Posts Tagged ‘Compilers’

Thread Local Storage, part 4: Accessing __declspec(thread) data

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Yesterday, I outlined how the compiler and linker cooperate to support TLS. However, I didn’t mention just what exactly goes on under the hood when one declares a __declspec(thread) variable and accesses it.

Before the inner workings of a __declspec(thread) variable access can be explained, however, it is necessary to discuss several more special variables in tlssup.c. These special variables are referenced by _tls_used to create the TLS directory for the image.

The first variable of interest is _tls_index, which is implicitly referenced by the compiler in the per-thread storage resolution mechanism any time a thread local variable is referenced (well, almost every time; there’s an exception to this, which I’ll mention later on). _tls_index is also the only variable declared in tlssup.c that uses the default allocation storage class. Internally, it represents the current module’s TLS index. The per-module TLS index is, in principal, similar to a TLS index returned by TlsAlloc. However, the two are not compatible, and there exists significantly more work behind the per-module TLS index and its supporting code. I’ll cover all of that later as well; for now, just bear with me.

The definitions of _tls_start and _tls_end appear as so in tlssup.c:

#pragma data_seg(".tls")

#if defined (_M_IA64) || defined (_M_AMD64)
char _tls_start = 0;

#pragma data_seg(".tls$ZZZ")

#if defined (_M_IA64) || defined (_M_AMD64)
char _tls_end = 0;

This code creates the two variables and places them at the start and end of the “.tls” section. The compiler and linker will automatically assume a default allocation section of “.tls” for all __declspec(thread) variables, such that they will be placed between _tls_start and _tls_end in the final image. The two variables are used to tell the linker the bounds of the TLS storage template section, via the image’s TLS directory (_tls_used).

Now that we know how __declspec(thread) works from a language level, it is necessary to understand the supporting code the compiler generates for an access to a __declspec(thread) variable. This supporting code is, fortunately, fairly straightforward. Consider the following test program:

__declspec(thread) int threadedint = 0;

int __cdecl wmain(int ac,
   wchar_t **av)
   threadedint = 42;

   return 0;

For x64, the compiler generated the following code:

mov	 ecx, DWORD PTR _tls_index
mov	 rax, QWORD PTR gs:88
mov	 edx, OFFSET FLAT:threadedint
mov	 rax, QWORD PTR [rax+rcx*8]
mov	 DWORD PTR [rdx+rax], 42

Recall that the gs segment register refers to the base address of the TEB on x64. 88 (0x58) is the offset in the TEB for the ThreadLocalStoragePointer member on x64 (more on that later):

   +0x058 ThreadLocalStoragePointer : Ptr64 Void

If we examine the code after the linker has run, however, we’ll notice something strange:

mov     ecx, cs:_tls_index
mov     rax, gs:58h
mov     edx, 4
mov     rax, [rax+rcx*8]
mov     dword ptr [rdx+rax], 2Ah ; 42
xor     eax, eax

If you haven’t noticed it already, the offset of the “threadedint” variable was resolved to a small value (4). Recall that in the pre-link disassembly, the “mov edx, 4” instruction was “mov edx, OFFSET FLAT:threadedint”.

Now, 4 isn’t a very flat address (one would expect an address within the confines of the executable image to be used). What happened?

Well, it turns out that the linker has some tricks up its sleeve that were put into play here. The “offset” of a __declspec(thread) variable is assumed to be relative to the base of the “.tls” section by the linker when it is resolving address references. If one examines the “.tls” section of the image, things begin to make a bit more sense:

0000000001007000 _tls segment para public 'DATA' use64
0000000001007000      assume cs:_tls
0000000001007000     ;org 1007000h
0000000001007000 _tls_start        dd 0
0000000001007004 ; int threadedint
0000000001007004 ?threadedint@@3HA dd 0
0000000001007008 _tls_end          dd 0

The offset of “threadedint” from the start of the “.tls” section is indeed 4 bytes. But all of this still doesn’t explain how the instructions the compiler generated access a variable that is instanced per thread.

The “secret sauce” here lies in the following three instructions:

mov     ecx, cs:_tls_index
mov     rax, gs:58h
mov     rax, [rax+rcx*8]

These instructions fetch ThreadLocalStoragePointer out of the TEB and index it by _tls_index. The resulting pointer is then indexed again with the offset of threadedint from the start of the “.tls” section to form a complete pointer to this thread’s instance of the threadedint variable.

In C, the code that the compiler generated could be visualized as follows:

// This represents the ".tls" section
   int tls_start;
   int threadedint;
   int tls_end;


Teb     = NtCurrentTeb();
TlsData = Teb->ThreadLocalStoragePointer[ _tls_index ];

TlsData->threadedint = 42;

This should look familiar if you’ve used explicit TLS before. The typical paradigm for explicit TLS is to place a structure pointer in a TLS slot, and then to access your thread local state, the per thread instance of the structure is retrieved and the appropriate variable is then referenced off of the structure pointer. The difference here is that the compiler and linker (and loader, more on that later) cooperated to save you (the programmer) from having to do all of that explicitly; all you had to do was declare a __declspec(thread) variable and all of this happens magically behind the scenes.

There’s actually an additional curve that the compiler will sometimes throw with respect to how implicit TLS variables work from a code generation perspective. You may have noticed how I showed the x64 version of an access to a __declspec(thread) variable; this is because, by default, x86 builds of a .exe involve a special optimization (/GA (Optimize for Windows Application, quite possibly the worst name for a compiler flag ever)) that eliminates the step of referencing the special _tls_index variable by assuming that it is zero.

This optimization is only possible with a .exe that will run as the main process image. The assumption works in this case because the loader assigns per-module TLS index values on a sequential basis (based on the loaded module list), and the main process image should be the second thing in the loaded module list, after NTDLL (which, now that this optimization is being used, can never have any __declspec(thread) variables, or it would get TLS index zero instead of the main process image). It’s worth noting that in the (extremely rare) case that a .exe exports functions and is imported by another .exe, this optimization will cause random corruption if the imported .exe happens to use __declspec(thread).

For reference, with /GA enabled, the x86 build of the above code results in the following instructions:

mov     eax, large fs:2Ch
mov     ecx, [eax]
mov     dword ptr [ecx+4], 2Ah ; 42

Remember that on x86, fs points to the base address of the TEB, and that ThreadLocalStoragePointer is at offset +0x2C from the base of the x86 TEB.

Notice that there is no reference to _tls_index; the compiler assumes that it will take on the value zero. If one examines a .dll built with the x86 compiler, the /GA optimization is always disabled, and _tls_index is used as expected.

The magic behind __declspec(thread) extends beyond just the compiler and linker, however. Something still has to set up the storage for each module’s per-thread state, and that something is the loader. More on how the loader plays a part in this complex process next time.

Thread Local Storage, part 3: Compiler and linker support for implicit TLS

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Last time, I discussed the mechanisms by which so-called explicit TLS operates (the TlsGetValue, TlsSetValue and other associated supporting routines).

Although explicit TLS is certainly fairly heavily used, many of the more “interesting” pieces about how TLS works in fact relate to the work that the loader does to support implicit TLS, or __declspec(thread) variables (in CL). While both TLS mechanisms are designed to provide a similar effect, namely the capability to store information on a per-thread basis, many aspects of the implementations of the two different mechanisms are very different.

When you declare a variable with the __declspec(thread) extended storage class, the compiler and linker cooperate to allocate storage for the variable in a special region in the executable image. By convention, all variables with the __declspec(thread) storage class are placed in the .tls section of a PE image, although this is not technically required (in fact, the thread local variables do not even really need to be in their own section, merely contiguous in memory, at least from the loader’s perspective). On disk, this region of memory contains the initializer data for all thread local variables in a particular image. However, this data is never actually modified and references to a particular thread local variable will never refer to an address within this section of the PE image; the data is merely a “template” to be used when allocating storage for thread local variables after a thread has been created.

The compiler and linker also make use of several special variables in the context of implicit TLS support. Specifically, a variable by the name of _tls_used (of the type IMAGE_TLS_DIRECTORY) is created by a portion of the C runtime that is static linked into every program to represent the TLS directory that will be used in the final image (references to this variable should be extern “C” in C++ code for name decoration purposes, and storage for the variable need not be allocated as the supporting CRT stub code already creates the variable). The TLS directory is a part of the PE header of an executable image which describes to the loader how the image’s thread local variables are to be managed. The linker looks for a variable by the name of _tls_used and ensures that in the on-disk image, it overlaps with the actual TLS directory in the final image.

The source code for the particular section of C runtime logic that declares _tls_used lives in the tlssup.c file (which comes with Visual Studio), making the variable pseudo-documented. The standard declaration for _tls_used is as so:

const IMAGE_TLS_DIRECTORY _tls_used =
 (ULONG)(ULONG_PTR) &_tls_start, // start of tls data
 (ULONG)(ULONG_PTR) &_tls_end,   // end of tls data
 (ULONG)(ULONG_PTR) &_tls_index, // address of tls_index
 (ULONG)(ULONG_PTR) (&__xl_a+1), // pointer to callbacks
 (ULONG) 0,                      // size of tls zero fill
 (ULONG) 0                       // characteristics

The CRT code also provides a mechanism to allow a program to register a set of TLS callbacks, which are functions with a similar prototype to DllMain that are called when a thread starts or exits (cleanly) in the current process. (These callbacks can even be registered for a main process image, where there is no DllMain routine.) The callbacks are typed as PIMAGE_TLS_CALLBACK, and the TLS directory points to a null-terminated array of callbacks (called in sequence).

For a typical image, there will not exist any TLS callbacks (in practice, almost everything uses DllMain to perform per-thread initialization tasks). However, the support is retained and is fully functional. To use the support that the CRT provides for TLS callbacks, one needs to declare a variable that is stored in the specially named “.CRT$XLx” section, where x is a value between A and Z. For example, one might write the following code:

#pragma section(".CRT$XLY",long,read)

extern "C" __declspec(allocate(".CRT$XLY"))
  PIMAGE_TLS_CALLBACK _xl_y  = MyTlsCallback;

The strange business with the special section names is required because the in-memory ordering of the TLS callback pointers is significant. To understand what is happening with this peculiar looking declaration, it is first necessary to understand a bit about the compiler and linker organize data in the final PE image that is produced.

Non-header data in a PE image is placed into one or more sections, which are regions of memory with a common set of attributes (such as page protection). The __declspec(allocate(“section-name”)) keyword (CL-specific) tells the compiler that a particular variable is to be placed in a specific section in the final executable. The compiler additionally has support for concatenating similarly-named sections into one larger section. This support is activated by prefixing a section name with a $ character followed by any other text. The compiler concatenates the resulting section with the section of the same name, truncated at the $ character (inclusive).

The compiler alphabetically orders individual sections when concatenating them (due to the usage of the $ character in the section name). This means that in-memory (in the final executable image), a variable in the “.CRT$XLB” section will be after a variable in the “.CRT$XLA” section but before a variable in “.CRT$XLZ” section. The C runtime uses this quirk of the compiler to create an array of null terminated function pointers to TLS callbacks (with the pointer stored in the “.CRT$XLZ” section being the null terminator). Thus, in order to ensure that the declared function pointer resides within the confines of the TLS callback array being referenced by _tls_used, it is necessary place in a section of the form “.CRT$XLx“.

The creation of the TLS directory is, however, only one portion of how the compiler and linker work together to support __declspec(thread) variables. Next time, I’ll discuss just how the compiler and linker manage accesses to such variables.

Update: Phil mentions that this support for TLS callbacks does not work before the Visual Studio 2005 release. Be warned if you are still using an old compiler package.