Be Careful of Weak Symbols when Linking

In C++ the inline keyword is only hint to the compiler to inline your code, it may choose to ignore you. Without optimizations it will always generate a function and never actually inline the call. In order to handle an inline function defined in different translation units from not breaking the one definiton per function rule, the compiler exports the inline function as a weak symbol. A weak symbol can have multiple definitions, that are assumed to all be the same, and the linker will only add one of the definitions to the produced executable. Take the following source file as an example.


inline int f() { return 7; }
int foo() { return f(); }

If we create an object file out of this with clang++ foo.cpp -c and check the resulting object file with nm -C foo.o we get the following output:

0000000000000000 W f()
0000000000000000 T foo()

Note that W indicates that f() is a weak symbol. Now consider another similar source file that happens to define its own f().


inline int f() { return 42; }
int bar() { return f(); }

These files are in separate translation units so there's no way for the compiler to warn us that there's multiple definitions of f() that are different since it only sees one per translation unit. The problem is evident when we combine these two object files into an executable as follows.


#include <iostream>

int foo();
int bar();

int main()
    using namespace std;
    cout << "foo = " << foo() << ", bar = " << bar() << '\n';

When we create an executable with clang++ foo.cpp bar.cpp main.cpp -o main the compiler and the linker show no warnings, even though we've broken the cardinal rule of having multiple definitions for the same function. Recall that f() has a different definition in foo.cpp and bar.cpp. Because f() is a weak symbol one of the definitions is just dropped silently by the linker. If we run the program with ./main we get the output foo = 7, bar = 7. This seems to be because it kept the first definition, int f() { return 7; }, and dropped any other definitions.

If we create the executable with clang++ bar.cpp foo.cpp main.cpp -o main we'll get a different result. In this case int f() { return 42; } is defined first so we'd now expect the linker to use that definition. When we run ./main we do get the output foo = 42, bar = 42.

Things return to normal if we enable optimizations. This time let's create the executable with clang++ -O1 foo.cpp bar.cpp main.cpp -o main. In this case the compiler actually inlines f() and it's not present in any object file. Now we link, there's no collisions, and when we run ./main we get the expected output foo = 7, bar = 42.

In this case the bug will go away depending on the optimization level you use, which makes finding the bug more complex. Unfortunately there's no tools that I'm aware of to help prevent you from shooting yourself in the foot like this. It's just another one of those things you have to be aware of when you're using C++.