Unlike many other proprietary executable file formats, ELF is very flexible and extensible, and it is not bound to any particular processor or architecture. This has allowed it to be adopted by many different operating systems on many different platforms.
The ELF format has replaced older executable formats such as a.out and COFF in many Unix-like operating systems such as Linux, Solaris, IRIX, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, DragonFly BSD, Syllable, and HP-UX (except for 32-bit PA-RISC programs which continue to use SOM). ELF has also seen some adoption in non-Unix operating systems, such as the Itanium version of OpenVMS, and BeOS Revision 4 and later for x86 based computers (where it replaced the Portable Executable format; the PowerPC version stayed with Preferred Executable Format). The PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii and GP2X consoles also use ELF. AmigaOS 4.0 and MorphOS also running on PowerPC machines, use ELF. On the Amiga platform the ELF executable has replaced the previous EHF (Extended Hunk Format) which was used on Amigas equipped with PPC processor expansion cards. The Symbian OS v9 uses E32Image format that is based on ELF file format.
Most Sony Ericsson (for example, the W800i, W610, K790, etc.), some Siemens (SGOLD and SGOLD2 platforms: from Siemens C65 to S75 and BenQ-Siemens E71/EL71) and Motorola (for example, the E398, SLVR L7, v360, v3i and all phone LTE2 which has the patch apply) phones can run ELF files through the use of a patch that adds assembly code to the main firmware (Known as the ELFPack, in the underground modding culture).
The ELF file format is also used as a generic object and executable format for binary images used with embedded processors.
Each ELF file is made up of one ELF header, followed by file data. The file data can include:
The segments contain information that is necessary for runtime execution of the file, while sections contain important data for linking and relocation. Each byte in the entire file is taken by no more than one section at a time, but there can be orphan bytes, which are not covered by a section. In the normal case of a Unix executable one or more sections are enclosed in one segment.
readelfis a Unix binary utility that displays information about one or more ELF files. A GPL implementation is provided by GNU Binutils.
elfdumpis a Solaris command for viewing ELF information in an elf file.
objdumpprovides a wide range of information about ELF files and other object formats.
86open was a project to form consensus on a common binary file format for Unix and Unix-like operating systems on the common PC compatible x86 architecture, so as to encourage software developers to port to the architecture.
The format eventually chosen was ELF, specifically the Linux implementation of ELF, after it had turned out to be a de facto standard supported by all involved vendors and operating systems.
The steering committee was Marc Ewing, Dion Johnson, Evan Leibovitch, Bruce Perens, Andrew Roach, Bryan Sparks and Linus Torvalds. Other people on the project were Tim Bird, Keith Bostic, Chuck Cranor, Michael Davidson, Chris G. Demetriou, Ulrich Drepper, Don Dugger, Steve Ginzburg, Jon "maddog" Hall, Ron Holt, Jordan Hubbard, Dave Jensen, Kean Johnston, Andrew Josey, Robert Lipe, Bela Lubkin, Tim Marsland, Greg Page, Ronald Joe Record, Tim Ruckle, Joel Silverstein, Chia-pi Tien and Erik Troan. Operating systems and companies represented were BeOS, BSDI, FreeBSD, Linux, NetBSD, SCO and SunSoft, Inc..
The project progressed and in mid-1998, SCO began assisting in the development of lxrun, an open-source compatibility layer capable of running Linux binaries on OpenServer, UnixWare, and Solaris. SCO announced official support of lxrun at LinuxWorld in March 1999. Sun Microsystems began officially supporting lxrun for Solaris in early 1999, and has since moved to integrated support of the Linux binary format via Solaris Containers for Linux Applications.
With the BSDs having long supported Linux binaries and the main x86 Unix vendors having added support for the format, the project decided that Linux ELF was the format chosen by the industry and "declare[d] itself dissolved" on July 25, 1999.