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The different parts of an ST binary file (Tutorial)

DrWatson's profile picture
Published in 
 · 11 Nov 2023

I'm curious about the way binaries are stored prior to being loaded for execution, and about what the loader does to the program being loaded.

I understand that a binary contains three sections--a text section, a data section, and a bss section. The text section and the data section I think are pretty clear; the text is the program, the data is, well, data.

It can contain a symbol table and relocation information as well.

But what is the bss section for? And what does the loader do to addresses in all three sections?

Additionally, what is the exact format that these three sections are arranged in.


This is what I could come up with; if Allan Pratt is reading this he can both take note of the bugs in Pexec (if they are not already fixed) and correct me if I'm wrong:

Note that I'm mostly talking about the binary, i.e. the program file, not the in-core process image (unless stated otherwise). By loader I mean that part (subroutine) of the Pexec code that actually loads / relocates / clears the image from the program file. This is what I could make of it after consulting the ROM (rumors only manual 8-); any comments / corrections happily accepted:

The binary starts off with a header of 0x1c bytes. First I will give a short explanation of each item in the header, then some details. The first two bytes (0x0-0x1) must be 0x601a.

The bytes 0x2-0x5 give the text (=code) length. The text starts immediately after the header, at address 0x1c. It contains all executable statements in a relocatable format.

The bytes 0x6-0x9 give the data length. The data segment starts immediately after the text segment. In this segment all initialized static and global data is stored (relocatable).

The bytes 0xa-0xd give the bss length. The bss segment contains all uninitialized data and as such DOES NOT OCCUPY ANY SPACE in the binary. The bytes 0xe-0x11 give the symbol table length. For most programs this will be zero; the GST linker creates a symbol table if you link with the -debug option. This table is typically used by debuggers, not by the loader (skipped).

The bytes 0x12-0x19 are currently not used, as far as I can see (reserved for future use?).

The bytes 0x1a-0x1b constitute a flag; if it is non-zero, no relocation is done.


If the first two bytes are not 0x601a, the Pexec fails with an error code of -66. There is a problem with this failure because the file opened by the loader is not closed. This can run a program (e.g. a shell) out of file descriptors. A workaround for this bug is to first open the program as a file and then close it (giving you the 'next' file descriptor); when the immediately following Pexec fails with error -66 Fclose should be called with this descriptor. In some other cases as well Pexec erroneously does not close the program file after an error in the load function. Probably the safest for shell programs, makes etc. is to explicitly close the program file when Pexec returns an error (and also after running a file that had the relocation flag set, see below).

The loader puts the starts and lengths of text, data and bss on the basepage. The text segment starts 0x100 bytes after the start of the basepage. If we consider the basepage as consisting of an array of longs (for simplicity's sake):

  • the 0th is the start address of the basepage
  • the 1th is the end of the program ('one past')
  • the 2th is the start address of text
  • the 3th is the length of text
  • the 4th is the start address of data
  • the 5th is the length of data
  • the 6th is the start address of bss
  • the 7th is the length of bss.

The loader copies the text and data segments into the process image from the program file.

The loader fills the bss with zeroes in the image, and in fact all space occupied by the program except for the text and data segments; this has been a topic for discussion in this newsgroup which I will not go into now.

If text size + data size + bss size > the allocation for the program the load aborts with error -39 (out of memory?). Also in this case the program file remains open (bug).

If the flag at 0x1a-0x1b of the program file IS 0, relocation is done as follows: the long just after the symbol table is interpreted as an offset from the text start pointer to start relocation with; if it is < 0 or > text length + data length the loader aborts with error -66. The rest of the bytes (after the long) are relocation information, were 0 indicates 'done' and 1 indicates 'skip 0xfe bytes'; every other value means: add this value to the current relocation pointer and relocate the long at that new address by adding the start of text to the value already at that address (an ST binary is relocated relative to the start of text). So generally speaking 1 byte suffices to point out a value to be relocated.

The null filling is done after the image has been relocated; if the no-relocation flag is set (0x1a-0x1b), null filling is NOT DONE! (how's that for settled expectations, Allan? 8-).

Isn't that nice to hear for all those performance freaks??! Note that this means that also the bss is not cleared (incorrect, at least for C programs), and again in this case the program file is not closed. About the symbol table: the following declarations should explain the layout; the table is in fact a 'naminfo array':

   #define UNDEF  0x2000 
#define ABSOL 0xA000
#define GLOBAL 0xA200

typedef struct naminfo {
char d_name[8]; /* name of symbol */
short d_type; /* type of symbol: see above for values */
long d_address; /* address (relative to start of text) */
} naminfo;

About the layout of the header of the program file and the basepage of the image: of course you should use a neat struct that clarifies the layout of the stuff (some compilers have it already in header files); I didn't care to do so in this particular case.

Besides loading the program file Pexec does some other stuff as well, before it actually switches to the new process. If you're interested I could tell you in a follow-up (this one being long enough already).

This was about what you were looking for? Enjoy.


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