input/output, so if you want to check whether the program executed as expected, please check the return status (echo $?). We have three function, main, func1 and func2, and one file for each function.

// func1.c file:
int func1() {
	return func2();

// func2.c file:
int func2() {
	return 1;

// main.c file:
int main() {
	return func1();

GCC has C runtime library support, so the main function is treated as normal function. For simplify the demo, we do not want to involve C library when compile and link these .s files. So, two modifications are done for main.s:

First modification is that the label _start is added for link stage.

_start label is the entry point of the App, if not defined, a warning like below will be reported when run ld.

ld: warning: cannot find entry symbol _start; defaulting to 0000000000400078

Second modification is that ret is replaced by system exit call.

We should manually raise the system exit interrupt. %eax is used to hold return value of the function, but system exit call hold it in %ebx. So, copy it from %eax to %ebx

Below is the re-edit version of gcc assembly code.

func1.s file:

	.file	"func1.c"
.globl func1
	.type	func1, @function
	pushq	%rbp
	movq	%rsp, %rbp
	movl	$0, %eax
	call	func2

func2.s file:

	.file	"func2.c"
.globl func2
	.type	func2, @function
	pushq	%rbp
	movq	%rsp, %rbp
	movl	$1, %eax

main.s file:

	.file	"main.c"
.globl main
.globl _start
	.type	main, @function
	pushq	%rbp
	movq	%rsp, %rbp
	movl	$0, %eax
	call	func1
            movl    %eax, %ebx
            movl    $1, %eax
            int        $0x80

1. as – GNU Assembler Command

as takes assembly file as input and output an object file. Object file is only an internal format, which will be used as the input of ld for the producing of final executable file.

Execute the as command on main.s file to get the main.o object file as shown below.

as main.s -o main.o

file main.o (produced by “as main.s -o main.o”), we can get below information.

main.o: ELF 64-bit LSB relocatable, AMD x86-64, version 1 (SYSV), not stripped

The object file is in ELF format, which is the most widely used file format for linux distributions.

Please note that “as” command also has syntax support for preprocessing, symbol, constraint, expression, pseudo ops/directives, and comments.

GNU Assembler can support a huge collection of machines, but usually only one machine/architecture family is selected when compiled or cross-compiled.

2. ld – GNU Linker Command

Object file usually contains reference to external functions in different library/object, and it’s linker (ld)’s job to combine all the object/library files needed for the final binary, relocate sections, and resolve the reference.

The actual behavior of ld is defined in the linker script, which describes the memory layout of the executable.

If we link main.o only (ld main.o -o main), there will be a undefined reference error:

main.o: In function `_start':
main.c:(.text+0xa): undefined reference to `func1'

We won’t get an executable file without linking all the three objection files (ld main.o func1.o func2.o -o main).

# file main 
main: ELF 64-bit LSB executable, AMD x86-64, version 1 (SYSV), statically linked, not stripped

Be different with the object file, here we get a statically linked executable.

as and ld works on specific target/architecture. But there are some tools that working on BFD objects defined in binutils.

From the last few lines of the output of objcopy -h, we can get the support targets.

objcopy: supported targets: elf64-x86-64 elf32-i386 a.out-i386-linux pei-i386 pei-x86-64 elf64-l1om elf64-little elf64-big elf32-little elf32-big plugin srec symbolsrec verilog tekhex binary ihex

Need to say that verilog, ihex are not supported by real OS, but it can be very useful in processing the content of objects in text format. They are widely used in chip simulation environment for memory/rom initialization.

3. ar/ranlib – GNU Archive Command

ar can be used to generate and manipulate static library, which is a archive file that composed by many objects.

Behavior of ar can be controlled from command line argument (the unix style) or script file. ranlib can add a index of symbols to an archive, which can speed up the link speed and also facilitate the call of routines. ar -s will do the same thing as ranlib.

For my test, with or without -s, ar will always output the archive index.

Test1, ar without -s.

# ar -r extern.a func1.o func2.o && nm -s extern.a
ar: creating extern.a

Archive index:
func1 in func1.o
func2 in func2.o

0000000000000000 T func1
                 U func2

0000000000000000 T func2

For full details on ar command, read this: Linux ar command Examples: How To Create, View, Extract, Modify C Archive Files (*.a)

Test 2, ar with -s.

# ar -r -s externS.a func1.o func2.o && nm -s externS.a
ar: creating externS.a

Archive index:
func1 in func1.o
func2 in func2.o

0000000000000000 T func1
                 U func2

0000000000000000 T func2

Test 3, run ranlib again.

# cp extern.a externR.a && ranlib externR.a && nm -s externR.a
Archive index:
func1 in func1.o
func2 in func2.o

0000000000000000 T func1
                 U func2

0000000000000000 T func2

It can be shown that each test outputs the same result.

4. nm – List Object File Symbols

nm can list symbols from object file. We have show the used of it in above section.

The nm commands provides information on the symbols being used in an object file or executable file.

The default information that the nm command provides are the following:

  • Virtual address of the symbol
  • A character which depicts the symbol type. If the character is in lower case then the symbol is local but if the character is in upper case then the symbol is external
  • Name of the symbol
$ nm  -A ./*.o | grep func
./hello2.o:0000000000000000 T func_1
./hello3.o:0000000000000000 T func_2
./hello4.o:0000000000000000 T func_3
./main.o:                   U func
./reloc.o:                  U func
./reloc.o:0000000000000000  T func1
./test1.o:0000000000000000  T func
./test.o:                   U func

Read more: 10 Practical Linux nm Command Examples

5. objcopy – Copy and Translate Object Files

objcopy can copy the content of one object file to another object file, and input/output object can in different format.

There are times when you need to port an object file available for one kind of platform (like ARM or x86) to another kind of platform.

Things are relatively easy if the source code is available as it can be re-compiled on the target platform.

But, what if the source code is not available and you still need to port an object file from type of platform to other? Well, if you are using Linux then the command objcopy does exactly the required

The syntax of this command is :

objcopy [options] infile [outfile]...

Read more: Linux Objcopy Command Examples to Copy and Translate Object Files

6. objdump – Display Object File Information

objdump can display selected information from object files. We can use objdump -d to apply the disassemble to main.

# objdump -d main
main:     file format elf64-x86-64

Disassembly of section .text:

0000000000400078 <main>:
  400078:	55                   	push   %rbp
  400079:	48 89 e5             	mov    %rsp,%rbp
  40007c:	b8 00 00 00 00       	mov    $0x0,%eax
  400081:	e8 0a 00 00 00       	callq  400090 <func1>
  400086:	c9                   	leaveq 
  400087:	89 c3                	mov    %eax,%ebx
  400089:	b8 01 00 00 00       	mov    $0x1,%eax
  40008e:	cd 80                	int    $0x80

0000000000400090 <func1>:
  400090:	55                   	push   %rbp
  400091:	48 89 e5             	mov    %rsp,%rbp
  400094:	b8 00 00 00 00       	mov    $0x0,%eax
  400099:	e8 02 00 00 00       	callq  4000a0 <func2>
  40009e:	c9                   	leaveq 
  40009f:	c3                   	retq   

00000000004000a0 <func2>:
  4000a0:	55                   	push   %rbp
  4000a1:	48 89 e5             	mov    %rsp,%rbp
  4000a4:	b8 01 00 00 00       	mov    $0x1,%eax
  4000a9:	c9                   	leaveq 
  4000aa:	c3                   	retq   

Read more: Linux Objdump Command Examples (Disassemble a Binary File)

7. size – List Section Size and Toal Size

size can display the size information of sections in object files.

# size main
   text	   data	    bss	    dec	    hex	filename
     51	      0	      0	     51	     33	main

8. strings – Display Printable Characters from a File

string can display printable char sequence from object files. By default, it only search in .data section. With -a switch, all the sections can be searched.

# strings -a main

Read more: Linux Strings Command Examples (Search Text in UNIX Binary Files)

9. strip – Discard Symbols from Object File

strip can remove symbols from object file, which can reduce the file size and speed up the execution.

We can show the symbol table by objdump. Symbol table shows the entry/offset for each function/label.

# objdump -t main

main:     file format elf64-x86-64

0000000000400078 l    d  .text	0000000000000000 .text
0000000000000000 l    df *ABS*	0000000000000000 main.c
0000000000000000 l    df *ABS*	0000000000000000 func1.c
0000000000000000 l    df *ABS*	0000000000000000 func2.c
0000000000400090 g     F .text	0000000000000000 func1
0000000000400078 g       .text	0000000000000000 _start
00000000006000ab g       *ABS*	0000000000000000 __bss_start
0000000000400078 g     F .text	0000000000000000 main
00000000004000a0 g     F .text	0000000000000000 func2
00000000006000ab g       *ABS*	0000000000000000 _edata
00000000006000b0 g       *ABS*	0000000000000000 _end

After strip (#strip main), the symbol table will be removed.

#objdump -t main

main:     file format elf64-x86-64

no symbols

Read more: 10 Linux Strip Command Examples (Reduce Executable/Binary File Size)

10. c++filt – Demangle Command

C++ support overloading that can let same function name takes different kinds/number of argument.

This is done by changing the function name to low-level assembler name, which is called as mangling. c++filt can do the demangling for C++ and Java.

Here, we make a new sample code for explanation of mangling.

Suppose we have two types of func3 that take different kind of input argument, the void and the int.

==> mangling.cpp <==
int func3(int a) {
	return a;
int func3() {
	return 0;
int main() {
	return func3(1);

In assembly format, they do have different names, _Z5func3v and _Z5func3i. And, one of these will be called according to the type of argument we passed to the func3 in mangling.cpp. In this example, _Z5func3i is called.

==> mangling.s <==
	.file	"mangling.cpp"
.globl _Z5func3i
	.type	_Z5func3i, @function
	pushq	%rbp
	movq	%rsp, %rbp
	movl	%edi, -4(%rbp)
	movl	-4(%rbp), %eax

.globl _Z5func3v
	.type	_Z5func3v, @function
	pushq	%rbp
	movq	%rsp, %rbp
	movl	$0, %eax

.globl main
	.type	main, @function
	pushq	%rbp
	movq	%rsp, %rbp
	movl	$1, %edi
	call	_Z5func3i

#grep func3.*: mangling.s

We can pass these assembly function names to c++filt, and the original function define statement will be recovered.

#grep func3.*: mangling.s | c++filt 

objdump also can do the demangle with different styles:

  -C, --demangle[=STYLE]
  Decode mangled/processed symbol names
    The STYLE, if specified, can be 'auto', 'gnu',
    'lucid', 'arm', 'hp', 'edg', 'gnu-v3', 'java'
    or 'gnat'

11. addr2line – Convert Address to Filename and Numbers

addr2line can get the file and line number of given address or offset inside reallocated section, by passing the debug information.

First, we must compile assembly file with -g flag, so that debug information will be added into object. It can be shown from below that there are some debug sections now.

objdump -h mainD

mainD:     file format elf64-x86-64

Idx Name          Size      VMA               LMA               File off  Algn
  0 .text         00000033  0000000000400078  0000000000400078  00000078  2**2
  1 .debug_aranges 00000090  0000000000000000  0000000000000000  000000b0  2**4
  2 .debug_info   000000dd  0000000000000000  0000000000000000  00000140  2**0
  3 .debug_abbrev 0000003c  0000000000000000  0000000000000000  0000021d  2**0
  4 .debug_line   000000ba  0000000000000000  0000000000000000  00000259  2**0

From the disassembly result shown in section 2.d objdump, we can see that 0x400090 is the entry of func1, which is the same as the result that given by addr2line.

addr2line -e mainD 0x400090

12. readelf – Display ELF File Info

readelf and elfedit can operation on elf file only.

readelf can display information from elf file.
We can display detailed information of ELF header.

#readelf -h main_full
ELF Header:
  Magic:   7f 45 4c 46 02 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 
  Class:                             ELF64
  Data:                              2's complement, little endian
  Version:                           1 (current)
  OS/ABI:                            UNIX - System V
  ABI Version:                       0
  Type:                              EXEC (Executable file)
  Machine:                           Advanced Micro Devices X86-64
  Version:                           0x1
  Entry point address:               0x400078
  Start of program headers:          64 (bytes into file)
  Start of section headers:          208 (bytes into file)
  Flags:                             0x0
  Size of this header:               64 (bytes)
  Size of program headers:           56 (bytes)
  Number of program headers:         1
  Size of section headers:           64 (bytes)
  Number of section headers:         5
  Section header string table index: 2

Just like readelf, you can also use elfedit which can update machine, file type and OS ABI in the elf header. Please note that, elfedit may not be included by default in your distribution.

Read more: Linux ELF Object File Format (and ELF Header Structure) Basics

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