Link fast: Improve build and launch times

Description: Discover how to improve your app's build and runtime linking performance. We'll take you behind the scenes to learn more about linking, your options, and the latest updates that improve the link performance of your app.

What is linking?

A linker is needed whenever we'd like to use code written in libraries or frameworks

Two types of linking:

  • Static linking
    • happens when you build your app
    • can impact both your app build time and app size
  • Dynamic linking
    • happens when your app is launch
    • can impact your app launch time

What is static linking?

Let's have a look at its history to explain what it is.


Initially programs were simple: just one source file. Building was running the compiler on your single source file and it produced the executable program.

However, this didn't scale: separating a program into multiple source files was great both for readability and also meant not re-compiling every function, every time you build.

To make multiple source file programs possible, the compiler was split into two parts:

  • the first (cc, C compiler) part compiles source code to a new intermediate "relocatable object" .o file
  • The second part (ld, static linker) reads the relocatable .o files and produces a single executable program

Late 1970s - Static libraries

Sharing multiple .o files to share functionality across programs was cumbersome, so the concept was Static libraries was born.

At the time the standard way to bundle files together was with the archiving tool ar, used for backups and distributions.

A static library was just multiple .o files put into an archive via ar, resulting in a .a static library file.

ld was taught how to read .o files directly out of an archive file .a

This worked great, however now programs size started to grow the more static libraries were used:
to solve this ld started pull .o files from a static library only when they'd resolve some undefined symbol. This is called selective loading.

Selective loading meant that each program would only get the .o objects of a .a library that the program actually needed.

Recent ld64 improvements

ld64 is Apple's static linker

  • 2x faster in Xcode 14 thanks to better utilization of machine cores

Some of the ways ld64 was improved:

  • content copied in parallel from the input to the output file
  • multiple __LINKEDIT sections built in parallel
  • UUID computation and codesigning hashes done in parallel
  • Optimized algorithms (e.g., exports-trie builder now uses C++ string_view objects to represent the string slices of each symbol)
  • Accelerated UUID computation (now SHA256)
    • adoption of latest crypto libraries which take advantage of hardware acceleration when computing the UUID of a binary

Static linking best practices

When to use static libraries?

  • stable code is good
  • consider moving code under active development out of a static library to reduce build time

Linker options

  • Some options that can effect your app link time.
  • Add them in your target/product Build Settings tab, on Other Linker Flags

-all_load (-force_load)

  • Selective loading from archives has slows down the linker, because, to make builds reproducible and follow traditional static library semantics, the linker has to process static libraries in a fixed, serial order
  • If you don't need this behavior, pass -all_load to the linker
  • this flag enables linker to parse all .a files in parallel, just like .o files
  • May get duplicate symbol errors if multiple static libraries offer the same symbol:
    • if your app does clever tricks where it has multiple static libraries implementing the same symbols, and depends on the command line order of the static libraries to drive which implementation is used, then this option is not for you
  • -all_load may make your program bigger because "unused" code is now being added in. To compensate for that, you can use the linker option -dead_strip, that will cause the linker to remove unreachable code and data


  • one part of the __LINKEDIT segment that the linker generates is an exports trie, which is a prefix tree that encodes all the exported symbol names, addresses, and flags.
  • whereas all dylibs need to have exported symbols, a main app binary usually does not need any exported symbols (because, usually nothing ever looks up symbols in the main executable)
  • with this flag the linker skips the creation of the trie data structure in __LINKEDIT
  • ⚠️ trie exports are required if:
    • the app loads plugins
    • you use XCTest with your app as the host environment to run XCTest bundles

To see how big is your trie (and check whether it's worth skipping its creation) run:

$ dyld_info -exports /path/to/binary | Wc -l


  • the linker combines C++ functions that have the exact same code but different name (happens a lot due to C++ template expansions)
    • this is an expensive algorithm
    • the linker only looks at weak-def symbols, which are the ones the C++ compiler emits for template expansions that were not inlined
    • this is an app size optimization
  • Xcode adds this flag for Debug builds (builds faster, but app binary is slightly larger)
  • Cland adds this flag if you run clang link line with -O0
  • use -no_deduplicate in your custom Debug builds systems

What is dyamic linking?

Let's start from its history to explain what it is.

Early 1990s - Dynamic libraries

(picking up from where we left with static linking's history)

The more static libraries a program uses:

  • the slower a program linking time is (at build time)
  • the bigger a final executable size is

Instead of using ar for libraries (and output a .a file), we could ld for libraries (and output a .dylib file). These new libraries are called dynamic libraries ("dylibs"), also known as DSOs or DLLs on other platforms.

The difference now is that ld treats linking with a dynamic library differently:

  • instead of copying code out of the library into the final program, the linker just records a kind of promise
  • That is, it records the symbol name used from the dynamic library and what the library's path will be at runtime

Thanks to this:

  • the linker no longer get copies of library code in your executable
  • your program's static link time is now proportional to the size of your code, independent of the number of dylibs you link with
  • your program executable is only effected by your code (and other static libraries, but not dynamic ones)

When executing, the Virtual Memory system will reuse the same loaded dynamic library across multiple processes (that need to use that .dylib)


  • slower launch time
    • launching the app is no longer just loading one executable, but also all the associated .dylib which then need to be linked
  • more dirty memory (__DATA pages)
    • with static libraries, the linker would co-locate all globals from all static libraries into the same __DATA pages in the main executable
    • with dynamic libraries, each library defines its own __DATA page
  • requires a runtime linker (dynamic linker)
    • dyld will need to fulfill the promise made during build time, which means it need to resolve the promised symbols to your executable

Inside dynamic linking

  • An executable binary is divided up into segments, such as __TEXT, __DATA, __LINKEDIT
  • segments are always a multiple of the page size for the OS
  • each segment has a different permission
    • __TEXT, segment that contains your code, has execute permissions: the CPU may treat the bytes on the page as machine code instructions
  • At runtime, dyld has to mmap() the executables into memory with each segments' permissions

All the above is true for .dylibs as well


  • the main executable has various pointers to symbols belonging to the .dylibs
  • those pointers (and other memory allocations) cannot be known until runtime
  • because __TEXT segments cannot change (at least in system based on code signing), these dynamic symbols/call sites becomes a call to a stub synthesized by the linker in __TEXT
  • the stub loads a pointer from the __DATA segment, and jumps to that location
  • unlike __TEXT, the __DATA segment can change at runtime (when copied into memory)
  • hence, when dyld is resolving our promises, really it's just setting the correct pointers into our executable __DATA segment (in memory) pointing to the relevant .dylib symbols (also loaded into memory)

The __LINKEDIT segment contains the information dyld needs to drive what fixups are done

Three kind of fixups:

  • rebases
    • when a dylib or app has a pointer that points within itself
    • needed due to ASLR, meaning that even internal pointers need to be rebased at app launch
  • binds
    • symbolic references
    • their target is a symbol name (not a number like in rebases, as those were just offsets of the targets within the image)
    • e.g., a pointer to the function malloc:
      • the string _malloc is stored in __LINKEDIT
      • dyld uses that string to look up the actual address of malloc in the exports trie of libSystem.dylib
      • Then, dyld stores that value in the location specified by the bind
  • chained
    • new this year
    • makes __LINKEDIT smaller
    • instead of storing all the fixup locations, __LINKEDIT stores just where the first fixup location is in each __DATA page, as well as a list of the imported symbols
    • the rest of the info is encoded in __DATA
    • it's called chained because, in the 64-bit pointer location in __DATA, some of the bits contain the offset to the next fixup location (hence we jump from fixup to fixup in a chain-like manner)
    • supported when deploying to iOS 13.4 and later

How dyld works

  1. dyld starts with the main executable, and it parses the mach-o find the dependent dylibs (the promised dynamic libraries your executable needs in order to run)
  2. For each .dylib, dyld finds them and mmap()s them
  3. then dyld does step 1-2 recursively for each .dylib
  4. once everything is loaded, dyld looks up all the bind symbols needed
  5. once the lookup is completed, dyld uses those addresses when applying fixups
  6. once all the fixups are done, dyld runs initializers, bottom up

Since 2017, steps 1 to 4 are cached, as they're the same at every app launch (they need to be redone only on app/OS updates).

Recent dyld improvements

dyld is Apple's dynamic linker

Page-in linking

  • dyld no longer applies fixups to all dylibs at launch
  • instead, the kernel applies fixups to your __DATA pages lazily, on page-in
    • it has always been the case that the first use of some address in some page of an mmap()ed region triggered the kernel to read in that page
    • now, if it is a __DATA page, the kernel will also apply the fixup that page needs
  • Apple OSes had special case of page-in linking for over a decade for OS dylibs in the dyld shared cache.
    • this year page-in linking has been generalized and made it available to everyone
  • reduces dirty memory
  • reduces launch time
  • DATA_CONST pages are clean, which means they can be evicted and recreated just like __TEXT pages, reducing memory pressure
  • available in iOS 16, macOS 13, and watchOS 9
  • requires chained fixups, thus requiring your app to target iOS 13.4 or later
    • because with chained fixups, most of the fixup information will be encoded in the __DATA segment on disk, which means it is available to the kernel during page-in
  • does not work for dlopen(), just dylibs linked at launch (in this case dyld does the fixups during the dlopen call

Dynamic linking best practices

  • use fewer dylibs
  • optimize or eliminate static initializers (code that always runs pre-main)
  • find sweet spot for static vs. dynamic libraries

New tools

Two new tools:


  • cli tool that logs dyld operations (similar to fs_usage)
  • available in macOS 13
  • uses same mechanism as to trace


  • allows you to inspect binaries (similar to nm or otool)
  • can show info about mach-o files and dylibs in the dyld cache (dyld_info tool uses the same code as dyld and can thus see files/binaries not on disk)
  • available in macOS 12
  • how to view the exports (will show all the exported symbols in the dylib, and the offset of each symbol from the start of the dylib): $ dyld_info -exports /path/to/bin
  • how to view the fixups: $ dyld_info -fixups /path/to/bin

Missing anything? Corrections? Contributions are welcome 😃


Written by

Federico Zanetello

Federico Zanetello

Software engineer with a strong passion for well-written code, thought-out composable architectures, automation, tests, and more.