In computer science, object file or object code is an intermediate representation of code generated by a compiler after it processes a source code file. Object files contain compact, pre-parsed code that can be linked with other object files to generate a final executable or code library.

An object file format is a computer file format used for the storage of object code and related data typically produced by a compiler or assembler.

An object file contains not only the object code, but also relocation information that the linker uses to assemble multiple object files into an executable or library, program symbols (names of variables and functions), and debugging information.

There are many different object file formats; originally each type of computer had its own unique format, but with the advent of Unix and other portable operating systems, some formats, such as COFF and ELF, have been defined and used on different kinds of systems. It is common for the same file format to be used both as linker input and output, and thus as the library and executable file format.

The design and/or choice of an object file format is a key part of overall system design; it affects the performance of the linker and thus programmer turnaround while developing, and if the format is used for executables, the design also affects the time programs take to begin running, and thus the responsiveness for users. Most object file formats are structured as blocks of data all of the same sort; these blocks can be paged in as needed by the virtual memory system, needing no further processing to be ready to use.

The simplest object file format is the DOS COM format, which is simply a file of raw bytes that is always loaded at a fixed location. Other formats are an elaborate array of structures and substructures whose specification runs to many pages.

Debugging information may either be an integral part of the object file format, as in COFF, or a semi-independent format which may be used with several object formats, such as stabs or DWARF. See debugging format.

The GNU project's BFD library provides a common API for the manipulation of object files in a variety of formats.

Types of data supported by typical object file formats:

  • BSS ("block started by symbol")
  • text segment
  • data segment

Notable object file formats:

  • COM (DOS)
  • EXE (DOS)
  • a.out (Unix / Linux)
  • COFF (Unix / Linux)
  • ECOFF (Mips)
  • ELF (Unix / Linux)
  • SOM (HP)
  • Mach-O (NeXT, Mac OS X)
  • Portable Executable (Windows)
  • NLM
  • OMF
  • PEF (Macintosh)
  • IEEE-695 (embedded)
  • S-records (embedded)
  • IBM 360 object format


  • John R. Levine, Linkers and Loaders (Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2000)