Problem statement

Given the current register state for a thread, and read-only access to memory, what would the register state hypothetically become if the current function was to immediately return and execution was to resume in its caller?

Notably, the register state includes (amongst other things) an instruction pointer and a stack pointer, so this operation can be iterated to generate a backtrace. With some extensions to support calling destructors and catching exceptions, this operation can also be the basis of throwing exceptions.

This operation is typically called unwinding (as in "unwinding a call frame" or "unwinding the stack").

If certain registers are always undefined immediately after a function return (because they are volatile in the ABI), then we needn't care about their state.


The size and contents of the register state depends on the architecture being used. We'll paper over this slightly by refering to registers by ordinal rather than by name, and rely on DWARF register number mappings to go between ordinal and name, for example:

Ordinalx86 namex86_64 nameaarch64 name
30X30 (LR)

Because everyone loves special cases, the instruction pointer register (e.g. eip / rip / PC) isn't given an ordinal. On aarch64, it doesn't need one: the return address is always in some register (usually X30, aka. LR), and so we can use the return address register to represent the instruction pointer. In contrast, x86 and x86_64 put the return address on the stack rather than in a register. For these, we'll invent a fake register (typically ordinal 8 on x86, ordinal 16 on x86_64), pretend that it contains the return address, and use it to represent the instruction pointer.

Floating-point and vector registers are generally volatile in Linux ABIs, so we needn't worry about them too much.

Start small: unwinding just the stack pointer

In most cases, the hypothetical stack pointer after function return can be easily calculated by adding some value to some register. This can be expressed as two DWARF-style ULEB128 values: one ULEB128 to specify which register to start with (often the current stack pointer), then one ULEB128 to specify the amount to add. As foreshadowing, we'll call this DW_CFA_def_cfa.

Unwinding other registers

In most cases, if a function modifies a non-volatile register, it'll save it to somewhere on the stack before modifying it. Upon function return, it'll re-load the value from said stack slot. The locations of these stack slots can be expressed as being relative to the hypothetical stack pointer after function return. This can again be expressed as two DWARF-style ULEB128 values: one ULEB to specify which register we're talking about, then one ULEB to specify the offset of its stack slot. There's only one problem: because the offset is against the hypothetical stack pointer after function return, the required offset is going to be negative, which a ULEB can't represent. To get around this, we'll scale the 2nd ULEB by a so-called data_align value (typically -4 or -8), which also has the convenient side-effect of making the ULEB smaller. As foreshadowing, we'll call this DW_CFA_offset_extended. When the 1st ULEB is less than 64, we might also call this DW_CFA_offset.

More ways to unwind other registers

So far we've described forming the address of a stack slot, and then loading from it. There's a natural variation that skips the 2nd part: form the address of a stack slot, then set the value of a register to be that address.

There's another common variant: unwind register X by taking the value from register Y (when X equals Y, this means that said register was unchanged).

For when these common variants aren't sufficient, we'll later describe a little expression language and associated bytecode VM capable of describing all sorts of complicated mechanisms.

This leads to the following definitions to describe how to unwind registers:

enum StackPointerUnwindMechanism {
  RegOffset(unsigned RegOrdinal, unsigned Offset),
  ExprResult(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len]),

enum OtherRegUnwindMechanism {
  LoadFromStackSlot(int StackSlotOffset),
  AddressOfStackSlot(int StackSlotOffset),
  CopyFromRegister(unsigned RegOrdinal),
  LoadFromExprResult(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len]),
  ExprResult(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len]),

struct UnwindActions {
  StackPointerUnwindMechanism sp;
  OtherRegUnwindMechanism reg[NUM_REG];

With the associated unwind logic being:

struct RegState {
  uintptr_t value[NUM_REG];

RegState UnwindOneFrame(RegState* input, UnwindActions* actions) {
  RegState output;
  uintptr_t NewSP;
  switch (actions->sp) {
  case RegOffset(unsigned RegOrdinal, unsigned Offset):
    NewSP = input->value[RegOrdinal] + Offset;
  case ExprResult(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len]):
    NewSP = EvalExpr(DwOpBytecode, 0, input);
  output->value[SP] = NewSP;
  for (unsigned i = 0; i < NUM_REG; ++i) {
    uintptr_t NewVal;
    switch (actions->reg[i]) {
    case LoadFromStackSlot(int StackSlotOffset):
      NewVal = *(uintptr_t*)(NewSP + StackSlotOffset);
    case AddressOfStackSlot(int StackSlotOffset):
      NewVal = NewSP + StackSlotOffset;
    case CopyFromRegister(unsigned RegOrdinal):
      NewVal = input->value[RegOrdinal];
    case LoadFromExprResult(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len]):
      NewVal = *(uintptr_t*)EvalExpr(DwOpBytecode, NewSP, input);
    case ExprResult(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len]):
      NewVal = EvalExpr(DwOpBytecode, NewSP, input);
    output->value[i] = NewVal;
  return output;

A little bytecode VM is defined to populate an instance of UnwindActions:

OpcodeName and operandsSemantics assuming UnwindActions* ua
0x0cDW_CFA_def_cfa(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Off)ua->sp = RegOffset(Reg, Off)
0x12DW_CFA_def_cfa_sf(uleb128 Reg, sleb128 Off)ua->sp = RegOffset(Reg, Off * data_align)
0x0fDW_CFA_def_cfa_expression(uleb128 Len, uint8_t DwOpBytecode[Len])ua->sp = ExprResult(DwOpBytecode)
0x80 + RegDW_CFA_offset(uleb128 Off)ua->reg[Reg] = LoadFromStackSlot(Off * data_align)
0x05DW_CFA_offset_extended(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Off)ua->reg[Reg] = LoadFromStackSlot(Off * data_align)
0x11DW_CFA_offset_extended_sf(uleb128 Reg, sleb128 Off)ua->reg[Reg] = LoadFromStackSlot(Off * data_align)
0x2fDW_CFA_GNU_negative_offset_extended(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Off)ua->reg[Reg] = LoadFromStackSlot(-(Off * data_align))
0x14DW_CFA_val_offset(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Off)ua->reg[Reg] = AddressOfStackSlot(Off * data_align)
0x15DW_CFA_val_offset_sf(uleb128 Reg, sleb128 Off)ua->reg[Reg] = AddressOfStackSlot(Off * data_align)
0xc0 + RegDW_CFA_restoreua->reg[Reg] = CopyFromRegister(Reg)
0x06DW_CFA_restore_extended(uleb128 Reg)ua->reg[Reg] = CopyFromRegister(Reg)
0x08DW_CFA_same_value(uleb128 Reg)ua->reg[Reg] = CopyFromRegister(Reg)
0x09DW_CFA_register(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Src)ua->reg[Reg] = CopyFromRegister(Src)
0x07DW_CFA_undefined(uleb128 Reg)ua->reg[Reg] = Undefined
0x10DW_CFA_expression(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Len, uint8_t DwOpBytecode[Len])ua->reg[Reg] = LoadFromExprResult(DwOpBytecode)
0x16DW_CFA_val_expression(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Len, uint8_t DwOpBytecode[Len])ua->reg[Reg] = ExprResult(DwOpBytecode)

† This differs from the usual DWARF semantics. To avoid confusion, use DW_CFA_same_value instead of DW_CFA_restore.

If the bytecode does not initialise sp, its value is Undefined. If the bytecode does not initialise reg[i], its value is CopyFromRegister(i).

Putting it together in a CIE

The aforementioned bytecode gets wrapped up in something called a CIE, which also includes a bunch of other fields:

struct cie {
  uint32_t length;           // In bytes, of all subsequent fields
  int32_t  zero;             // Must be zero
  uint8_t  version;          // Typically 1 or 3, sometimes 4
  char     aug_string[];     // NUL terminated
  if (aug_string[0] == 'e' && aug_string[1] == 'h') {
    void* eh_ptr;            // Only used by very old g++
  if (version >= 4) {
    uint8_t addr_size;       // Must be sizeof(void*)
    uint8_t segment_size;    // Must be zero
  uleb128 code_align;        // Typically 1 (even on aarch64)
  sleb128 data_align;        // Typically -4 or -8
  if (version == 1) {
    uint8_t return_address_ordinal;
  } else {
    uleb128 return_address_ordinal;
  uint8_t aug_operands[];    // Relates to aug_string
  uint8_t dw_cfa_bytecode[];
  uint8_t zero_padding[];    // To give 4 or 8 byte alignment

The aug_string field is a NUL-terminated ASCII string. Conceptually it is a bitmask of flags, except that each flag is represented by one or two characters rather than by a single bit. If the flag has associated operand(s), they are read out of the aug_operands field, in the same order as characters appear in aug_string. The recognised flags are:

"eh"void* eh_ptrOperand not part of aug_operands
"z"uleb128 lengthIn bytes, of subsequent aug_operands
"R"uint8_t fde_ptr_encodingForeshadowing
"P"uint8_t ptr_encoding
uint8_t personality_ptr[]
"L"uint8_t lsda_ptr_encodingForeshadowing
"S"NoneSignal handler frame
"B"Noneaarch64 ptrauth uses B key
"\0"NoneEnd of aug_string

"eh", if it appears, must be first. In practice, it is never present, except in code compiled by very old versions of g++. "z", if it appears, must be next, and in practice is always present. The remaining characters (except NUL) can appear in any order, though if "R" is present, and "S" and/or "B" are also present, then "R" must appear before "S" and before "B" (to work around bugs in get_cie_encoding, as compared to the correct extract_cie_info).

The whole struct cie must have a length which is a multiple of sizeof(uintptr_t) bytes. The zero_padding field at the end ensures this. Helpfully, DW_CFA_nop is zero, so zero_padding can be seen as an extension of the dw_cfa_bytecode field. The length of the whole struct cie is 4 + length. To get the length of the combined dw_cfa_bytecode / zero_padding, the lengths of all the other fields need to be subtracted off. This is straightforward (albeit fiddly) for most fields, with the only hard case being aug_operands: its length depends on the contents of aug_string, and there may be characters in aug_string which we do not recognise. This is where "z" comes in: once we've decoded its operand, it tells us the remaining length of aug_operands.

From one location to many

Obtaining the UnwindActions applicable to one instruction pointer value is all well and good, but this needs to scale to every (*) possible instruction pointer value across an entire program. One relevant observation is that the UnwindActions applicable to an instruction pointer X are usually very similar (or even identical to) those applicable to an instruction pointer value of X+1.

(*) Assuming -fasynchronous-unwind-tables. Less coverage is required if only -fnon-call-exceptions is used, and less still is required if neither is used. Note that -fasynchronous-unwind-tables is enabled by default on some architectures.

With this observation in mind, we can borrow a trick from video compression: use a keyframe to describe the UnwindActions applicable at the start of every function, and then use delta frames to describe the differences as the instruction pointer progresses through the function.

This motivates a bunch of new VM opcodes, along with two pieces of VM state: set target to the instruction pointer that you want UnwindActions for, set fpc to the instruction pointer of the start of the function, and execute VM instructions either until you run out of VM instructions, or until fpc >= target:

OpcodeName and operandsSemantics
0x40 + OffDW_CFA_advance_locfpc += Off * code_align; if (fpc >= target) break;
0x02DW_CFA_advance_loc1(uint8_t Off)fpc += Off * code_align; if (fpc >= target) break;
0x03DW_CFA_advance_loc2(uint16_t Off)fpc += Off * code_align; if (fpc >= target) break;
0x04DW_CFA_advance_loc4(uint32_t Off)fpc += Off * code_align; if (fpc >= target) break;
0x01DW_CFA_set_loc(uint8_t Ptr[])fpc = DecodePtr(fde_encoding from CIE, Ptr); if (fpc >= target) break;

It also motivates two pieces of VM state called spReg and spOff, along with revisements to DW_CFA_def_cfa / DW_CFA_def_cfa_sf, and new opcodes which perform only one half of DW_CFA_def_cfa / DW_CFA_def_cfa_sf:

OpcodeName and operandsSemantics assuming UnwindActions* ua
0x0cDW_CFA_def_cfa(uleb128 Reg, uleb128 Off)ua->sp = RegOffset(spReg = Reg, spOff = Off)
0x12DW_CFA_def_cfa_sf(uleb128 Reg, sleb128 Off)ua->sp = RegOffset(spReg = Reg, spOff = Off * data_align)
0x0dDW_CFA_def_cfa_register(uleb128 Reg)spReg = Reg; ua->sp = RegOffset(spReg, spOff)
0x0eDW_CFA_def_cfa_offset(uleb128 Off)spOff = Off; if (ua->sp is RegOffset) ua->sp = RegOffset(spReg, spOff)
0x13DW_CFA_def_cfa_offset_sf(sleb128 Off)spOff = Off * data_align; if (ua->sp is RegOffset) ua->sp = RegOffset(spReg, spOff)

Finally, it motivates adding a Stack<UnwindActions> to the VM, along with some opcodes to manipulate it:

OpcodeName and operandsSemantics assuming UnwindActions* ua
0x0aDW_CFA_remember_statePush(*ua) (note that ua not modified)
0x0bDW_CFA_restore_state*ua = Pop()

From one function to many

We could happily have one CIE per function, but there would be quite a lot of repetition between CIEs. To resolve this, we introduce the concept of an FDE, which is essentially a stripped down CIE:

struct fde {
  uint32_t length;            // In bytes, of all subsequent fields
  int32_t  cie_offset;        // In bytes, from this field, to a CIE
  uint8_t  func_start[];      // Using fde_ptr_encoding from CIE
  uint8_t  func_length[];     // Using (fde_ptr_encoding & 0xF)
  uint8_t  aug_operands[];    // Relates to aug_string from CIE
  uint8_t  dw_cfa_bytecode[]; // Appended to that of CIE
  uint8_t  zero_padding[];    // To give 4 or 8 byte alignment

The cie_offset field points to a CIE, and the FDE inherits everything from the pointed-to CIE. For inheritance of aug_string, each flag therein sometimes has operand(s) in the CIE's aug_operands, sometimes in the FDE's aug_operands, and sometimes in both. The FDE aug_operands has:

"z"uleb128 lengthIn bytes, of subsequent aug_operands
"L"uint8_t lsda_ptr[]Encoded using lsda_ptr_encoding from CIE
"\0"NoneEnd of aug_string

The dw_cfa_bytecode field is inherited by concatenation: executing the bytecode for an FDE involves first executing the bytecode of the associated CIE. All VM state is carried over from the end of the CIE bytecode to the start of the FDE bytecode, thoough if using DW_CFA_remember_state / DW_CFA_restore_state then the stack is emptied as part of switching from the CIE to the FDE.

That leaves func_start, which is a variable length pointer, and func_length, which is a variable length integer. If aug_string does not contain "R", then these fields are void* and uintptr_t respectively. If aug_string does contain "R", then the operand of "R" (fde_ptr_encoding) describes the size and interpretation of func_start, meanwhile fde_ptr_encoding & 0xF describes the size and interpretation of func_length. That's the segue to talking about pointer encodings.

Pointer encodings

Depending on the context, it can be desirable to encode a pointer in different ways. For example, sometimes a uintptr_t is desirable, whereas other times an int32_t offset from the start of the current function is desirable. To allow flexibility, various places allow a uint8_t to describe the pointer encoding being used. These places are:

Encoding fieldAssociated pointer field
cie::fde_ptr_encoding & 0xFfde::func_length
cie::fde_ptr_encodingDW_CFA_set_loc operand
cie::aug_string "P" ptr_encodingcie::aug_string "P" personality_ptr
cie::aug_string "L"fde::aug_string "L" (LSDA pointer)
DW_OP_GNU_encoded_addrDW_OP_GNU_encoded_addr ‡

More foreshadowing.

There are two special cases for this uint8_t:

0xffEncoded value is absent/empty, decode as NULL.
0x50Encode a uintptr_t, but precede with padding to align it.

Once the two special cases are excluded, the remaining cases split the byte into a four bit field, a three bit field, and a one bit field. The low four bits denote the data type:

Encoding & 0xFData typeSize in bytes
0x0uintptr_tTypically either 4 or 8
0x1uleb128Varies (≥ 1)
0x9sleb128Varies (≥ 1)

‡ Cannot be used for fde_ptr_encoding.

The next three bits denote a base value to be added to non-NULL values:

Encoding & 0x70Base value
0x10 (pcrel)Address of first byte of encoded pointer
0x20 (textrel)Start of .text (in theory), but usually NULL in practice
0x30 (datarel)Start of .got (x86) or NULL (most other architectures) †
0x40 (funcrel) ‡fde::func_start (after decoding)

† Except in eh_frame_hdr::table_enc, where it means start of .eh_frame_hdr.
‡ Cannot be used for fde_ptr_encoding, or in eh_frame_hdr.

The final top bit controls an optional dereference:

Encoding & 0x80Semantics
0x00Treat value as void*
0x80Treat value as void**, dereference it to get void*

If an integer is desired rather than a pointer (as is the case for func_length and fde_count_enc), then the void* is reinterpreted as uintptr_t.

Finding all the FDEs

The various CIE and FDE structures are concatenated together, and then placed in the ELF .eh_frame section.

Traditionally, the compiler would insert a call to __register_frame somewhere during startup, passing along the address of the .eh_frame section. If non-NULL values were desired for textrel / datarel pointer encodings, it would instead insert a call to __register_frame_info_bases. At shutdown, a matching call to __deregister_frame or __deregister_frame_info_bases would be made. If there are multiple .eh_frame sections, and the linker didn't merge them, then __register_frame_table / __register_frame_info_table_bases can be used instead, which take a pointer to a NULL-terminated list of pointers to .eh_frame sections.

A more modern approach is to add an ELF .eh_frame_hdr section, and use either _dl_find_object or dl_iterate_phdr to find the appropriate .eh_frame_hdr section. Once found, the section contains a sorted table of FDE pointers:

struct eh_frame_hdr {
  uint8_t version;          // Must be 1
  uint8_t eh_frame_ptr_enc; // Typically 0x1B (pcrel int32_t)
  uint8_t fde_count_enc;    // Typically 0x03 (uint32_t)
  uint8_t table_enc;        // Must be 0x3B (datarel int32_t)
  uint8_t eh_frame_ptr[];   // Encoded with eh_frame_ptr_enc
  uint8_t fde_count[];      // Encoded with fde_count_enc
  struct {
    int32_t func_start;     // In bytes, relative to eh_frame_hdr
    int32_t fde_offset;     // In bytes, relative to eh_frame_hdr
  } sorted_table[fde_count];

The combined size of the eh_frame_ptr and fde_count fields must be a multiple of four (which happens naturally if eh_frame_ptr_enc and fde_count_enc both use 4 or 8 byte types). The eh_frame_ptr field contains a pointer to the .eh_frame section, which is used as fallback if the .eh_frame_hdr section is unparseable for some reason. The table_enc field contains the encoding used by the contents of sorted_table, albeit datarel means relative to the start of .eh_frame_hdr, and the only supported encoding is datarel int32_t. The table is sorted in ascending func_start order, and the func_start value therein overrides the func_start from the referenced FDE (though in practice they should be identical).

Personality pointers and LSDA pointers

To support calling destructors during unwinding, and to support catching exceptions (and thereby stopping unwinding), a CIE can specify a pointer to a personality function. Said function contains the destructing and/or catching logic, and will get called as part of unwinding (unless only generating a backtrace). I won't get into the specifics of the interface, though the personality function can query various parts of the unwind state:

Very old versions of g++ use eh_ptr instead of personality functions and LSDA pointers. Unless you are implementing __frame_state_for, you shouldn't need to worry about eh_ptr.

Expression bytecode

The UnwindOneFrame function from earlier included calls to EvalExpr to handle complex cases. The outline of EvalExpr is:

uintptr_t EvalExpr(uint8_t DwOpBytecode[unsigned Len],
                   uintptr_t StackInitial,
                   RegState* original) {
  const uint8_t* bpc = DwOpBytecode;
  Stack<uintptr_t> stk;
  while (bpc < DwOpBytecode + Len) {
    uint8_t opcode = *bpc++;
    /* Decode opcode-specific operand(s) from bpc */
    /* Perform opcode */
  return stk.Pop();

With the various supported opcodes being:

OpcodeName and operandsSemantics (assuming stack for Push, Pop, At)
0x03DW_OP_addr(uintptr_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x08DW_OP_const1u(uint8_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x09DW_OP_const1s(int8_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x0ADW_OP_const2u(uint16_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x0BDW_OP_const2s(int16_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x0CDW_OP_const4u(uint32_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x0DDW_OP_const4s(int32_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x0EDW_OP_const8u(uint64_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x0FDW_OP_const8s(int64_t Lit)Push(Lit)
0x10DW_OP_constu(uleb128 Lit)Push(Lit)
0x11DW_OP_consts(sleb128 Lit)Push(Lit)
0x12DW_OP_dupPush(At(-1)) (duplicate top element)
0x14DW_OP_overPush(At(-2)) (duplicate penultimate element)
0x15DW_OP_pick(uint8_t Idx)Push(At(-1-Idx))
0x16DW_OP_swapa = Pop(); b = Pop(); Push(a); Push(b)
0x17DW_OP_rota = Pop(); b = Pop(); c = Pop(); Push(a); Push(c); Push(b)
0x94 0x01DW_OP_deref_sizePush(*(uint8_t*)Pop())
0x94 0x02DW_OP_deref_sizePush(*(uint16_t*)Pop())
0x94 0x04DW_OP_deref_sizePush(*(uint32_t*)Pop())
0x94 0x08DW_OP_deref_sizePush(*(uint64_t*)Pop())
0x19DW_OP_absa = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)a < 0 ? -a : a)
0x1fDW_OP_nega = Pop(); Push(-a)
0x20DW_OP_nota = Pop(); Push(~a)
0x23DW_OP_plus_uconst(uleb128 Lit)a = Pop(); Push(a + Lit)
0x1aDW_OP_andrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs & rhs)
0x1bDW_OP_divrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)lhs / (intptr_t)rhs)
0x1cDW_OP_minusrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs - rhs)
0x1dDW_OP_modrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs % rhs)
0x1eDW_OP_mulrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs * rhs)
0x21DW_OP_orrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs | rhs)
0x22DW_OP_plusrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs + rhs)
0x24DW_OP_shlrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs << rhs)
0x25DW_OP_shrrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs >> rhs)
0x26DW_OP_shrarhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)lhs >> rhs)
0x27DW_OP_xorrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs ^ rhs)
0x29DW_OP_eqrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs == rhs)
0x2eDW_OP_nerhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push(lhs != rhs)
0x2aDW_OP_gerhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)lhs >= (intptr_t)rhs)
0x2bDW_OP_gtrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)lhs > (intptr_t)rhs)
0x2cDW_OP_lerhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)lhs <= (intptr_t)rhs)
0x2dDW_OP_ltrhs = Pop(); lhs = Pop(); Push((intptr_t)lhs < (intptr_t)rhs)
0x2fDW_OP_skip(int16_t Delta)bpc += Delta
0x28DW_OP_bra(int16_t Delta)if (Pop() != 0) bpc += Delta
0x30 + LitDW_OP_litPush(Lit)
0x50 + RegDW_OP_regPush(original->value[Reg])
0x70 + RegDW_OP_breg(sleb128 Lit)Push(original->value[Reg] + Lit)
0x90DW_OP_regx(uleb128 Reg)Push(original->value[Reg])
0x92DW_OP_bregx(uleb128 Reg, sleb128 Lit)Push(original->value[Reg] + Lit)
0xf1DW_OP_GNU_encoded_addr(uint8_t PtrEncoding, uint8_t Ptr[])Push(DecodePtr(PtrEncoding, Ptr))

The gcc implementation of EvalExpr assumes that the stack never holds more than 64 elements. Bad things will happen if the stack exceeds this size.

By far the most common usage of this expression language is to allow a single FDE to succinctly describe an arbitrary number of PLT entries. The serialised bytecode in this case will be something like:

0x92 0x07 0x08  DW_OP_bregx(7 /* rsp */, 8)
0x90 0x10       DW_OP_regx(16 /* rip */)
0x08 0x0f       DW_OP_const1u(15)
0x1a            DW_OP_and
0x08 0x0b       DW_OP_const1u(11)
0x2a            DW_OP_ge
0x08 0x03       DW_OP_const1u(3)
0x24            DW_OP_shl
0x22            DW_OP_plus

Which encodes the expression:

rsp + 8 + ((((rip & 15) >= 11) ? 1 : 0) << 3) 

In other words, each 16-byte PLT entry is split into two pieces: the 1st being 11 bytes long, and the 2nd being 5 bytes long. If in the 1st piece, the expression gives rsp + 8, whereas in the 2nd piece it gives rsp + 16.


The DWARF Standard is documented, though .eh_frame diverges from it in a few areas. It also requires architecture-specific extensions (e.g. x86, x86_64, aarch64). The LSB has a pointer encoding specification, though it is incomplete. The only true reference is the gcc source code, some relevant entry points into which are:

See also

For a completely different take on the same problem, consider ARM64 unwinding on Windows. An .xdata record therein is roughly equivalent to an FDE, and it has a bytecode interpreter similar in purpose (but very different in style) to the DW_CFA_ bytecode.

Some examples of complete .eh_frame sections are available in LuaJIT: