Bob Stout On Decompilation

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G.3.17 decompil.txt

+++Date last modified: 05-Jul-1997


Is there any hope of a decompiler that would convert an executable program into C/C++ code?


Don't hold your breath. Think about it... For a decompiler to work properly, either 1) every compiler would have to generate substantially identical code, even with full optimization turned on, or 2) it would have to recognize the individual output of every compiler's code generator.

If the first case were to be correct, there would be no more need for compiler benchmarks since every one would work the same. For the second case to be true would require in immensely complex program that had to change with every new compiler release.

OK, so what about specific decompilers for specific compilers - say a decompiler designed to only work on code generated by, say, BC++ 4.52? This gets us right back to the optimization issue. Code written for clarity and understandability is often inefficient. Code written for maximum performance (speed or size) is often cryptic (at best!) Add to this the fact that all modern compilers have a multitude of optimization switches to control which optimization techniques to enable and which to avoid. The bottom line is that, for a reasonably large, complex source module, you can get the compiler to produce a number of different object modules simply by changing your optimization switches, so your decompiler will also have to be a deoptimizer which can automagically recognize which optimization strategies were enabled at compile time.

OK, let's simplify further and specify that you only want to support one specific compiler and you want to decompile to the most logical source code without trying to interpret the optimization. What then? A good optimizer can and will substantially rewrite the internals of your code, so what you get out of your decompiler will be, not only cryptic, but in many cases, riddled with goto statements and other no-no's of good coding practice. At this point, you have decompiled source, but what good is it?

Also note carefully my reference to source modules. One characteristic of C is that it becomes largely unreadable unless broken into easily maintainable source modules (.C files). How will the decompiler deal with that? It could either try to decompile the whole program into some mammoth main() function, losing all modularity, or it could try to place each called function into its own file. The first way would generate unusable chaos and the second would run into problems where the original source had files with multiple functions using static data and/or one or more functions calling one or more static functions. A decompiler could make static data and/or functions global but only at the expense or readability (which would already be unacceptable).

Also, remember that commercial applications often code the most difficult or time-critical functions in assembler which could prove almost impossible to decompile into a C equivalent.

Closely related to the issue of modularity is that of library code. Consider the ubiquitous "Hello world" program. After compilation it contains about 10 bytes of compiled source, about a dozen bytes of data, and anywhere from 5-10K (depending on compiler, target, memory model, etc.) of start up and library code. This is a great example since printf() also calls lots of other library functions of its own! Once the decompiler has assigned names to the dozen or so functions in its output, the fun starts when you have to figure out which arbitrarily-named function is really printf() and which other functions are library helper functions that it calls. The bottom line here is that in order to do so, you'd have to know enough about writing C libraries to be able to recognize the code for printf() when you see it.

Again, the situation with C++ would be orders of magnitude more complex trying to make sense of the compiled code once the O-O structures and relationships had been compiled into oblivion. Even if you take the simple approach and decompile C++ into C, would anyone like to try and trace through the source to figure out a cout call which adds another 7-10K of overhead vis-a-vis a printf() call? I sure wouldn't!!!

So what do your have? For a small program, you'd wind up trying to decipher what is mostly library source. For a large program, you'd wind up with either 1) one humonguous main(), or 2) lots of arbitrary single-function modules from which all notions of static data and functions would have been lost (contributing to a vast pool of global data), which would still include decompiled source for all the library objects as well. In any scenario, is any of this useful? Probably not.

While we've touched on the topic of library code, here's yet another reason that C and C++ are particularly difficult to de-compile: macros.

For instance, if I have something like:

    while (EOF != ( ch = getchar())) {
        if (isupper(ch))

getchar, EOF, putchar and isupper are all typically macros, something like:

#define EOF -1
#define isupper(x) (__types[(unsigned char)x+1] && __UPPER)
#define getchar()  (getc(stdin))
#define putchar(c) (putc((c),stdout)

#define getc(s) ((s)->__pos<(s)->__len?     \
    (s)->__buf[__pos++]:                    \
#define putc(c,s) ((s)->__pos<(s)->__len?   \
    (s)->__buf[__pos++]=(c):                \

Finally, stdin and stdout are generally just items in an array of FILE pointers something like:

FILE __iobuf[20];

FILE *stdin = __iobuf;      // This part is done silently by the
FILE *stdout = __iobuf + 1; // compiler, without actual source code
FILE *stderr = __iobuf + 2;

Even if you just expand the macros and never actually compile the code at all, you end up with something that's basically unreadable. However, this is what actually gets fed to the compiler, so it's also absolute best you could ever hope for from a perfect de-compiler.

C++ of course adds in-line functions and after an optimizer runs across things, the code from the in-line function may well be mixed in with surrounding code, making it nearly impossible to extract the function from the code that calls it. There are only a few formats in use for vtables, which would help in preserving virtual functions, but inline functions would be lost, so you'd typically end up with hundreds of times that code would be directly accessing variables in other classes.

Like I said, don't hold your breath. As technology improves to where decompilers may become more feasible, optimizers and languages (C++, for example, would be a significantly tougher language to decompile than C) also conspire to make them less likely.

For years Unix applications have been distributed in shrouded source form (machine but not human readable -- all comments and whitespace removed, variables names all in the form OOIIOIOI, etc.), which has been a quite adequate means of protecting the author's rights. It's very unlikely that decompiler output would even be as readable as shrouded source.

A general purpose decompiler is the Holy Grail of tyro programmers.

[by Bob Stout & Jerry Coffin]