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3.1 Binary Files

GNU poke is an editor for binary files. Right, so what is a binary file? Strictly speaking, every file in a computer’s file system is binary. This is because, in a very fundamental level, files are just sequences of bytes.

Colloquially, however, it is very common to talk about “binary files” as opposed to “text files”. In this informal meaning, a text file is basically a file composed, mostly, of bytes (and byte sequences) that can be translated into printable characters in some character set, such as ASCII, EBCDIC or Unicode. It follows that binary files would then be files composed, mostly, of bytes not intended to be interpreted as encoded characters.

Some text files contain non-printable characters, such as form feed characters, and many binary files contain printable strings, such as a string table in an ELF object file. That is why we used the word “mostly” in the definitions above. In practice, however, the distinction is almost always clear and there is common consensus on whether a given file format can be considered as a binary format, or not.

GNU poke can edit any file, and as we shall see, it provides some nice features to manipulate sequences of bytes interpreted as character strings. However, it is called a “binary editor” because it is especially designed to be particularly useful editing binary files, in the sense of the term defined above.

In this chapter, we will be using ELF object files as the experiment subject in most of the examples. ELF files are good for this purpose, because they are eminently binary, highly structured, and still strings play a role in them, encoding names of entities like sections and symbols. You don’t need to have a perfect knowledge of the ELF format in order to follow the examples, but being familiarized with the concept of object file formats should surely help.

Obtaining a simple ELF object file is easy, if you have a C compiler installed:

$ echo 'int foo () { return 0; }' | gcc -c -xc -o foo.o -

The command above compiles a very simple ELF object file that contains the compiled form of a little dummy function. This object file will be our companion for a while, and will be the subject of much analysis and abuse, as we poke it.

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