In the last part of this series, we talked about the compiler’s composition, including the assembler and the linker. We showed what happens when the compiler runs, and what’s the output of translation software such as cc1 or as etc. In this final part of the series, we are going to talk about the C library, how our programs interface with it, and how it interfaces with the kernel.

The C Standard Library

The C Standard Library is pretty much a part of every UNIX like operating system. It’s basically a collection of code, including functions, macros, type definitions etc, in order to provide facilities such as string handling (string.h), mathematical computations (math.h), input and output (stdio.h), etc.

GNU/Linux operating systems are generally using the GNU C Library implementation(GLIBC), but it’s common to find other C libraries being used (especially in embedded systems) such as uClibC, newlib, or in the case of Android/Linux systems Bionic. BSD style operating systems usually have their own implementation of a C library.

So, how does one “use” the C Standard Library?

So, now that we are acquainted with the C Library, how do you make use of it, you ask? The answer is: automagically :). Hold on right there; that’s not exactly a hyperbole. You see, when you write a basic C program, you usually #include <some_header.h> and then continue with using the code declared in that header. We have explained in the previous part of this series that when we use a function, say printf(), in reality it’s the linker that does the hard work and allows us to use this function, by linking our program against the libc’s so (shared object). So in essence, when you need to use the C Standard Library, you just #include headers that belong to it, and the linker will resolve the references to the code included.

Apart from the functions that are defined in the Standards however, a C Library might also implement further functionality. For example, the Standards don’t say anything about networking. As a matter of fact, most libraries today may implement not only what’s in the C Standards, but may also choose to comply with the requirements of the POSIX C library, which is a superset of the C Standard library.

Ok, and how does the C Library manage to provide these services?

The answer to this question is simple: Some of the services that the library provides, it does so without needing any sort of special privileges, being normal, userspace C code, while others need to ask the Operating’s system Kernel to provide these facilities for the library.

How does it do so? By calling some functions exported by the kernel to provide certain functionality named system calls. System calls are the fundamental interface between a userspace application and the Operating System Kernel. For example consider this:

You might have a program that has code like this at one point: fd = open("log.txt", "w+");. That open function is provided by the C Library, but the C Library itself can not execute all of the functionality that’s required to open a file, so it may call a sys_open() system call that will ask the kernel to do what’s required to load the file. In this case we say that the library’s open call acts as a wrapper function of the system call.


In this final part of our series, we saw how our applications interface with the C Standard Library available in our system, and how the Library itself interfaces with the Operating system kernel to provide the required services needed by the userspace applications.

Further Reading:

If you want to take a look at the System Call interface in the Linux Operating System, you could always see the man page for the Linux system calls

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