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Application Binary Interface (ABI)

The Application Binary Interface (ABI) is a strange, emergent phenomenon. Neither the C nor C++ standard recognize its existence, however it is ubiquitous in discussions about the evolution of those standards.

This is broadly because, in a world where everything always gets recompiled from scratch (essentially the purview of those standards), ABI would be irrelevant. However, reality has shown that the always-recompile model is not practical in the vast majority of contexts, and binary artifacts need to be distributed.

As soon as this is attempted, we run into all the many potential problems that can appear at the interface between source code and the actual physical execution that is baked into an artifact. For some common terms, it's recommended to familiarize yourself with compilation concepts first.

Note that ABI appears for all distribution of binary artifacts, not just those compiled from C/C++. The concepts are the same in all cases though, so for brevity, we restrict ourselves to these languages here.

A key focus for binary packaging systems is maintaining binary compatibility. If the packagers are not successful in maintaining that compatibility, we then get an ABI break, which can lead to crashes, segfaults, corrupted data etc. Unsurprisingly, a lot of effort goes into avoiding them.

An example of an ABI break

Let's assume we are using a function f from a C library libfoo, and this function takes an argument of type long long.

extern int f (long long value);

int main () {
    return 0;

If we inspect the assembly

mov     edi, 1
call    f
we see that a single register, edi, is used to pass the value argument to the function f, which makes sense since our registers are 64 bits wide, and long long matches this on unix platforms.

If we replace the first line with extern int f (__int128_t value);, the assembly becomes:

mov     edi, 1
xor     esi, esi
call    f
Here we see that we now need two registers, edi and esi, to correctly pass value into the function f.

Imagine then a situation where we did not change our code away from long long, but where the author of libfoo (that contains f) wants to upgrade to wider integers because their users are asking for that. If we upgrade the shared library libfoo (that our code is linked against) without recompilation of our own application, then our code would still run (because the linker would find a symbol with the right name f due to the lack of name mangling). However, because the artifact we had compiled expects f to take long long, it would only set up the edi register correctly, but the upgraded symbol for f would now use both edi and esi.

If we're "lucky", this only leads to a crash, but it might lead to pretty much arbitrary behavior based on whatever happens to be in esi. This can include anything from wrong results to Heisenbugs based on any other code that might leave some random values in the esi register, all in a way that's generally extremely hard to debug.

This is but a trivial example, there are innumerable ways for libraries you rely on to break their ABI, including:

  • Changing anything about a function signature (C)
  • Changing the function return type (C++)
  • Changing (almost) anything about templating (C++)
  • Adding a data member or virtual functions to a class
  • Making something inline that previously wasn’t
  • Changing your compiler or any of many relevant compilation flags
  • Etc.

Interaction with shared libraries

What the above means is that, basically, you can never change anything about a C symbol that has been distributed to consumers in binary form, especially those in shared libraries. Since some code effectively must use shared libraries (not least the C standard library, in the form of glibc/musl on linux, resp. the UCRT on Windows), this is one if not the reason for the importance of distributions, because those will ensure that all their packages are compiled consistently against a given version of libc (and other libraries like the C++ standard library).

Similarly, this is why distributions only upgrade their glibc across major releases, because doing so for an LTS release would risk too much breakage, even though libc takes extreme care about remaining backwards compatible.

The different levels of ABI breaks

Fundamentally, ABI can break at pretty much any point that's involved in the computation of our program. For the sake of clarity, let us divide these into three different levels:

  1. ABI breaks in third-party libraries
  2. ABI breaks in compiler or due to compiler configuration
  3. ABI breaks in the language standard

The further down we go this list, the more impactful an ABI break becomes, so much so that the latter two happen rarely if ever. When they do happen, they tend to leave long-lasting traces.

ABI breaks on language level

The last substantial ABI break in C++ was when the standard committee decided to standardize an implementation of std::string that made illegal a previously deployed GCC-extension that used copy-on-write behavior. This meant that all C++ code compiled with GCC against older C++ standards needed to be recompiled.

Due to the timelines involved with LTS distributions like RHEL, this took a long time to percolate through the ecosystem.

Episodes like these have led to extreme reluctance in the C & C++ committees to change anything that even remotely touches the ABI, even though there are often substantial improvements left on the table due to this (famously, std::regex is excruciatingly slow and cannot be fixed without breaking ABI). This leads to extreme scrutiny (and therefore sluggish pace) in standards development, which has its own knock-on effects (see section about Abseil below).

This is also the reason why there are no larger integer types (e.g. int128) that are officially supported by the standard, because their introduction would be an ABI break. Generally, the contortions that the C/C++ committees put themselves through to avoid breaking ABI are spectacular (and have very explicit opportunity costs)1, but ease ABI problems for the levels above.

Finally, the unrealized performance gains left on the table due to ABI stability (and millions of dollar cost of single percentage performance pessimization) were what led Google to push hard for an ABI break in the C++ committee, and their defeat at the C++ meeting in Prague is ultimately what led to them withdrawing their substantial resources from compiler development (principally clang), and start their own C++-alike language, Carbon.

ABI breaks on compiler level

For completeness, we need to distinguish that here we are not talking about ABI breaks in the compiler infrastructure (in many ways, compilers are less exposed because using them, i.e. recompiling, drastically lessens the exposure to ABI), but rather of ABI breaks in the artifacts produced by them.

Generally, compiler authors are almost as reluctant to break ABI as the language committees, because the effects are largely the same. An exception was MSVC, which for a long time used to change the ABI it generated with every release, meaning that each Visual Studio release (before VS2015) required recompilation of all involved binary artifacts. Starting from VS2015 (up to including VS2022 currently), MSVC has not broken ABI anymore, which means it's possible to, for example, compile with VS2019 against a shared library produced by VS2017.

However, compilers expose a vast majority of flags, some of which have impacts on the ABI of the produced artifacts. It's therefore essential to have some degree of homogeneity (resp. control / auditability) about the compilation flags being used in an ecosystem.

ABI breaks in third party libraries

This is the most common case; various libraries make different kinds of promises about the stability of their ABI. Some (certainly those lower in the stack, like OpenSSL) promise stringent ABI stability (except across major versions), whereas others might break ABI in every patch release.

Knowing which library versions are compatible how is a pretty involved job, but services like abi-laboratory exist to ease this work.

For distributions that focus on using shared libraries, this means they need to be able to track which packages are dependent on any given library, and then rebuild all those in a short timespan, in order to roll out a new version of that library (due to the fact that, absent explicit inline namespacing, there can only be one version of a shared library in any given environment).

Contrast with default approach in Python packaging

Because the standard packaging in Python (wheels) cannot express a dependency on non-Python artifacts, the default approach is to fully copy ("vendor") the respective binaries into the wheel, and mangle their symbols in such a way that they do not get accidentally picked up from elsewhere.


Google's Abseil project fills a particular role, which is to backport advances in newer C++ standards, and make those facilities to projects that still need to compile with older standard versions (c.f. the speed of the standardization process due to ABI concerns above).

One prominent example of such usage is absl::string_view, which backports the C++17 std::string_view back to C++11 & C++14 (this feature allows to heavily cut down on useless copies involving strings, which has a substantial performance impact). However, these backports are generally not ABI-compatible with the implementations for later standard versions.

This puts Abseil in the curious position that the C++ standard version used to compile it has an impact on its ABI. This is because Abseil will, by default, pick standard facilities when available, and otherwise fall back to its backports. As an example, absl::string_view compiled with C++17 will use the C++17 std::string_view ABI, whereas for C++14 and below, it will have a different ABI.

Due to the constraint around having only one shared library per environment, Abseil strongly recommends against distribution of its binary artifacts, especially in shared builds. In fact, the only mode of operation that is really considered supported by upstream Abseil is compiling all dependencies with the same C++ standard version. This is obviously incompatible with servicing a large ecosystem, where some libraries might still require C++11, and some already require C++20.

This issue would be somewhat manageable if Abseil types were only ever used internally in libraries, meaning things could be solved with a certain degree of care which (static) builds of Abseil are available at build time. However, the situation is exacerbated drastically by the fact that several projects are using (or beginning to use) Abseil types in their public API, e.g. protobuf.

In the worst case, this means a full bifurcation of the necessary builds, though more realistically, it means that all Abseil consumers more or less need to agree on a given ABI. Further alternatives exist (e.g. always using the backport types, even if newer C++ standards are used), but are non-trivial to realize at scale.

  1. Despite this article being very colorful, it's worth noting that it was written by the current editor of the C language, as well as a prolific proposal author for both C & C++. 

Last update: January 2, 2023
Created: December 29, 2022