By boneheadgeek

2013-08-02 19:22:43 8 Comments

I believe I understand how the linux x86-64 ABI uses registers and stack to pass parameters to a function (cf. previous ABI discussion). What I'm confused about is if/what registers are expected to be preserved across a function call. That is, what registers are guarenteed not to get clobbered?


@Ciro Santilli 郝海东冠状病六四事件法轮功 2019-03-17 13:00:52

Experimental approach: disassemble GCC code

Mostly for fun, but also as a quick verification that you understood the ABI right.

Let's try to clobber all registers with inline assemble to force GCC to save and restore them:


#include <inttypes.h>

uint64_t inc(uint64_t i) {
    __asm__ __volatile__(
        : "+m" (i)
        : "rax",
    return i + 1;

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
    return inc(argc);

GitHub upstream.

Compile and disassemble:

 gcc -std=gnu99 -O3 -ggdb3 -Wall -Wextra -pedantic -o main.out main.c
 objdump -d main.out

Disassembly contains:

00000000000011a0 <inc>:
    11a0:       55                      push   %rbp
    11a1:       48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp
    11a4:       41 57                   push   %r15
    11a6:       41 56                   push   %r14
    11a8:       41 55                   push   %r13
    11aa:       41 54                   push   %r12
    11ac:       53                      push   %rbx
    11ad:       48 83 ec 08             sub    $0x8,%rsp
    11b1:       48 89 7d d0             mov    %rdi,-0x30(%rbp)
    11b5:       48 8b 45 d0             mov    -0x30(%rbp),%rax
    11b9:       48 8d 65 d8             lea    -0x28(%rbp),%rsp
    11bd:       5b                      pop    %rbx
    11be:       41 5c                   pop    %r12
    11c0:       48 83 c0 01             add    $0x1,%rax
    11c4:       41 5d                   pop    %r13
    11c6:       41 5e                   pop    %r14
    11c8:       41 5f                   pop    %r15
    11ca:       5d                      pop    %rbp
    11cb:       c3                      retq   
    11cc:       0f 1f 40 00             nopl   0x0(%rax)

and so we clearly see that the following are pushed and popped:


The only missing one from the spec is rsp, but we expect the stack to be restored of course. Careful reading of the assembly confirms that it is maintained in this case:

  • sub $0x8, %rsp: allocates 8 bytes on stack to save %rdi at %rdi, -0x30(%rbp), which is done for the inline assembly +m constraint
  • lea -0x28(%rbp), %rsp restores %rsp back to before the sub, i.e. 5 pops after mov %rsp, %rbp
  • there are 6 pushes and 6 corresponding pops
  • no other instructions touch %rsp

Tested in Ubuntu 18.10, GCC 8.2.0.

@Peter Cordes 2019-03-17 17:17:16

Why are you using +a and +r in the same constraint as different options? "+rax" is very deceptive, because it looks like you're asking for the input in the RAX register (which you can't because it's clobbered). But you're not, you're actually asking for it in any GP register (r), RAX (a), or any XMM register (x). i.e. equivalent to "+xr". Since you leave one XMM register unclobbered, the compiler picks XMM15. You can see this by making the asm template string "nop # %0" so it expands %0 in a comment.

@Peter Cordes 2019-03-17 17:19:03

Clang chokes on "+rx", but not "+xr". I think clang doesn't actually use constraint alternatives properly, and only picks one. This might be why "+rm" constraints often get clang to spill a register as if it picked the "+m" option for no reason.

@Ciro Santilli 郝海东冠状病六四事件法轮功 2019-03-17 18:17:07

@PeterCordes oops I was in a bit of a hurry, meant to be just +r, love how the thing does not blow up on rax. +m is just better in this case though.

@Peter Cordes 2019-03-17 23:43:53

You may have found a compiler bug. You declare a clobber on RSP and RBP, but gcc and clang both use RBP after the asm statement (to restore RSP), i.e. they assume RBP is still valid. They also use an RBP-relative addressing mode for %0, but I guess clobber declarations are not early-clobber. Still, that's surprising. If we declare only an RSP clobber ( comments the RBP clobber), they make a stack frame and use an RBP-relative addressing mode, identical to with both clobbers. TL:DR: RSP+RBP clobber = bug, even when other regs are not clobbered.

@Jeff N 2013-08-02 22:01:13

The ABI specifies what a piece of standard-conforming software is allowed to expect. It is written primarily for authors of compilers, linkers and other language processing software. These authors want their compiler to produce code that will work properly with code that is compiled by the same (or a different) compiler. They all have to agree to a set of rules: how are formal arguments to functions passed from caller to callee, how are function return values passed back from callee to caller, which registers are preserved/scratch/undefined across the call boundary, and so on.

For example, one rule states that the generated assembly code for a function must save the value of a preserved register before changing the value, and that the code must restore the saved value before returning to its caller. For a scratch register, the generated code is not required to save and restore the register value; it can do so if it wants, but standard-conforming software is not allowed to depend upon this behavior (if it does it is not standard-conforming software).

If you are writing assembly code, you are responsible for playing by these same rules (you are playing the role of the compiler). That is, if your code changes a callee-preserved register, you are responsible for inserting instructions that save and restore the original register value. If your assembly code calls an external function, your code must pass arguments in the standard-conforming way, and it can depend upon the fact that, when the callee returns, preserved register values are in fact preserved.

The rules define how standards-conforming software can get along. However, it is perfectly legal to write (or generate) code that does not play by these rules! Compilers do this all the time, because they know that the rules don't need to be followed under certain circumstances.

For example, consider a C function named foo that is declared as follows, and never has its address taken:

static foo(int x);

At compile-time, the compiler is 100% certain that this function can only be called by other code in the file(s) it is currently compiling. Function foo cannot be called by anything else, ever, given the definition of what it means to be static. Because the compiler knows all of the callers of foo at compile time, the compiler is free to use whatever calling sequence it wants (up to and including not making a call at all, that is, inlining the code for foo into the callers of foo.

As an author of assembly code, you can do this too. That is, you can implement a "private agreement" between two or more routines, as long as that agreement doesn't interfere with or violate the expectations of standards-conforming software.

@Carl Norum 2013-08-02 19:26:03

Here's the complete table of registers and their use from the documentation [PDF Link]:

table from docs

r12, r13, r14, r15, rbx, rsp, rbp are the callee-saved registers - they have a "Yes" in the "Preserved across function calls" column.

@socketpair 2014-05-03 13:55:51

What about flags? like DF ?

@Peter Cordes 2016-02-01 01:00:44

@socketpair: DF must be unset before any call or return, so the count-upward behaviour can be assumed without cld. Condition flags (like ZF) are call-clobbered. I forget exactly what the ABI docs say about FP rounding modes and denormals-are-zero. Maybe something like if a function modifies them, it must save/restore the previous state before returning, but don't take my word for the FP part.

@Ciro Santilli 郝海东冠状病六四事件法轮功 2019-03-17 13:02:18

I would recommend taking the PDF from one of those sources instead of uclibc website:… :-)

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