The ARM processor (Thumb-2), part 20: Code walkthrough

Raymond Chen

As is traditional, I wrap up the processor overview series with an annotated walkthrough of a simple function. Here’s the function again:

extern FILE _iob[];

int fclose(FILE *stream)
    int result = EOF;

    if (stream->_flag & _IOSTRG) {
        stream->_flag = 0;
    } else {
        int index = stream - _iob;
        result = _fclose_lk(stream);

    return result;

Let’s dive in.

This function takes a single pointer parameter, which therefore is passed in the r0 register. No parameters are passed on the stack.

    push    {r3-r6,r11,lr}

We start by building our stack frame. From this one instruction we already learn that

  • This is not a lightweight leaf function, because we are using the stack. Saving the frame pointer r11 and return address lr is therefore required.
  • We have one word of local variables and outbound parameters. This is inferred by the inclusion of the otherwise-garbage r3 register. We don’t actually care about the value of the r3 register. We are pushing it for the side effect of allocating space on the stack.
  • We need three additional registers: r4, r5, and r6.
    add     r11, sp, #0x10      ; link into stack frame chain

The next step in the standard prologue is to point the r11 register at the place where we saved the previous r11 register, in order to maintain the stack frame chain.

    mov     r5, r0              ; r5 = stream

We save the stream pointer in a non-volatile register for safekeeping.

;   int result = EOF;
;   if (stream->_flag & _IOSTRG) {

    ldr     r3, [r5,#0xC]       ; r3 = stream->_flag
    mvn     r6, #0              ; r6 "result" = -1
    tst     r3, #0x40           ; Q: Is _IOSTRG set?
    beq     notstring           ; N: Then need to flush for real

The compiler interleaved the initialization of the result variable (which is evidently being kept in register r6) with the test of the _flags member.

Initializing result is done by moving ~0, which is the same as 0xFFFFFFFF or -1.

Testing the _IOSTRG bit is done by loading the flags into the r3 register (a scratch register) and using the TST instruction, which sets the flags based on the result of a bitwise AND operation. If the flag is clear, then the result is zero (“equal”), and the jump is taken. If the flag is set, then we fall through.

;   stream->_flag = 0;

    movs    r3, #0              ; r3 = 0
    str     r3, [r5,#0xC]       ; stream->_flag = 0
    b       done                ; end of "true" branch

If the flag is clear, then we enter the “true” branch of the if statement, which sets the _flag to zero. We cannot move a constant directly into memory, so we first load the constant in to a scratch register (r3) and store the register to memory.

Note that we use a MOVS instruction, which sets flags, even though we don’t care about the flags. That’s because the 8-bit immediate MOVS instruction has a compact 16-bit encoding, whereas the corresponding MOV instruction uses a 32-bit encoding, so switching to MOVS reduces code size.

;   int index = stream - _iob;

    ldr     r3, =|_iob|         ; r3 = address of _iob
    subs    r4, r5, r3          ; r4 = stream - iob (byte offset)
    asrs    r0, r4, #4          ; r0 = r4 / 16 (convert to index)

We use the literal pool version of the LDR pseudo-instruction to load the address of the _iob array from the literal pool into a scratch register r3. We subtract that from the stream variable, producing the byte offset into the preserved register r4. Shifting that right by 4 is the same as dividing by 16, which produces the index into the r0 register.

;   _lock_str(index);

    bl      |_lock_str|

The r0 register is exactly where we pass the index parameter to the lock_str function, so we’re all set to call it.

;   result = _fclose_lk(stream);

    mov     r0, r5              ; r0 = stream
    bl      |_fclose_lk|        ; _fclose_lk(stream)
    mov     r6, r0              ; save result

Next comes another function call, this time to close the stream. We put the first (and only) parameter into r0 and call the function. The result comes back in r0, and we save it in r6 so we can return it when we’re done.

;   _unlock_str(index);

    asrs    r0, r4, #4          ; r0 = r4 / 16 (convert to index)
    bl      |_unlock_str|       ; _unlock_str(index)

To call _unlock_str, we recalculate the index from the byte offset (still in r4, since r4 is a preserved register) and put the index into r0 so we can call _unlock_str.

It may seem odd to recalculate the index from the byte offset. Why not just save the index the first time?

The reason is that mov r0, r4 and asrs r0, r4, #4 are the same size: They both use 16-bit encoding. Recalculating the value takes the same number of code bytes as copying it, and it avoids having to save the index anywhere, thereby saving two bytes. Thanks to the barrel shifter (which the ARM is very proud of, in case you have forgotten), shifting a register is just as fast as copying it.

We now fall through to the end of the function.


;   return result;

    mov     r0, r6              ; return result (r6)

The function return value goes into r0, so we copy it there from r6.

    pop     {r3-r6,r11,pc}

For this function, we can pack the the function epilogue into just one instruction: Popping r3 cleans up our local variables, popping r4 through r6 restores the saved registers, popping r11 unlinks the current stack frame from the stack frame chain, and popping the inbound return address into pc transfers control to the return address.

That’s the end of the function, but we’re not done yet!

    __debugbreak                ; recover word alignment

    dcd     |_iob|

We still have the matter of the literal pool we used in the ldr r3, =|_iob| pseudo-instruction. That pseudo-instruction turns into the instruction

    ldr     r3, [pc, #...]      ; load register from memory

where the #... is the offset to the desired literal. When you use the pc register as a base index, the value is rounded down to the nearest multiple of four, and the offset must also be a multiple of four. This means that the value must be at a word-aligned address. The unreachable __debugbreak instruction at the end of the function is just padding so that the |_iob| literal can be placed on a word boundary.

So there we have it, our whirlwind tour of the ARM processor in Thumb-2 mode. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.

ยน Commenter Neil Rashbrook notes that stack space reserved by pushing the r3 register is never used. It exists only to satisfy the requirement that the stack be 8-byte aligned.

1 comment

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  • Neil Rashbrook 0

    Was that word of local variables only used for aligning the stack?

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