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060ea31 Oct 25, 2016
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Make compiler aware of the association between library names adorning extern blocks and symbols defined within the block. Add attributes and command line switches that leverage this association.


Most of the time a linkage directive is only needed to inform the linker about what native libraries need to be linked into a program. On some platforms, however, the compiler needs more detailed knowledge about what's being linked from where in order to ensure that symbols are wired up correctly.

On Windows, when a symbol is imported from a dynamic library, the code that accesses this symbol must be generated differently than for symbols imported from a static library.

Currently the compiler is not aware of associations between the libraries and symbols imported from them, so it cannot alter code generation based on library kind.

Detailed design

Library <-> symbol association

The compiler shall assume that symbols defined within extern block are imported from the library mentioned in the #[link] attribute adorning the block.

Changes to code generation

On platforms other than Windows the above association will have no effect. On Windows, however, #[link(..., kind="dylib") shall be presumed to mean linking to a dll, whereas #[link(..., kind="static") shall mean static linking. In the former case, all symbols associated with that library will be marked with LLVM dllimport storage class.

Library name and kind variance

Many native libraries are linked via the command line via -l which is passed in through Cargo build scripts instead of being written in the source code itself. As a recap, a native library may change names across platforms or distributions or it may be linked dynamically in some situations and statically in others which is why build scripts are leveraged to make these dynamic decisions. In order to support this kind of dynamism, the following modifications are proposed:

  • Extend syntax of the -l flag to -l [KIND=]lib[:NEWNAME]. The NEWNAME part may be used to override name of a library specified in the source.
  • Add new meaning to the KIND part: if "lib" is already specified in the source, this will override its kind with KIND. Note that this override is possible only for libraries defined in the current crate.


#[link(name="foo", kind="dylib")]
extern {
    // dllimport applied

#[link(name="bar", kind="static")]
extern {
    // dllimport not applied

extern {
    // kind defaults to "dylib", dllimport applied
rustc -l static=foo # change foo's kind to "static", dllimport will not be applied
rustc -l foo:newfoo # link newfoo instead of foo, keeping foo's kind as "dylib"
rustc -l dylib=bar # change bar's kind to "dylib", dllimport will be applied

Unbundled static libs (optional)

It had been pointed out that sometimes one may wish to link to a static system library (i.e. one that is always available to the linker) without bundling it into .lib's and .rlib's. For this use case we'll introduce another library "kind", "static-nobundle". Such libraries would be treated in the same way as "static", except they will not be bundled into the target .lib/.rlib.


For libraries to work robustly on MSVC, the correct #[link] annotation will be required. Most cases will "just work" on MSVC due to the compiler strongly favoring static linkage, but any symbols imported from a dynamic library or exported as a Rust dynamic library will need to be tagged appropriately to ensure that they work in all situations. Worse still, the #[link] annotations on an extern block are not required on any other platform to work correctly, meaning that it will be common that these attributes are left off by accident.


  • Instead of enhancing #[link], a #[linked_from = "foo"] annotation could be added. This has the drawback of not being able to handle native libraries whose name is unpredictable across platforms in an easy fashion, however. Additionally, it adds an extra attribute to the comipler that wasn't known previously.

  • Support a #[dllimport] on extern blocks (or individual symbols, or both). This has the following drawbacks, however:

    • This attribute would duplicate the information already provided by #[link(kind="...")].
    • It is not always known whether #[dllimport] is needed. Native libraires are not always known whether they're linked dynamically or statically (e.g. that's what a build script decides), so dllimport will need to be guarded by cfg_attr.
  • When linking native libraries, the compiler could attempt to locate each library on the filesystem and probe the contents for what symbol names are exported from the native library. This list could then be cross-referenced with all symbols declared in the program locally to understand which symbols are coming from a dylib and which are being linked statically. Some downsides of this approach may include:

    • It's unclear whether this will be a performant operation and not cause undue runtime overhead during compiles.

    • On Windows linking to a DLL involves linking to its "import library", so it may be difficult to know whether a symbol truly comes from a DLL or not.

    • Locating libraries on the system may be difficult as the system linker often has search paths baked in that the compiler does not know about.

  • As was already mentioned, "kind" override can affect codegen of the current crate only. This overloading the -l flag for this purpose may be confusinfg to developers. A new codegen flag might be a better fit for this, for example -C libkind=KIND=LIB.

Unresolved questions

  • Should we allow dropping a library specified in the source from linking via -l lib: (i.e. "rename to empty")?