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ELF(3) Library Functions Manual ELF(3)

elfAPI for manipulating ELF objects

library “libelf”

#include <libelf.h>

The library “libelf” provides functions that allow an application to read and manipulate ELF object files, and to read ar(1) archives. The library allows the manipulation of ELF objects in a byte ordering and word-size independent way, allowing an application to read and create ELF objects for 32 and 64 bit architectures and for little- and big-endian machines. The library is capable of processing ELF objects that use extended section numbering.

This manual page serves to provide an overview of the functionality in the ELF library. Further information may found in the manual pages for individual () functions that comprise the library.

As described in elf(5), ELF files contain several data structures that are laid out in a specific way. ELF files begin with an “Executable Header”, and may contain an optional “Program Header Table”, and optional data in the form of ELF “sections”. A “Section Header Table” describes the content of the data in these sections.

ELF objects have an associated “ELF class” which denotes the natural machine word size for the architecture the object is associated with. Objects for 32 bit architectures have an ELF class of ELFCLASS32. Objects for 64 bit architectures have an ELF class of ELFCLASS64.

ELF objects also have an associated “endianness” which denotes the endianness of the machine architecture associated with the object. This may be ELFDATA2LSB for little-endian architectures and ELFDATA2MSB for big-endian architectures.

ELF objects are also associated with an API version number. This version number determines the layout of the individual components of an ELF file and the semantics associated with these.

The elf library distinguishes between “native” representations of ELF data structures and their “file” representations.

An application would work with ELF data in its “native” representation, i.e., using the native byteorder and alignment mandated by the processor the application is running on. The “file” representation of the same data could use a different byte ordering and follow different constraints on object alignment than these native constraints.

Accordingly, the elf library offers translation facilities (elf32_xlatetof(3), elf32_xlatetom(3), elf64_xlatetof(3) and elf64_xlatetom(3)) to and from these representations. It also provides higher-level APIs (gelf_xlatetof(3), gelf_xlatetom(3)) that retrieve and store data from the ELF object in a class-agnostic manner.

Conceptually, there are three version numbers associated with an application using the ELF library to manipulate ELF objects:

  • The ELF version that the application was compiled against. This version determines the ABI expected by the application.
  • The ELF version of the ELF object being manipulated by the application through the ELF library.
  • The ELF version (or set of versions) supported by the ELF library itself.

In order to facilitate working with ELF objects of differing versions, the ELF library requires the application to call the () function before invoking many of its operations, in order to inform the library of the application's desired working version.

In the current implementation, all three versions have to be EV_CURRENT.

The ELF library uses the following prefixes:

Used for class-independent functions.
Used for functions working with 32 bit ELF objects.
Used for functions working with 64 bit ELF objects.
Used for class-independent data types.
Used for command values used in a few functions. These symbols are defined as members of the Elf_Cmd enumeration.
Used for error numbers.
Used for flags.
These constants define the kind of file associated with an ELF descriptor. See elf_kind(3). The symbols are defined by the Elf_Kind enumeration.
These values are defined by the Elf_Type enumeration, and denote the types of ELF data structures that can be present in an ELF object.

In addition, the library uses symbols with prefixes _ELF and _libelf for its internal use.

Applications communicate with the library using descriptors. These are:

An Elf descriptor represents an ELF object or an ar(1) archive. It is allocated using one of the () or () functions. An Elf descriptor can be used to read and write data to an ELF file. An Elf descriptor can be associated with zero or more Elf_Scn section descriptors.

Given an ELF descriptor, the application may retrieve the ELF object's class-dependent “Executable Header” structures using the () or () functions. A new Ehdr structure may be allocated using the () or elf64_newehdr() functions.

The “Program Header Table” associated with an ELF descriptor may be allocated using the () or () functions. A new program header table may be allocated or an existing table resized using the () or () functions.

The Elf structure is opaque and has no members visible to the application.

An Elf_Data data structure describes an individual chunk of a ELF file as represented in memory. It has the following application-visible members:
uint64_t d_align
The in-file alignment of the data buffer within its containing ELF section. This value must be non-zero and a power of two.
void *d_buf
A pointer to data in memory.
uint64_t d_off
The offset within the containing section where this descriptor's data would be placed. This field will be computed by the library unless the application requests full control of the ELF object's layout.
uint64_t d_size
The number of bytes of data in this descriptor.
Elf_Type d_type
The ELF type (see below) of the data in this descriptor.
unsigned int d_version
The operating version for the data in this buffer.

Elf_Data descriptors are usually used in conjunction with Elf_Scn descriptors.

Elf_Scn descriptors represent sections in an ELF object. These descriptors are opaque and contain no application modifiable fields.

The Elf_Scn descriptor for a specific section in an ELF object can be retrieved using the () function. The sections contained in an ELF object can be traversed using the () function. New sections are allocated using the () function.

The Elf_Data descriptors associated with a given section can be retrieved using the () function. New data descriptors can be added to a section descriptor using the () function. The untranslated “file” representation of data in a section can be retrieved using the () function.

The following ELF datatypes are supported by the library.

Machine addresses.
Byte data. The library will not attempt to translate byte data.
Software and hardware capability records.
Records used in a section of type SHT_DYNAMIC.
ELF executable header.
GNU-style hash tables.
16-bit unsigned words.
64 bit unsigned words.
ELF Move records.
ELF Note structures.
File offsets.
ELF program header table entries.
ELF relocation entries.
ELF relocation entries with addends.
ELF section header entries.
Signed 32-bit words.
Signed 64-bit words.
ELF symbol information.
ELF symbol table entries.
Symbol version definition records.
Symbol version requirement records.
Unsigned 32-bit words.
Unsigned 64-bit words.

The symbol ELF_T_NUM denotes the number of Elf types known to the library.

The following table shows the mapping between ELF section types defined in elf(5) and the types supported by the library.

‘.dynamic’ section entries.
Symbols for dynamic linking.
Termination function pointers.
GNU hash sections.
List of libraries to be pre-linked.
Symbol version definitions.
Symbol versioning requirements.
Version symbols.
Section group marker.
Symbol hashes.
Initialization function pointers.
Empty sections. See elf(5).
ELF note records.
Pre-initialization function pointers.
Machine code.
ELF relocation records.
Relocation records with addends.
String tables.
Symbol tables.
Used with extended section numbering.
Used by dtrace(1).
ELF move records.
Additional symbol flags.
Same as SHT_GNU_verdef.
Same as SHT_GNU_verneed.
Same as SHT_GNU_versym.

Section types in the range [SHT_LOOS, SHT_HIUSER] are otherwise considered to be of type ELF_T_BYTE.

This section contains a brief overview of the available functionality in the ELF library. Each function listed here is described further in its own manual page.

Archive Access
Retrieve the archive symbol table.
Retrieve the archive header for an object.
Retrieve the offset of a member inside an archive.
Iterate through an ar(1) archive.
Random access inside an ar(1) archive.
Data Structures
Retrieve translated data for an ELF section.
Retrieve the section descriptor for a named section.
Retrieve the index for a section.
Add a new Elf_Data descriptor to an ELF section.
Add a new section descriptor to an ELF descriptor.
Iterate through the sections in an ELF object.
Retrieve untranslated data for an ELF section.
Return a pointer to the untranslated file contents for an ELF object.
elf32_getehdr(), elf64_getehdr()
Retrieve the Executable Header in an ELF object.
elf32_getphdr(), elf64_getphdr()
Retrieve the Program Header Table in an ELF object.
(), ()
Retrieve the ELF section header associated with an Elf_Scn descriptor.
(), elf64_newehdr()
Allocate an Executable Header in an ELF object.
elf32_newphdr(), elf64_newphdr()
Allocate or resize the Program Header Table in an ELF object.
Data Translation
(), ()
Translate an ELF data structure from its native representation to its file representation.
(), ()
Translate an ELF data structure from its file representation to a native representation.
Error Reporting
Retrieve the current error.
Retrieve a human readable description of the current error.
Opens an ar(1) archive or ELF object given a file descriptor.
Close an ELF descriptor and release all its resources.
Opens an ar(1) archive or ELF object present in a memory arena.
Sets the operating version.
IO Control
Manage the association between and ELF descriptor and its underlying file.
Mark an Elf_Data descriptor as dirty.
Mark the ELF Executable Header in an ELF descriptor as dirty.
Mark the ELF Program Header Table in an ELF descriptor as dirty.
Mark an Elf_Scn descriptor as dirty.
Mark an ELF Section Header as dirty.
Set the index of the section name string table for the ELF object.
Recompute ELF object layout and optionally write the modified object back to the underlying file.
(), ()
Compute checksum of an ELF object.
Retrieve the identification bytes for an ELF object.
Retrieve the number of program headers in an ELF object.
Retrieve the number of sections in an ELF object.
Retrieve the section index of the section name string table in an ELF object.
Compute the ELF hash value of a string.
Query the kind of object associated with an ELF descriptor.
(), ()
Return the size of the file representation of an ELF type.

In the usual mode of operation, library will compute section offsets and alignments based on the contents of an ELF descriptor's sections without need for further intervention by the application.

However, if the application wishes to take complete charge of the layout of the ELF file, it may set the ELF_F_LAYOUT flag on an ELF descriptor using elf_flagelf(3), following which the library will use the data offsets and alignments specified by the application when laying out the file. Application control of file layout is described further in the elf_update(3) manual page.

Gaps in between sections will be filled with the fill character set by function ().

In case an error is encountered, these library functions set an internal error number and signal the presence of the error by returning an special return value. The application can check the current error number by calling elf_errno(3). A human readable description of the recorded error is available by calling elf_errmsg(3).

The library keeps track of all Elf_Scn and Elf_Data descriptors associated with an ELF descriptor and recovers them when the descriptor is closed using elf_end(3). Thus the application must not call free(3) on data structures allocated by the ELF library.

Conversely the library will not free data that it has not allocated. As an example, an application may call elf_newdata(3) to allocate a new Elf_Data descriptor and can set the d_off member of the descriptor to point to a region of memory allocated using malloc(3). It is the applications responsibility to free this arena, though the library will reclaim the space used by the Elf_Data descriptor itself.

gelf(3), ar(5), elf(5)

The original elf API was developed for AT&T System V UNIX. The current implementation of the API appeared in FreeBSD 7.0.

The ELF library was written by Joseph Koshy <>.

February 5, 2019 OpenBSD-6.7