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Posted at 2011-12-16 15:02 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Friday Q&A 2011-12-16: Disassembling the Assembly, Part 1
by Gwynne Raskind  

As a small change of pace, today's post is written by guest author Gwynne Raskind. My last post touched a bit on disassembling object files, and Gwynne wanted to dive deeply into just how to read the output in detail. Without further ado, I present her wonderful in-depth look at reading x86_64 assembly.

In the December 2 edition of his Friday Q&A series, Michael Ash wrote about several tools for object file analysis, based around a simple piece of sample code which he ran through each tool for examples to show.

His article is lacking in only one respect: it doesn't go into detail about what the assembly language that these tools show actually means. It's just common sense that he didn't; it's an advanced and intricate topic, deserving of an article of its own. I decided to write that article.

The Sample Code
I'll be using exactly the same code that Mike did, replicated here:

    // clang -framework Cocoa -fobjc-arc test.m

    #import <Cocoa/Cocoa.h>

    @interface MyClass : NSObject
        NSString *_name;
        int _number;

    - (id)initWithName: (NSString *)name number: (int)number;

    @property (strong) NSString *name;
    @property int number;


    @implementation MyClass

    @synthesize name = _name, number = _number;

    - (id)initWithName: (NSString *)name number: (int)number
        if((self = [super init]))
            _name = name;
            _number = number;
        return self;


    NSString *MyFunction(NSString *parameter)
        NSString *string2 = [@"Prefix" stringByAppendingString: parameter];
        NSLog(@"%@", string2);
        return string2;

    int main(int argc, char **argv)
            MyClass *obj = [[MyClass alloc] initWithName: @"name" number: 42];
            NSString *string = MyFunction([obj name]);
            NSLog(@"%@", string);
            return 0;

Some things to notice right away:

  1. This code uses ARC.
  2. Accordingly, this code is 64-bit only and requires a recent version of the Clang compiler.
  3. When run, the program will print "Prefixname" twice.

A Crash Course in x86 Architecture
Before diving into the assembly language itself, here's a quick lesson in the basics of the x86_64 (aka AMD64) architecture. The official reference manuals can be found at the AMD developer website, and cover in extremely technical detail almost everything you'll ever need to know about the underlying workings of the CPU. Several gaps are filled in by the AMD64 Application Binary Interface Specification, which defines the Application Binary Interface (ABI) for C and C++ programs running in 64-bit mode on an Intel processor. The AMD64 specifications document the running of the CPU itself, while the ABI spec defines the conventions used by programs running on the CPU.

Where possible, I will speak in general terms about x86_64 architecture. Very little about how programs work at this level is specific to Mac OS X. While the functions called by the Objective-C runtime are very much OS-specific, the assembly language instructions that call those functions follow the same specifications as any x86_64 system.

Note: If you're already familiar with such concepts as virtual memory, the stack, the heap, and CPU registers, you can skip this entire section.

A Model of Memory
First, we look at the memory model of the computer. The x86_64 architecture specifies a "flat, paged memory model", which in simple terms means that all of the physical memory is laid out as one enormous block, divided up evenly into equally-sized "pages" of a predefined size. Software running on the x86_64 architecture can address a maximum of 48 bits worth of physical memory; this is less than the 64 bits one might expect due to the fact that no shipping CPU actually supports that many address lines. Addresses are always 64 bits long, but the top 16 bits of a physical memory address are always zero. The x86_64 specification does not provide for any other use of those 16 bits, such as tagging; they are reserved for a time when future implementations have both the need and the capability of addressing more than 32 TB of physical RAM at a time.

x86_64 also requires the implementation to provide virtual memory and protected memory. This means that the OS can set up the system in such a way that every process it runs sees its own complete 64-bit address space (virtual memory), and only its own (protected memory). The OS is responsible for ensuring that an application gets the memory it actually uses by the use of "paging". The CPU intercepts all memory accesses by userland processes ("virtual addresses") and translates them to physical addresses with the help of the OS. A more in-depth description of how virtual memory and paging work is beyond this article; for now, it's enough to understand that every application has its own individual 64-bit memory space and can't see any other process' space.

Note: This is not the same as the "virtual memory" which you may be familiar with, using space on the computer's hard drive as extra RAM, though that kind of virtual memory (a "paging file", or "swap space") is implemented in part by use of the CPU's virtual memory system.

This enormous 64 bits worth of address space is divided up into two areas: The stack and the heap. The stack is an area set aside high in the address space (typically high, anyway; in practice it can be just about anywhere) for the use of subroutine calls and local variable storage. The stack always grows downward; as the amount of information on the stack increases, the address of the top of the stack decreases. On older systems with smaller memory models, it was possible for the stack to grow too far downward and collide with other areas, but while it's still technically possible for this to happen, other things would go wrong long before a heap collision (in particular, the stack would run off the edge of its allocated memory pages and cause a protection fault). The CPU has a few instructions specifically designed for manipulating the stack, though they often go unused in favor of more efficient methods in modern code. You can think of the stack as a moderately large chunk of memory allocated by the system at the launch of your program.

The heap effectively consists of every area of memory that is not the stack; memory from the heap is allocated at runtime by the system for the process' use. The heap contains the stack, in fact, though they are usually considered conceptually separate. All of your executable code is loaded into a section of the heap, as well as copies of any libraries your executable links to. Note: These are not actually copies, as it would be ridiculously inefficient to copy every library for every loaded process, but it's easier to just think of them as copies until you have a good grasp of virtual memory. Memory allocated by your process during its execution also comes from the heap.

The CPU and Its Registers
The CPU is the chip that actually does all the work. It fetches, decodes, and executes an instruction stream; what this means in practical terms is you give it a bunch of machine code and it does what the code tells it. Machine code is a bunch of bytes generated from source code by a compiler. A human could build machine code by hand, but it would be an exceedingly arduous process, and it's rarely if ever worth the time to do with any computer made in the last thirty years or so. The intermediate step between source code and machine code is, of course, assembly language, and humans do spend a lot of time working in assembly language for various reasons, mostly having to do with either things source code can't do or things compilers can't optimize as well as humans - yet.

Note: In fact, most compilers work by compiling the source code from C or another high-level language to assembly language and then translating the assembly language to machine code (along with some other intermediate steps). However, you never see the assembly language unless you ask to.

A register is an area of storage set aside inside the CPU itself for effectively instantaneous access. Registers serve a large variety of purposes. An x86_64 CPU has a set of at least 100 registers - whew! Fortunately, an application developer, even working in assembly language, rarely has to be concerned with more than about 20 of them at most. The majority of the registers (including the control, debug, table descriptor, performance, and machine-check registers, to name a few) are accessible only to kernel code. Most of the rest, such as the mmx, xmm, and ymm registers, are only used by vector code, and the fpr registers are only used for floating-point calculations (there are exceptions, but as a rule of thumb it's a safe starting point). In addition, only parts of the rflags register are ever used by application code.

One of the quirks of the x86 architecture, ever since the original 16-bit 8086 instruction set, is that many of the same registers can be addressed by different names which determine which part of the register is being read or written. Most of the general-purpose registers can be addressed down to a single byte. For example, the rax (accumulator) register, the first 64-bit general-purpose register, can also be addressed as eax (the low 32 bits of rax), ax (the low 16 bits of rax), ah (the second lowest 8 bits of rax), and al (the low 8 bits of rax). This capability is useful for handling smaller data types - for example, to handle a signed 32-bit addition requires only a single add instruction based on 32-bit register names rather than several instructions designed to emulate 32-bit sign extension and integer overflow on 64-bit registers.

A register named r*x is 64 bits; e*x is 32 bits, *x is 16 bits, and *h or *l are 8 bits. For the r8-r15 registers, these names are instead rN (64 bits), rNd (32 bits), rNw (16 bits), and rNb (8 bits). rip and rflags can only be accessed as 64-bit registers, and the 8-bit versions of rsi, rdi, rsp, and rbp are named sil, dil, spl, and bpl.

The registers that a userland process is concerned with on a regular basis are:

Calling Conventions
The calling conventions of an architecture, which are typically what people mean when they say ABI, specify the ways that functions receive parameters, return values, manage the stack, and other fundamentals not already part of the CPU architecture. x86_64's calling conventions are somewhat complicated, so I'll include an abbreviated version here which will get you through all of the sample code.

Conveniently, none of the functions in the sample code take non-integer parameters, or any large number of parameters. At this point, one might immediately protest that char **, NSString *, and id certainly are not integers! However, for the purpose of function parameter passing, an integer is a value that fits within the bit width of the architecture, i.e. 64 bits for x86_64. Pointers are exactly that size, while int is smaller (x86_64 is an LP64 architecture, which means that long is 64 bits, but int is 32).

Integer parameters to functions are passed via a series of registers. The first parameter goes in rdi. The second goes in rsi, the third in rdx, then rcx, r8, and r9, in that order. If there are more integer arguments than that, the remainder are pushed onto the stack in right-to-left (reverse) order.

Apart from that, the only quirk of the calling conventions we need to be concerned with for this code is the sequence for variadic functions. A variadic function is one which uses the stdarg interface to take a variable number of parameters. In this case, NSLog is the culprit. There's only one oddity in how variadic functions take parameters, at least at the assembly language level: The byte value of al (the low 8 bits of rax) is used to specify the number of vector registers used to pass arguments to the function. Since no vector registers are used by our sample code, this number is always zero.

Finally, functions return simple integer values (again, remember that for these purposes, a pointer is an integer value) in rax, or in some rarer cases, rdx.

The complete calling conventions are considerably more complicated; if you're curious, have a look at the AMD64 Application Binary Interface Specification.

The Assembly Language
The full disassembly of the program is 645 lines long. For sanity's sake, I won't be pasting it here. I'll instead be following along with the code as I explain it. You can disassemble it yourself by running /usr/bin/clang -S test.m -o test.s -fobjc-arc in the directory where you compiled the sample code and viewing the test.s file. This is the compiler's generated assembly code, which is better annotated than anything else, as the compiler doesn't have to guess at anything's name or location.

Looking at the disassembly, one might notice that the code contains eight functions. Eight? The sample code only has three! Where did those other five come from? Four methods are synthesized by the compiler per the @synthesize directive, and the [MyClass .cxx_destruct] method is created by the compiler to do C++- and ARC-related cleanup.

The code for main is:

    int main(int argc, char **argv)
            MyClass *obj = [[MyClass alloc] initWithName: @"name" number: 42];
            NSString *string = MyFunction([obj name]);
            NSLog(@"%@", string);
            return 0;

And the compiler's assembly language output, stripped of several confusing directives for brevity's sake:

            pushq        %rbp
            movq        %rsp, %rbp
            subq        $96, %rsp
            leaq        L__unnamed_cfstring_23(%rip), %rax
            leaq        L__unnamed_cfstring_26(%rip), %rcx
            movl        $42, %edx
            leaq        l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc(%rip), %r8
            movl        $0, -4(%rbp)
            movl        %edi, -8(%rbp)
            movq        %rsi, -16(%rbp)
            movq        %rax, -48(%rbp)         ## 8-byte Spill
            movq        %rcx, -56(%rbp)         ## 8-byte Spill
            movq        %r8, -64(%rbp)          ## 8-byte Spill
            movl        %edx, -68(%rbp)         ## 4-byte Spill
            callq        _objc_autoreleasePoolPush
            movq        L_OBJC_CLASSLIST_REFERENCES_$_(%rip), %rcx
            movq        %rcx, %rdi
            movq        -64(%rbp), %rsi         ## 8-byte Reload
            movq        %rax, -80(%rbp)         ## 8-byte Spill
            callq        *l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc(%rip)
            movq        L_OBJC_SELECTOR_REFERENCES_27(%rip), %rsi
            movq        %rax, %rdi
            movq        -56(%rbp), %rdx         ## 8-byte Reload
            movl        -68(%rbp), %ecx         ## 4-byte Reload
            callq        _objc_msgSend
            movq        %rax, -24(%rbp)
            movq        -24(%rbp), %rax
            movq        L_OBJC_SELECTOR_REFERENCES_28(%rip), %rsi
            movq        %rax, %rdi
            callq        _objc_msgSend
            movq        %rax, %rdi
            callq        _objc_retainAutoreleasedReturnValue
            movq        %rax, %rdi
            movq        %rax, -88(%rbp)         ## 8-byte Spill
            callq        _MyFunction
            movq        %rax, %rdi
            callq        _objc_retainAutoreleasedReturnValue
            movq        %rax, -32(%rbp)
            movq        -88(%rbp), %rax         ## 8-byte Reload
            movq        %rax, %rdi
            callq        _objc_release
            movq        -32(%rbp), %rsi
            movq        -48(%rbp), %rdi         ## 8-byte Reload
            movb        $0, %al
            callq        _NSLog
            movl        $0, -4(%rbp)
            movl        $1, -36(%rbp)
            movq        -32(%rbp), %rdx
            movq        %rdx, %rdi
            callq        _objc_release
            movq        -24(%rbp), %rdx
            movq        %rdx, %rdi
            callq        _objc_release
            movq        -80(%rbp), %rdi         ## 8-byte Reload
            callq        _objc_autoreleasePoolPop
            movl        -4(%rbp), %eax
            addq        $96, %rsp
            popq        %rbp

Whew! main's pretty long in assembly, huh? There are some important things to recognize here:

  1. Per the ABI, rdi is the first argument register for integer/pointer arguments, and contains the value of argc.
  2. Likewise, rsi contains the value of argv.
  3. Also likewise, rdx has the value of envp. This holds true even though envp is not declared as a parameter to main!
  4. Finally, rcx holds the value of a more mysterious "exec_path" parameter, whose presence I only discovered when I peeked at the disassembly of the start function, part of the C runtime.
  5. And, per x86 convention, rsp points to the top of the stack. Because main is a subroutine of start, the 8 bytes pointed to by rsp are the return address for main, the next instruction in start.

Let's take it one instruction at a time.

  1. pushq %rbp - Starting off pretty simple. Save the base pointer on the stack so we can restore it later. The ABI specifies that rbp must be preserved across function calls, so since it's about to change, it gets saved.

  2. movq %rsp,%rbp - Copy rsp to rbp. This is part of a standard C function's prologue, setting up the stack to hold any local variables that aren't put in registers for whatever reason.

  3. subq $96,%rsp - A number preceded by $ in assembly language is a literal decimal number used as an operand to an instruction, so this line subtracts 96 from rsp, growing the stack by 96 bytes. This is how much stack space the compiler has determined it will need for the rest of the function.

  4. leaq L__unnamed_cfstring_23(%rip),%rax - Load the address of L__unnamed_cfstring_23 into rax, using rip as the base. rip-relative addressing is typically used for loading such things as constant strings and selector names, as well as for fast branches. This particular load grabs the string @"%@" from the place it was stored in the executable. This string will later be used as a method parameter.

  5. leaq L__unnamed_cfstring_26(%rip),%rcx - Same as above, but loading @"name" into rcx.

  6. movl $42,%edx - Load the 32-bit value 42 into edx (the low 32 bits of rdx). This value is also used later.

  7. leaq l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc(%rip),%r8 - Grab the address of the l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc symbol from the Objective-C segment of the executable, and save that address in r8. Once again, this is used later.

  8. movl $0, -4(%rbp) - Load a 32-bit zero into the bottom of the stack.

    This serves as a useful reminder that the stack grows downwards; given that we know that %rbp points to the bottom of the stack, i.e. the highest address at which the stack exists, this line is actually setting the last four bytes of the stack to zero.

    So what does this actually do? As it turns out, for all intents and purposes, it does absolutely nothing! It's the result of the compiler's determination to make sure no garbage value gets used later, as seen in the next instruction, even though the value is never again read.

  9. movl %edi, -8(%rbp) - Save edi, the low 32 bits of rdi, on the stack. As edi is the first integer argument register, this is actually the value of argc. The previous instruction, setting the last 32 bits of the stack to zero, now makes a bit more sense; the same effect could have been achieved by code something like *rbp = ((int64_t)argc & 0x00000000FFFFFFFF);, except that sign-extending and ANDing the value of argc would have been several more operations. Unfortunately for the unoptimizing compiler's track record, this instruction also turns out to be useless, as the value of argc is never actually used.

  10. movq %rsi, -16(%rbp) - Save rsi, also known as argv at the moment, on the stack. A third useless instruction in a row, since argv isn't used either.

  11.         movq %rax, -48(%rbp) ## 8-byte Spill
            movq %rcx, -56(%rbp) ## 8-byte Spill
            movq %r8, -64(%rbp) ## 8-byte Spill
            movl %edx, -68(%rbp) ## 4-byte Spill

    Save rax (the string @"%@"), rcx (the string @"name"), r8 (a pointer to l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc) and edx (the number 42) on the stack as "spill" values.

    What in the world is a spill value, you might ask? A register spill takes place when the compiler needs a register to store a value in, typically as a parameter to a function call since parameters go in specific registers, and none are available. The value in the needed register is saved on the stack ("spilled") so it can be restored ("reloaded") later. In this case, where optimization is shut off, the compiler doesn't have any of the data-flow analysis it would need to realize that all this spilling is unnecessary, and everything in useful registers gets spilled.

  12. callq _objc_autoreleasePoolPush - Make a subroutine call to objc_autoreleasePoolPush(). A subroutine call consists of two operations, performed atomically with respect to other instructions (i.e. they can not be preempted halfway through): Push the address of the next instruction to be executed to the stack, and execute a branch to the address of the first instruction of the called function. Since objc_autoreleasePoolPush() doesn't take any parameters, what's in most of the registers doesn't matter. When it returns, however, rax contains its void * return value, a pointer which acts as an opaque handle to the position of the new autorelease pool on the pool stack. This value is invisible to the Objective-C code, which sees only the @autoreleasepool statement.

  13.         movq L_OBJC_CLASSLIST_REFERENCES_$_(%rip), %rcx
            movq %rcx, %rdi
            movq -64(%rbp), %rsi ## 8-byte Reload
            movq %rax, -80(%rbp) ## 8-byte Spill
            callq *l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc(%rip)

    Load the value at rip + L_OBJC_CLASSLIST_REFERENCES_$_ into rcx, copy rcx into rdi, reload the address of l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc from the stack into rsi, spill rax (the autorelease pool handle) to the stack, and finally, make a subroutine call to l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc.

    L_OBJC_CLASSLIST_REFERENCES_$_ is the symbol for the MyClass class object. The load into rcx and then the immediate copy to rdi is once again a problem of lack of data-flow analysis; the compiler blindly picks the first available register to load the value into, then stores it in the first integer parameter register from there.

    What rules cause it to consider rcx the first available register? rax is still in use as a return value until the next couple of instructions, and rbx isn't considered because its value is preserved across function calls, making it a very un-preferred register for use.

    So far, the MyClass class object is parameter 1. The reload from the stack pulls the pointer to l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc into argument 2. The spill of rax saves the autorelease pool handle, since rax will be clobbered by the subroutine return. And l_objc_msgSend_fixup_alloc is a vtable call; the address of the real alloc method will be "fixed up" at runtime for optimization purposes.

    This sequence therefore amounts to an optimized Objective-C message send. Recall that every Objective-C method takes two hidden arguments, self and _cmd. In this case, self is [MyClass class], and _cmd is alloc (or more exactly, a vtable pointer to a common alloc method for all classes). A very similar sequence follows.

  14.         movq L_OBJC_SELECTOR_REFERENCES_27(%rip), %rsi
            movq %rax, %rdi
            movq -56(%rbp), %rdx ## 8-byte Reload
            movl -68(%rbp), %ecx ## 4-byte Reload
            callq _objc_msgSend

    Load the value at rip + L_OBJC_SELECTOR_REFERENCES_27 into rsi, copy rax to rdi, reload @"name" into rdx, reload 42 into ecx and subroutine-call to objc_msgSend.

    L_OBJC_SELECTOR_REFERENCES_27 is the selector for [MyClass initWithName:number:], placed into rsi, or argument 2. rax holds the return value of alloc, which is the new MyClass object, and it's copied into argument 1. The third parameter, rdx, is loaded with the constant NSString @"name", and the fourth parameter with the number 42. Finally, objc_msgSend() is called. This is the call sequence for [ initWithName:@"name" number:42]. The init method will return the value of self in rax.

  15. movq %rax, -24(%rbp) and movq -24(%rbp), %rax - Yes, that's right, these two instructions are entirely redundant. Because -24(%rbp) is used later, it's good for the value to be saved. Unfortunately, the immediate reload back into rax is not justified.

  16.         movq L_OBJC_SELECTOR_REFERENCES_28(%rip), %rsi
            movq %rax, %rdi
            callq _objc_msgSend

    Hopefully, you've got the hang of this by now; this is objc_msgSend(rax, @selector(name));. Return value in rax as usual.

  17. movq %rax, %rdi and callq _objc_retainAutoreleasedReturnValue should be obvious now. objc_retainAutoreleasedReturnValue(obj); is inserted by ARC to keep the return value of the name method alive, since the temporary variable created invisibly by the Objective-C compiler to hold the value is implicitly declared __strong.

  18.         movq %rax, %rdi
            movq %rax, -88(%rbp) ## 8-byte Spill
            callq _MyFunction
            movq %rax, %rdi
            callq _objc_retainAutoreleasedReturnValue

    Save the return value of name, copy it as the first parameter to MyFunction(), call MyFunction(), call objc_retainAutoreleasedReturnValue() on the return from it.

  19.         movq %rax, -32(%rbp)
            movq -88(%rbp), %rax ## 8-byte Reload
            movq %rax, %rdi
            callq _objc_release

    Save the return value of MyFunction(). Then, reload the result of [MyClass name], and call objc_release() on it, as ARC has noticed that it's no longer used.

  20.         movq -32(%rbp), %rsi
            movq -48(%rbp), %rdi ## 8-byte Reload
            movb $0, %al
            callq _NSLog

    A simple call to NSLog(), with the only odd feature being the set of al to zero. Because NSLog() is a variadic function, the calling convention specifies that al holds the number of vector registers used when calling it. No vector registers are used, so it's just set to zero.

  21. movl $0, -4(%rbp) and movl $1, -36(%rbp) - I have to admit, I see no reason whatsoever for the compiler to toss a zero and a one onto what look rather like random parts of the stack, here or anywhere else in main(). Nothing like these values is used anywhere in the optimized version of the code. The store of zero at least gets used further down, but the store of a 1 seems entirely meaningless.

  22.         movq -32(%rbp), %rdx
            movq %rdx, %rdi
            callq _objc_release

    Release the return value of MyFunction() - you have set aside a sheet of paper to keep track of which values went in which offsets on the stack and in which registers, haven't you? If not, it'd be little wonder if you were a little lost by now.

  23.         movq -24(%rbp), %rdx
            movq %rdx, %rdi
            callq _objc_release

    Now release obj, the object of class MyClass that we allocated before.

  24.         movq -80(%rbp), %rdi ## 8-byte Reload
            callq _objc_autoreleasePoolPop

    Reload the autorelease pool handle and pop it by calling objc_autoreleasePoolPop(). This is the code inserted by the closing brace } of the @autoreleasepool statement.

  25.         movl -4(%rbp), %eax
            addq $96, %rsp
            popq %rbp

    Load the zero on the stack into eax as main's return value.

    Restore the stack pointer to its original position when main was called.

    Pop the original value of rbp off the stack and back into rbp.

    Pop the address of the next instruction off the stack into rip, also known as returning from a subroutine call.

And that's main()! What a long-winded mess.

I must admit at this point that I went out of my way to make this function difficult to understand in one critical respect: I've been working from the unoptimized version of the code generated by the compiler. The code built with -Os is, surprisingly, much easier to understand, with a lot of redundant work completely eliminated and the registers managed much more efficiently. There's also almost no work done on the stack, since the compiler in optimizing mode is free to make use of a larger pool of scratch registers.

I did this because until you can understand the control flow of an unoptimized routine, there's no point in reading optimized code. Starting with the optimized code is a bit like learning to swim in water so shallow you can't even put your face under, except for those times when the compiler does something fantastically tricky to get a speed or size bonus, when it suddenly becomes rather like diving into the deep end of an Olympic pool.

That's the end of this article, but it's only part 1 in a series. Hopefully, you've enjoyed it so far; in part 2 I'll explore the rest of the methods in the sample code, as well as the optimized version of the code and the C runtime's start function.

Did you enjoy this article? I'm selling a whole book full of them. It's available for iBooks and Kindle, plus a direct download in PDF and ePub format. It's also available in paper for the old-fashioned. Click here for more information.


Dave at 2011-12-16 15:23:51:
My goodness this is fantastic. *bookmarked*

Steve Weller at 2011-12-16 15:51:06:
Please repeat for ARM!

BJ Homer at 2011-12-16 16:50:00:
This is very useful. I've been meaning to find a good primer on reading assembly for a while, and this couldn't be more appropriate.

But who in the world came up with these register names? Can we fire them?

mikeash at 2011-12-16 17:06:20:
Fire them, out of a cannon, into the sun, perhaps?

Jeroen at 2011-12-17 00:47:58:
Geesh that brings back the memories! (of the much nicer 68K and PPC though…)

Fire them at the moon so they go splat and remain there as a warning for the future.

Great stuff…

Alistair at 2011-12-17 10:28:10:
What a superb article, thanks for taking the time to write it. As someone else said, yes please, a version for ARM. That really took me back!

Gwynne Raskind at 2011-12-17 14:16:29:
Steve, Alistair:I'm not very familiar with the ARM architecture at the assembly language level, but I guess this is the perfect time to learn! I'll see what I can do about an ARM version once I've finished part 2, since it seems so popular an idea :).

Hugh Fisher at 2011-12-20 01:35:12:
BJ Homer, the register naming conventions on x86 are an evolutionary hangover from the dim, distant days of the 1970s.

Historically mainframe CPUs, like the IBM 360 which is still with us, had 16 or more general purpose registers numbered from 0. Minicomputers like the PDP-11 had fewer but still general purpose registers, also numbered from 0. You can/could see these influences in the PowerPC and Motorola M68K which used similar naming schemes, as did most RISC architectures.

The x86, though, evolved in a pure microprocessor environment. The first 8080 and then 8086 had so few transistors that every register had a unique purpose. You literally could only add numbers in the accumulator (AX) register, you could only use the string index (SI) register to fetch a byte at an offset from an address, and so on. Since there were so few registers and each was different it made sense to give them different names.

The 8 bit 8080 had an 8 bit accumulator while the 8086 was 16 bit. Intel wanted the 8086 to be largely source compatible - and that's assembler source compatible - so made it easy to for 8 bit code to use AL. (Why AH, the top 8 bits of a 16 bit accumulator, exists is a mystery to me but presumably it had some purpose.)

With the 386 the architects finally had enough transistors to switch to general purpose registers where you could (almost) apply any operation to any register, improving both aesthetics and performance, but the hideous names had to stay for backwards compatibility. In the 1980s and even 1990s PC programs were still often written in assembly language.

MMX and SSE, being post 386, got general purpose registers from the start and reg#N names. When AMD extended the x86 architecture to 64 bit addressing they also doubled the number of registers and named them R8 to R15.

Computer architecture textbooks in the 1980s and 1990s didn't use the x86 for examples because it was so kludgy, preferring the cleaner 68K/RISC designs. It says something about elegance vs practicality that the x86 is still with us and those others mostly aren't :-(

Scott Little at 2011-12-20 13:11:20:
Great stuff! I was thinking that this type of thing would be great to see after Mike's previous article about getting to the Assembly. I do a lot of hacking and swizzling in Mail and am often looking at the assembly of Mail.app and Message.framework, but mostly I don't understand.

Thanks for this primer and I'm looking forward to Part 2!

vczilla at 2011-12-31 07:30:43:
I'd hate to be an architecture 'nazi' but I couldn't help but notice a mistake concerning memory in the article.

It's stated that all physical addresses are 48 bit wide and that bits 48-63 are all zeroes.

In fact this is only true for linear addresses (which are addresses before paging translation) and only when the processor is a 64 bit processor in compatibility mode.

Physical addresses are 52 bits (and this is implementation dependent).

When the processor is in 64-bit mode all linear addresses must be in what is called a canonical form.

Imagine a 48-bit logic address as signed int which is sign extended to 64 bit when stored.

Or said otherwise for that address bits 48 to 64 are a copy of bit 47.

In general kernel implementations on different operating systems occupy the negative physical address space.

It's a forward looking compatibility feature.
That way if in a future implementation they widen physical or linear addresses everything will be at the same relative offset from zero.

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