Beyond Logic

uClinux - BFLT Binary Flat Format

    uClinux uses a Binary Flat format commonly known as BFLT. It is a relatively simple and lightweight executable format based on the original a.out format. It has seen two major revisions, version 2 and more recently version 4. Version 2 is used by the m68k-coff compilers and is still in use with the ARM elf2flt converter while version 4 is used with the m68k elf2flt converter. Like many open source projects worked on by many individuals, little features have creped into versions without the revision field changing. As a consequence what we detail in each version may not strictly be the case in all circumstances. Both the 2.0.x and 2.4.x kernels’ bFLT loaders in the CVS support both formats. Earlier kernels may need to have binfmt_flat.c and flat.c patched to support version 4, should version 4 binaries report the following message when loading

      bFLT:not found. 
      bad magic/rev(4,need 2)

    Each flat binary is preceded by a header of the structure shown below in listing 1. It starts with 4 ASCII bytes, “bFLT” or 0x62, 0x46, 0x4C, 0x54 which identifies the binary as conforming to the flat format. The next field designates the version number of the flat header. As mentioned there are two major versions, version 2 and version 4. Each version differs by the supported flags and the format of the relocations.

    The next group of fields in the header specify the starting address of each segment relative to the start of the flat file. Most files start the .text segment at 0x40 (immediately after the end of the header). The data_start, data_end and bss_end fields specify the start or finish of the designated segments. With the absence of text_end and bss_start fields, it is assumed that the text segment comes first, followed immediately by the data segment. While the comments for the flat file header would suggest there is a bss segment somewhere in the flat file, this is not true. bss_end is used to represent the length of the bss segment, thus should be set to data_end + size of bss.

    bFLT File Format
    Figure 1 : Flat File Format
      struct flat_hdr {
      	char magic[4];
      	unsigned long rev;          /* version */
      	unsigned long entry;        /* Offset of first executable instruction
      	                               with text segment from beginning of file */
      	unsigned long data_start;   /* Offset of data segment from beginning of
      	                               file */
      	unsigned long data_end;     /* Offset of end of data segment
      	                               from beginning of file */
      	unsigned long bss_end;      /* Offset of end of bss segment from beginning
      	                               of file */
      	/* (It is assumed that data_end through bss_end forms the bss segment.) */
      	unsigned long stack_size;   /* Size of stack, in bytes */
      	unsigned long reloc_start;  /* Offset of relocation records from
      	                               beginning of file */
      	unsigned long reloc_count;  /* Number of relocation records */
      	unsigned long flags;       
      	unsigned long filler[6];    /* Reserved, set to zero */

    Listing 1 : The bFLT header structure extracted from flat.h

    Following the segments’ start and end pointers comes the stack size field specified in bytes. This is normally set to 4096 by the m68k bFLT converters and can be changed by passing an argument (-s) to the elf2flt / coff2flt utility.

    The next two fields specify the details of the relocations. Each relocation is a long (32 bits) with the relocation table following the data segment in the flat binary file. The relocation entries are different per bFLT version.

    Version 2 specified a 2 bit type and 30 bit offset per relocation. This causes a headache with endianess problems. The 30 bit relocation is a pointer relative to zero where an absolute address is used. The type indicates whether the absolute address points to .text, .data or .bss.

      #define FLAT_RELOC_TYPE_TEXT 0
      #define FLAT_RELOC_TYPE_DATA 1
      #define FLAT_RELOC_TYPE_BSS 2
      struct flat_reloc {
      #if defined(__BIG_ENDIAN_BITFIELD) /* bit fields, ugh ! */
      	unsigned long type : 2; 
      	signed long offset : 30;
      #elif defined(__LITTLE_ENDIAN_BITFIELD)
      	signed long offset : 30;
      	unsigned long type : 2; 

    Listing 2 : Version 2 relocation structures - Not for use in new code.

    This enables the flat loader to fix-up absolute addressing at runtime by jumping to the absolute address specified by the relocation entry and adding the loaded base address to the existing address.

    Version 4 removed the need of specifying a relocation type. Each relocation entry simply contains a pointer to an absolute address in need of fix-up. As the bFLT loader can determine the length of the .text segment at runtime (data_start - entry) we can use this to determine what segment the relocation is for. If the absolute address before fix-up is less that the text length, we can safety assume the relocation is pointing to the text segment and this add the base address of this segment to the absolute address.

    On the other hand if the absolute address before fix-up is greater than the text length, then the absolute address must be pointing to .data or .bss. As .bss always immediately follows the data segment there is no need to have a distinction, we just add the base address of the data segment and subtract the length of the text segment. We subtract the text segment as the absolute address in version 4 is relative to zero and not to the start of the data segment.

    Now you could say we may take it one step further. As every absolute address is referenced to zero, we can simply add the base address of the text segment to each address needing fix-up. This would be true if the data segment immediately follows the text segment, but we now have complications of -msep-data where the text segment can be in ROM and the data segment in another location in RAM. Therefore we can no longer assume that the .data+.bss segment and text segment will immediately follow each other.

    The last defined field in the header is the flags. This appeared briefly in some version 2 headers (Typically ARM) but was cemented in place with version 4. The flags are defined as follows

      #define FLAT_FLAG_RAM    0x0001 /* load program entirely into RAM */
      #define FLAT_FLAG_GOTPIC 0x0002 /* program is PIC with GOT */
      #define FLAT_FLAG_GZIP   0x0004 /* all but the header is compressed */

    Listing 3 : New flags defined in Version 4

    Early version 2 binaries saw both the .text and .data segments loaded into RAM regardless. XIP (eXecute in Place) was later introduced allowing programs to execute from ROM with only the data segment being copied into RAM. In version 4, it is now assumed that each binary is loaded from ROM if GOTPIC is true and FLAT_FLAG_GZIP and FLAT_FLAG_RAM is false. A binary can be forced to load into RAM by forcing the FLAT_FLAG_RAM flag.

    The FLAT_FLAG_GOTPIC informs the loader that a GOT (Global Offset Table) is present at the start of the data segment. This table includes offsets that need to be relocated at runtime and thus allows XIP to work. (Data is accessed through the GOT, thus relocations need not be made to the .text residing in ROM.) The GOT is terminated with a -1, followed immediately by the data segment.

    The FLAT_FLAG_GZIP indicates the binary is compressed with the GZIP algorithm. The header is left untouched, but the .text, .data and relocations are compressed. Some bFLT loaders do not support GZIP and will report an error at loading.

    Acknowledgments to Pauli from Lineo for pointing out some minor errors.

Copyright 2001-2005 Craig Peacock - 15th June 2005.