The AArch64 processor (aka arm64), part 21: Classic function prologues and epilogues

Raymond Chen

Classic function prologues in Windows on AArch64 follow a common pattern. I’ll present the full prologue, and then we’ll take it apart instruction by instruction.

    ; return address protection
    pacibsp

    ; saving registers
    stp     fp, lr, [sp, #-0x30]!
    stp     x19, x20, [sp, #0x10]
    str     x21, [sp, #0x20]

    ; establishing frame chain
    mov     fp, sp

    ; initializing GS cookie
    bl      __security_push_cookie

    ; local variables and outbound parameters
    sub     sp, sp, #0x80

The prologue breaks up into five sections, as marked off by comments above.

On entry to the function, we have this:

   
return address  
previous fp fp (frame chain)
 
stack param sp

The first order of business is to apply return address protection.

Next, we save nonvolatile registers. We build the next stack frame by pushing fp and lr onto the stack into adjacent locations. The frame pointer and link register are always stored next to each other because that’s what stack walking requires. The “push” onto the stack is done by using a pre-incrementing store,¹ so that the stack pointer is adjusted, and then the values written to the adjusted stack pointer.

Let’s walk through that “push” again:

    stp     fp, lr, [sp, #-0x30]!

The effective address is sp0x30, which is 0x30 bytes below the current stack pointer. At that location, we store the fp and lr registers, and then the effective address is written back to the base register sp.

   
return address  
previous fp fp (frame chain)
 
stack param  
   
   
   
   
return address  
previous fp sp

The next instruction stores the x19 and x20 registers into the register save area we just created.

    stp     x19, x20, [sp, #0x10]
   
return address  
previous fp fp (frame chain)
 
stack param  
   
   
saved x20  
saved x19  
return address  
previous fp sp

And the last instruction in the set saves the lone x21 register.

    str     x21, [sp, #0x20]
   
return address  
previous fp fp (frame chain)
 
stack param  
   
saved x21  
saved x20  
saved x19  
return address  
previous fp sp

The stack must remain 16-byte aligned, which means that space must be reserved in multiples of 2 registers. We have an odd number of registers to save, so one of the spaces we reserved for the register save area goes to waste. (In theory, the compiler could decide to use it to record a local variable, but in practice it doesn’t.)

The second part of the prologue re-establishes the frame chain.

    ; link this frame onto the frame chain
    mov     fp, sp
       
    return address  
  ▶︎ previous fp  
 
     
    stack param  
       
    saved x21  
    saved x20  
    saved x19  
    return address  
    previous fp fp (frame chain), sp
 
 

If the function contains a stack-based array, then the prologue inserts the GS cookie onto the stack so that a buffer overflow from the stack-based array is likely to corrupt the cookie before it gets to the saved return address.

    bl      __security_push_cookie

Even though the cookie is only the size of a register, the function pushes 16 bytes onto the stack due to the requirement that the stack remain 16-byte aligned.

The cookie management functions use the xip0 and xip1 registers to do the work of calculating or validating the cookie. These registers are volatile and are assumed to be modified by any branch instruction, and we used a branch instruction to get to the start of the prologue, so we know that xip0 and xip1 cannot be used to pass information from the caller to the callee, not even for a nonstandard calling convention.

Finally, the prologue allocates space for stack-based local variables and outbound parameters.

    sub     sp, sp, #0x80

We then reach the function body with this stack layout:

           
    return address  
  ▶︎ previous fp  
 
     
    stack param  
          saved
register
area
    saved x21  
    saved x20  
    saved x19  
    return address  
    previous fp fp (frame chain)
 
          GS
area
    GS cookie  
    local
variables
    local
stack
area
    outbound
stack
parameters
sp

When the function returns, the above steps are reversed.

    add     sp, sp, #0x80           ; discard local stack area
    bl      __security_pop_cookie   ; validate and pop GS cookie
    ldr     x21, [sp, #0x20]        ; restore register
    ldp     x19, x20, [sp, #0x10]   ; restore registers
    ldp     fp, lr, [sp], #0x30     ; restore register and pop
    autibsp                         ; validate return address
    ret                             ; return

The final ldp uses the post-increment addressing mode so that the stack pointer is increased by 0x30 after the registers are loaded.

Restoring the fp register unlinks the current stack frame from the frame chain. And restoring the lr register puts the return address back into lr, which we validate, and then use in the ret instruction to return to the caller.²

Not all of these steps will be present in all function prologues. A function that has no stack-based local variables or outbound parameters will not create a local stack area. A function that has no stack-based arrays will not create a GS cookie. And a lightweight leaf function won’t even bother saving any registers or protecting the return address.

Next time, we’ll look at special cases that will diverge from this traditional prologue/epilogue pattern.

¹ Though since the offset is negative, you can think of it as a pre-decrementing store.

² In AArch64, the program counter pc is not a general-purpose register, so you don’t see the trick popular in AArch32 where the return address is popped into the pc register to return to the caller. For AArch64, we see the more traditional pattern of restoring the return address into lr and then explicitly returning to it.

3 comments

Discussion is closed. Login to edit/delete existing comments.

  • Gunnar Dalsnes 0

    GS = Girl Scout?

    • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee 0

      I hyperlinked it so you can learn more.

  • mohsinjadoon105 0

    Thanks, it is helpful for me!

Feedback usabilla icon