C Program Startup

Does C program really start at main

Software Development

Imad Dabbura


October 21, 2022


October 21, 2022

Figure 1: Linux x86 program startup(Source)


In this post, I will try to write down the steps of C program execution on x86. I used to believe that all C programs start execution at main, or at least this was my understanding from different books/courses until my best friend gdb debugger showed the symbol for _start. This is how I got curious until I got to the bottom of it. Below are my notes that I took during my learning.

Execution Steps

  1. The linker inject _start which is called in the process of loading.
    • It is written in assembly language
    • Always placed at the beginning of the .text section -> Always guaranteed to run before anything else
    • It sets up some registers and arguments and calls __start which is called __libc_start_main
  2. __libc_start_main is written in C that:
    • function prototype:
    __libc_start_main (int (*main) (int, char **, char **),
                       int argc,
                       char *argv,
                       int  (*init) (int, char **, char **),
                       void (*fini) (void),
                       void (*rtld_fini) (void),
                       void *stack_end
    • Define environ global variable using ps_string: environ = ps_strings->ps_envstr
      • Below are some details about ps_strings structure:
     * The following structure is found at the top of the user stack of each
     * user process. The ps program uses it to locate argv and environment
     * strings. Programs that wish ps to display other information may modify
     * it; normally ps_argvstr points to argv[0], and ps_nargvstr is the same
     * as the program's argc. The fields ps_envstr and ps_nenvstr are the
     * equivalent for the environment.
    struct ps_strings {
        char    **ps_argvstr;       /* first of 0 or more argument strings */
        int       ps_nargvstr;      /* the number of argument strings */
        char    **ps_envstr;        /* first of 0 or more environment strings */
        int       ps_nenvstr;       /* the number of environment strings */
    • It is typically defined as char envp = argv[argc + 1] in libc_init_first
    • It also registers cleanup and exit handlers
    • It define init & fini that defines function prolog and epilogue which means defining what happens when calling a function and when returning from a function. They also align the stack to be multiple of 16 bytes so it is more efficient and cache friendly. They are written in assembly language
    • It sets %rbp to zero because main would be the outermost frame
    • Finally it calls:
        exit(main(ps_strings->ps_nargvstr, ps_strings->ps_argvstr, environ));
    • After the NULL of envp, there is ELF auxiliary vector that the loader uses to provide information to the process such as user id and page size etc.
    • Therefore, __libc_start_main in general does the following:
      • Set up argv and envp
      • Initialize the thread local storage by calling __pthread_initialize_minimal (which only calls __libc_setup_tls). __libc_setup_tls will initialize Thread Control Block and Dynamic Thread Vector.
      • Set up the thread stack guard
      • Register the destructor (i.e. the rtld_fini argument passed to __libc_start_main) of the dynamic linker (by calling __cxa_atexit) if there is any
      • Initialize Glibc itself by calling __libc_init_first
      • Register __libc_csu_fini (i.e. the fini argument passed to __libc_start_main) using __cxa_atexit
      • Call __libc_csu_init (i.e. the init argument passed to __libc_start_main). __libc_csu_init execute them in the following order:
        • Function pointers in .preinit_array section
        • Functions marked as __attribute__ ((constructor)), via _init
        • Function pointers in .init_array section
      • Set up data structures needed for thread unwinding/cancellation
      • Call main of user’s program.
      • Call exit
        • In reverse order, functions registered via atexit or on_exit
        • Function pointers in .fini_array section, via __libc_csu_fini
        • Functions marked as __attribute__ ((destructor)), via __libc_csu_fini (which calls _fini after Step 2)
        • stdio cleanup functions
        • The .fini_array section must also contain function pointers and the prototype is like the destructor, i.e. taking no arguments and returning void. If the program exits normally, then the exit function (Glibc source file stdlib/exit.c)


So starting program will call execve that starts the loader that at some point pass control to _start, which calls __libc_start_main which calls __libc_csu_init which calls _init.