Back to home


Dysfunctional Programming

Goodbye Gnu-EFI!

The recommended way to link UEFI applications on linux was until now through GNU-EFI, a toolchain provided by the GNU Project that bridges from the ELF world into COFF/PE32+. But why don’t we compile directly to native UEFI? A short dive into the past of GNU Toolchains, its remnants, and a surprisingly simple way out.

The Linux World (and many UNIX Derivatives for that matter) is modeled around ELF. With statically linked languages becoming more prevalent, the impact of the ABI diminishes, but it still defines properties far beyond just how to call functions. The ABI your system uses also effects how compiler and linker interact, how binaries export information (especially symbols), and what features application developers can make use of. We have become used to ELF, and require its properties in places we didn’t expect.

UEFI does not use ELF. For all that matters, UEFI follows Microsoft Windows. This means, UEFI uses COFF/PE32+ (or short PE+). If we compile binaries for UEFI, they must target PE+. And the GNU Compiler Collection can do this… somewhat.

Conceptually, GCC supports many languages, ABIs, targets, and architectures in a single code-base. Technically, though, every compiled instance of GCC compiles from one language to one target. Your compiler that takes C and produces x86-64 is actually specific to x86_64-pc-linux-gnu. You cannot tweak it to compile UEFI binaries. Instead, you need another instance of GCC, one that takes C and produces x86_64-windows-msvc. You probably know this combination under the name MinGW.

But this is not what GNU went for. Instead, to what still puzzles me to this day, the GNU project decided against using its own software and instead produced something named GNU-EFI. The goal of GNU-EFI is to allow writing UEFI applications using the common GNU Toolchain (meaning you compile ELF binaries for Linux). They achieve this by linking a PE+ Stub, which at runtime performs required relocations, parameter translations, and jumps into the ELF application. You effectively write a free-standing Linux Application, add a wrapping layer and then execute it on UEFI. It works, but is needlessly complex.

Is this really the best way to compile for UEFI? Not anymore!

The LLVM toolchain (clang compiler plus lld linker) combines all supported targets in a single toolchain, offering a target selector --target to let LLVM know what to compile for. So as long as you have clang and lld installed, you can compile native UEFI binaries just like normal local compilation:

# Normal local compile+link
$ clang \
        $CFLAGS \
        -o OBJECT \
        -c [SOURCES…]
$ clang \
        $LDFLAGS \
        -o BINARY \

To make this compile for UEFI targets, you simply set:

        --target x86_64-unknown-windows \
        -ffreestanding \
        -fshort-wchar \

        --target x86_64-unknown-windows \
        -nostdlib \
        -Wl,-entry:efi_main \
        -Wl,-subsystem:efi_application \

The two things special are --target <TRIPLE> and --fuse-ld=<LINKER>. The former instructs both compiler and linker to produce COFF/PE32+ objects compatible to the Microsoft Windows Platform (which matches the UEFI platform). The latter selects the linker to use. Mind you, using the default linker will very likely fail (default being ld or ld-gold). Currently, you either have to use lld-link (PE+ backend of the LLVM linker), or you need a version of GNU-ld compiled for a PE+ toolchain. I recommend LLVM lld.

Voilà! No need for GNU-EFI, no need to mess with separated toolchains. With LLVM you get all this through your local toolchain.

If you use Meson Build, the c-efi project even provides you an example cross-file. A native meson C project can then be compiled for UEFI by nothing more than passing --cross-file x86_64-unknown-uefi to meson. See its sources for details.

The c-efi project also provides the protocol contants and definitions from the UEFI specification, so you don’t have to extract them yourself.

Written by David Rheinsberg, on January 31, 2019.