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Experiments with Aarch64 Assembler Part 3 - write

By: Pete, October 2022

write - Writing text to the screen again

(Code for this mini-series can be downloaded from Github)

Writing text to the screen using a syscall works but it's not ideal. For example, we don't want to have to keep remembering the correct syscall number each time we want to do it.

A better solution is to turn the write operation into a function or subroutine.

We decide that our subroutine will take a pointer to the string to be written and the length of the string. To comply with the Arm Procedure Call Standard, these will be passed in registers x0 and x1 respectively.

However, recall that the write system call requires the pointer to be in register x1 and the length to be in register x2. (This is an implementation detail so we don't decide that our subroutine should take parameters in x1 and x2 instead of x0 and x1 just because it might be convenient.)

We therefore need to move the input parameters into the registers where we need them for the syscall. This is done as follows:

mov     x2, x1      // x1 -> x2
mov     x1, x0      // x0 -> x1

(Note that it is important to do this in the right order!)

In the Aarch64 Procedure Call Standard we can modify registers x0 to x15 as we choose. But registers x16 to x30 should be returned to the calling function with the same data in that this function was called with. (Some of the x16 to x30 registers have special uses and others we can use as we like as long as we restore the initial values before we return from the subroutine.)

The syscall requires us to put the syscall number in x8. We therefore need to temporarily store its initial value before modifying it.

We could temporarily store the x8 register in one of the x3 to x15 registers that we are allowed to modify but are not using in this subroutine.

However, we can also temporarily store any register we want to modify and later restore by storing its initial value on the stack. Since this is a tutorial, that's what we'll do:

str     x8, [sp,#-16]!

This subtracts 16 from the stack pointer and stores the x8 register at that location. The ! tells the cpu to store the computed address back into the stack pointer. If the stack pointer was initially 1016 it will end up being 1000.

You might have noticed that we are allocating 16 bytes of data on the stack even though the size of x8 is "only" 8 bytes. This is because Aarch64 requires that the stack pointer must be kept 16-byte or 128-bit aligned at all times.

Having saved x8 we can now safely do the system call:

mov     x0, #1      // fd := STDOUT_FILENO
mov     x8, #64     // write syscall is #64
svc     #0          // invoke syscall

System call done, we can recover x8 from the stack:

ldr     x8, [sp], #16

This reads the value pointed to by the stack pointer and then updates the stack pointer by adding 16 to it - thus returning it to its original value.

All that remains now is to return from the subroutine using a ret instruction:

ret

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is a minimalist implementation for a subroutine that doesn't call other subroutines. Subroutines that do call other subroutines need to do a little more housekeeping and I'll cover that in a future exercise.

To call our new function we set our input parameters to the relevant values using the x0 and x1 registers and call our function using the bl instruction.

To demonstrate the repeatability of calling the routine I have done this twice in the example:

ldr     x0, =msg1   // buf = msg1
ldr     x1, =len1   // count = len1
bl      _write

ldr     x0, =msg2   // buf = msg2
ldr     x1, =len2   // count = len2
bl      _write

I have also turned the exit system call into a function so it can be more readily used in larger programs. (As we are exiting at this point there is no point in storing x8 on the stack.)

The complete program is as follows:

// Material for the data segment
.data

msg1: .ascii        "Hello, ARM64 World!\n"
len1 = . - msg1
msg2: .ascii        "Goodbye for now!\n"
len2 = . - msg2

// Start the segment containing the program code (as opposed to data)
.text

// Specify the application's entry point.
.global _start

_write:
    // Effectively write( const char * x0 /* buf */, size_t x1 /* count */ )
    // Input parameters:
    //   x0 - buf - Pointer to start of data to be written
    //   x1 - count - Length of data to be written

    // To make the syscall we have to move the subroutine's input
    // parameters into the right registers for the syscall
    mov     x2, x1      // x1 -> x2
    mov     x1, x0      // x0 -> x1

    // We should return from this function with x8 unchanged.
    // Step 1 of achieving this is to push it onto the stack
    str     x8, [sp,#-16]!

    // syscall prototype is write(int fd, const void *buf, size_t count)
    mov     x0, #1      // fd := STDOUT_FILENO
    mov     x8, #64     // write syscall is #64
    svc     #0          // invoke syscall

    // Now restore x8 unchanged - Step 2
    ldr     x8, [sp], #16

    // Return to the calling subroutine
    ret

_exit:
    // Subroutine: exit( int x0 /* status */ )
    // invoke exit using the exit(int status) syscall
    mov     x0, #0      // status = 0
    mov     x8, #93     // exit syscall is #93
    svc     #0          // invoke syscall
    // No return!!!

// The start of the code
_start:
    ldr     x0, =msg1   // buf = msg
    ldr     x1, =len1   // count = len
    bl      _write
    ldr     x0, =msg2   // buf = msg
    ldr     x1, =len2   // count = len
    bl      _write
    bl      _exit

Using our script, this can be assembled and run using:

aarch64 write