By flump

2010-10-04 12:07:09 8 Comments

I understand how a computer works on the basic principles, such as, a program can be written in a "high" level language like C#, C and then it's broken down in to object code and then binary for the processor to understand. However, I really want to learn about assembly, and how it's used in modern day applications.

I know processors have different instruction sets above the basic x86 instruction set. Do all assembly languages support all instruction sets?

How many assembly languages are there? How many work well with other languages?

How would someone go about writing a routine in assembly, and then compiling it in to object/binary code?

How would someone then reference the functions/routines within that assembly code from a language like C or C++?

How do we know the code we've written in assembly is the fastest it possibly can be?

Are there any recommended books on assembly languages/using them with modern programs?

Sorry for the quantity of questions, I do hope they're general enough to be useful for other people as well as simple enough for others to answer!


@old_timer 2010-10-05 04:30:15

Intel and the x86 are big on reverse compatibility, which certainly helped them out but at the same time hurts greatly. The internals of the 8088/8086 to 286 to 386, to 486, pentium, pentium pro, etc to the present are somewhat of a redesign each time. Early on adding protection mechanisms for operating systems to protect apps from each other and the kernel, and then into performance by adding execution units, superscalar and all that comes with it, multi core processors, etc. What used to be a real, single AX register in the original processor turns into who knows how many different things in a modern processor. Originally your program was executed in the order written, today it is diced and sliced and executed in parallel in such a way that the intent of the instructions as presented are honored but the execution can be out of order and in parallel. Lots and lots of new tricks buried behind what on the surface appears to be a very old instruction set.

The instruction set changed from the 8/16 bit roots to 32 bit, to 64 bit, so the assembly language had to change as well. Adding EAX to AX, AH, and AL for example. Occasionally other instructions were added. But the original load, store, add, subtract, and, or, etc instructions are all there. I have not done x86 in a long time and was shocked to see that the syntax has changed and/or a particular assembler messed up the x86 syntax. There are a zillion tools out there so if one doesnt match the book or web page you are using, there is one out there that will.

So thinking in terms of assembly language for this family is right and wrong, the assembly language may have changed syntax and is not necessarily reverse compatible, but the instruction set or machine language or other similar terms (the opcodes/bits the assembly represents) would say that much of the original instruction set is still supported on modern x86 processors. 286 specific nuances may not work perhaps, as with other new features of specific generations, but the core instructions, load, store, add, subtract, push, pop, etc all still work and will continue to work. I feel it is better to "Drive down the center of the lane", dont get into chip or tool specific ghee whiz features, use the basic boring, been working since the beginning of time syntax of the language.

Because each generation in the family is trying for certain features, usually performance, the way the individual instructions are handed out to the various execution units changes...on each generation...In order to hand tune assembler for performance, trying to out-do a compiler, can be difficult at best. You need detailed knowledge about the specific processor you are tuning for. From the early x86 days to the present, unfortunately, what made the code execute faster on one chip, would often cause the next generation to run extra slow. Perhaps that was a marketing tool in disguise, not sure, "Buy the hot new processor that cost twice as much as the one you have now, advertises twice the clock speed, but runs your same copy of windows 30% slower. In a few years when the next version of windows is compiled (and this chip is obsolete) it will then double in performance". Another side effect of this is that at this point in time you cannot take one C program and create one binary that runs fast on all x86 processors, for performance you need to tune for the specific processor, meaning you need to at least tell the compiler to optimize and what family to optimize for. And like windows or office, or something you are distributing as a binary you likely cannot or do not want to somehow bury several differently tuned copies of the same program in one package or in one down the center of the road.

As a result of all the hardware improvements it may be in your best interest to not try to tune the compiler output or hand assembler to any one chip in particular. On average the hardware improvements will compensate for the lack of compiler tuning and your same program hopefully just runs a little faster each generation. One of the chip vendors used to aim to make todays popular compiled binaries run faster tomorrow, the other vendor improved the internals such that if you recompiled todays source for the new internals you could run faster tomorrow. Those activities between vendors has not necessarily continued, each generation runs todays binaries slower, but tomorrows recompiled source the same speed or slower. It will run tomorrows re-written programs faster, sometimes with the same compiler sometimes you need tomorrows compiler. Isnt this fun!

So how do we know a particular compiled or hand assembled program is as fast as it possibly can be? We dont, in fact for x86 you can guarantee it isnt, run it on one chip in the family and it is slow, run it on another it may be blazing fast. x86 or not, other than very short programs or very deterministic programs like you would find on a microcontroller, you cannot definitely say this is the fastest possible solution. Caches for example are very hard if even possible to tune for, and the memory behind it, particularly on a pc, where the user can choose various sizes, speeds, ranks, banks, etc and adjust bios settings to change even more settings, you really cannot tell a compiler to tune for that. So even on the same computer same processor same compiled binary you have the ability to turn some of the knobs and make that program run a lot faster or a lot slower. Change processor families, change chipsets, motherboards, etc. And there is no possible way to tune for so many variables. The nature of the x86 pc business has become too chaotic.

Other chip families are not nearly as problematic. Some perhaps but not all. So these are not general statements, but specific to the x86 chip family. The x86 family is the exception not the rule. Probably the last assembler/instruction set you would want to bother learning.

There are tons of websites and books on the subject, cannot say one is better than the other. I learned from the original set of 8088/86 books from intel and then the 386 and 486 book, didnt look for Intel books after that (or any other boos). You will want an instruction set reference, and an assembler like nasm or gas (gnu assembler, part of binutils that comes with most gcc based compiler toolchains). As far as the C to/from assembler interface you can if nothing else figure that out by experimenting, write a small C program with a few small C functions, disassemble or compile to assembler, and look at what registers and/or how the stack is used to pass parameters between functions. Keep your functions simple and use only a few parameters and your assembler will likely work just fine. If not look at the assembler of the function calling your code and figure out where your parameters are. It is all well documented somewhere, and these days probably much better than old. In the early 8088/86 days you had tiny, small, medium, large and huge compiler models and the calling conventions could vary from one to the other. As well as one compiler to the next, watcom (formerly zortech and perhaps other names) was pass by register, borland and microsoft were passed on the stack and pretty close if not the same. Now with 32 and 64 bit flat memory space, and standards, you can use one model and not have to memorize all the nuances (just one set of nuances). Inline assembly is an option but varies from C compiler to C compiler, and getting it to work properly and effectively is more difficult than just writing assembler in its own file. gcc and perhaps other compilers will allow you to put the assembler file on the C compiler command line as if it were just another C file and it will figure out what you have given it and pass it to the assembler for you. That is if you dont want to call the assembler program yourself and put the object on the C compiler command line.

if nothing else disassemble a lot of simple functions, add a few parameters and return them, etc. Change compiler optimization settings and see how that changes the instructions used, often dramatically. Even if you cannot write assembler from scratch being able to read it is very valuable, both from a debugging and performance perspective.

Not all compilers for all processors are good. Gcc for example is a one size fits all, just like a sock or ball cap that one size doesnt really fit anyone well. Does pretty good for most of the targets but not really great. So it is quite possible to do better than the compiler with hand tuned assembler, but on the average for lots of code you are not going to win. That applies to most processors, which are more deterministic, not just the x86 family. It is not about fewer instructions, fewer instructions does not necessarily equate to faster, to outperform even an average compiler in the long run you have to understand the caches, fetch, decode, execution state machines, memory interfaces, memories themselves, etc. With compiler optimizations turned off it is very easy to produce faster code than the compiler, so you should just use the optimizer but also understand that that increases the risk of the compiler making a mistake. You need to know the tool very well, which goes back to disassebling often to understand how your C code and the compiler you use today interact with each other. No compiler is completely standards compliant, because the standards themselves are fuzzy, leaving some features of the language up to the discretion of the compiler (drive down the middle of the road and dont use those parts of the language).

Bottom line from the nature of your questions, I would recommend writing a bunch of small functions or programs with some small functions, compile to assembler or compile to an object and disassemble to see what the compiler does. Be sure to use different optimization settings on each program. Gain a working reading knowledge of the instruction set (granted the asm output of the compiler or disassembler, has a lot of extra fluff that gets in the way of readability, you have to look past that, you need almost none of it if you want to write assembler). Give yourself 5-20 years of studying and experimenting before you can expect to outperform the compiler on a regular basis, if that is your goal. By then you will learn that, particularly with this chip family, it is a futile effort, you win a few but mostly lose...It would be to your benefit to compile (to assembler) the same code to other chip families like arm and mips, and get a general feel for what C code compiles well in general, and what C code doesnt compile well, and make your C programming better instead of trying to make the assembler better. Also try other compilers like llvm. Gcc has a lot of quirks that many think are the C language standards but are instead nuances or problems with the specific compiler. Being able to read and analyze the assembly output of the compilers and their options will provide this knowledge. So I recommend you work on a reading knowledge of the instruction set, without necessarily having to learn to write it from scratch.

@nategoose 2010-10-04 16:58:45

There are many many different assembly languages out there. Usually there is at least one for every processor instruction set, which means one for every processor type. One thing that you should also keep in mind is that even for a single processor there may be several different assembler programs that may use a different syntax, which from a formal view constitutes a different language. (for x86 there are masm, nasm, yasm, AT&T (what *nix assemblers like the GNU assembler use by default), and probably many more)

For x86 there are lots of different instruction sets because there have been so many changes to the architecture over the years. Some of these changes could be viewed mostly as additional instructions, so they are a super set of the previous assembly. Other changes may actually remove instructions (none are coming to mind for x86, but I've heard of some on other processors). And other changes add modes of operation to processors that make things even more complicated.

There are also other processors with completely different instructions.

To learn assembly you will need to start by picking a target processor and an assembler that you want to use. I'm going to assume that you are going to use x86, so you would need to decide if you want to start with 16 bit segmented, 32 bit, or 64 bit. Many books and online tutorials go the 16 bit route where you write DOS programs. If you are wanting to write parts of C programs in assembly then you will probably want to go the 32 or 64 bit route.

Most of the assembly programming I do is inline in C to either optimize something, to make use of instructions that the compiler doesn't know about, or when I otherwise need to control the instructions used. Writing large amounts of code in assembly is difficult, so I let the C compiler do most of the work.

There are lots of places where assembly is still written by people. This is particularly common in embedded, boot loaders (bios, u-boot, ...), and operating system code, though many developers in these never directly write any assembly. This code may be start up code that has to run before the stack pointer is set to a usable value (or RAM isn't usable yet for some other reason), because they need to fit within small spaces, and/or because they need to talk to hardware in ways that aren't directly supported in C or other higher level languages. Other places where assembly is used in OSes is writing locks (spinlocks, critical sections, mutexes, and semaphores) and context switching (switching from one thread of execution to another).

Other places where assembly is commonly written is in the implementation of some library code. Functions like strcpy are often implemented in assembly for different architectures because there are often several ways that they may be optimized using processor specific operations, while a C implementation might use a more general loop. These functions are also reused so often that optimizing them by hand is often worth the effort in the long run.

Another, related, place where lots of assembly is written is within compilers. Compilers have to know how to implement things and many of them produce assembly, so they have assembly templates (or something similar) built into them for use in generating output code.

Even if you never write any assembly knowing the instructions and registers of your target system are often useful. They can aid in debugging, but they can also aid in writing code. Knowing the target processor can help you write better (smaller and/or faster) code for it (even in a higher level language), and being familiar with a few different processors will help you to write code that will be good for many processors because you will know generally how CPUs work.

@Matteo Italia 2010-10-04 12:25:19

However, I really want to learn about assembly, and how it's used in modern day applications.

On "normal" PCs it's used just for time-critical processing, I'd say that realtime multimedia processing can still benefit quite a bit from hand-forged assembly. On embedded systems, where there's a lot less horsepower, it may have more areas of use.

However, keep in mind that it's not just "hey, this code is slow, I'll rewrite it in assembly and it by magic it will go fast": it must be carefully written assembly, written knowing what it's fast an what it's slow on your specific architecture, and keeping in mind all the intricacies of modern processors (branch mispredictions, out of order executions, ...). Often, the assembly written by a beginner-to-medium assembly programmer will be slower than the final machine code generated by a good, modern optimizing compiler. Performance stuff on x86 is often really complicated, and should be left to people who know what they do => and most of them are compiler writers. :) Have a look at this, for example.

I know processors have different instruction sets above the basic x86 instruction set. Do all assembly languages support all instruction sets?

I think you're confusing some things here. Many (=all modern) x86 processors support additional instructions and instruction sets that were introduced after the original x86 instruction set was defined. Actually, almost all x86 software now is compiled to exploit post-Pentium features; you can query the processor to see if it supports some features using the CPUID instruction. Obviously, if you want to use a mnemonic for some newer instruction set instruction your assembler (i.e. the software which translates mnemonics in actual machine code) must be aware of them.

If, instead, you're talking about other (non-x86) instruction sets for other families of processors, well, each assembler should support the instructions that the target processor can run. Not all the instructions of an assembly language have direct replacement in others, and in general porting assembly code from an architecture to another is usually a hard and difficult work.

How many assembly languages are there?

Theoretically, at least one dialect for each processor family. Keep in mind that there are also different notations for the same assembly language; for example, the following two instructions are the same x86 stuff written in AT&T and Intel notation:

mov $4, %eax          // AT&T notation

mov eax, 4            // Intel notation
How would someone go about writing a routine in assembly, and then compiling it in to object/binary code?

If you want to embed a routine in an application written in another language, you should use the tools that the language provides you, in C/C++ you'd use the asm blocks.

If you, instead, wanted to write a whole application in assembly, you'd have to write just in assembly, following the syntactic rules of the assembler you'd like to use.

How do we know the code we've written in assembly is the fastest it possibly can be?

In theory, because it is the nearest to the bare metal, so you can make the machine do just exactly what you want, without having the compiler take in account for language features that in some specific case do not matter. In practice, since the machine is often much more complicated than what the assembly language expose, as I said often assembly language will be slower than compiler-generated machine code, that takes in account many subtleties that the average programmer do not know.


I was forgetting: knowing to read assembly, at least a little bit, can be very useful in debugging strange issues that can come up when the optimizer is broken/only in the release build/you have to deal with heisenbugs/when the source-level debugging is not available or other stuff like that; have a look at the comments here.

@flump 2010-10-04 12:37:48

Thank you! Sorry, I was trying to ask do all assembly languages/compilers that target x86 processors keep up to date with the latest instruction sets (that were introduced after x86)? Is there one assembly language/compiler for x86 that is the typical one for people to use, or are there many many compiler implementations?

@Matteo Italia 2010-10-04 12:41:49

The most updated versions of assemblers/compilers usually will, but do you really want that? If you use a newer (=available only from some processor onwards) instruction set you'll lose compatibility will all previous processor, that is why most compilers won't even enable MMX/SSE/SSE2 instructions unless explicitly specified. - By the way, I've added some stuff at the beginning of the answer, maybe have a look at it.

@flump 2010-10-04 12:55:55

Thank you! That was a very clear answer! I’ve had experience with assembly on electronics projects and I think I have a firm grasp on the basic principles like having a stack, a stack pointer, an accumulator etc. I understand that a modern x86 processor must have all these basic things too, I think I’m just to having complete control over the microprocessor whereas the chips inside our desktops are also running countless other programs and services. Inside my mind this fogs things up a bit. Do you know any good books about assembly on x86 computers?

@Matteo Italia 2010-10-04 12:58:30

x86 does have all that stuff, but IMHO programming in assembly on x86 rarely makes sense. x86 is mostly a compatibility layer, the inner workings of the modern processors are completely different than what the original 8086 chips used to be, so what may seem fast can be slow, and vice versa. In general, it's better to let compiler and optimizers deal with this stuff and just write good code in your favorite language. I think that on modern PCs it's much more crucial to learn in some way how the OS works and how to play along well with it than waste time with bare-metal micro-optimizations.

@old_timer 2010-10-05 02:52:38

Learning assembly as well as learning to read are very valuable, and worth the effort even if your functions are slow or inefficient. Because of the reverse compatiblity you can read and use the older/original 8088/8086 books, as far as the instruction set goes, and learn from it. Some assemblers have changed the syntax unfortunately so the examples wont necessarily assemble as is, and any command lines from old tools like masm may or may not work with modern tools. Still very educational to learn by doing.

@slartibartfast 2010-10-04 12:53:21

I know processors have different instruction sets above the basic x86 instruction set. Do all assembly languages support all instruction sets?

"Assembly language" is a kind of misnomer, at least in the way you are using it. Assemblers are less of a language (CS graduates may object) and more of a converter tool which takes textual representation and generates a binary image from it, with a close to 1:1 relationship between text elements (memnonics, labels and numbers) and binary elements. There is no deeper logic behind the elements of an assembler language because their possibilities to be quoted and redirected ends mostly at level 1; you can, for example, use EAX only in one instruction at a time - the next use of EAX in the next instruction bears no relationship with its previous use EXCEPT for the unwritten logical connection which the programmer had in mind - this is the reason why it is so easy to create bugs in assembler.

How would someone go about writing a routine in assembly, and then compiling it in to object/binary code?

One would need to pin down the lowest common denominator of instruction sets and code the function times the expected architectures the code is intended to run on. IOW if you are not coding for a certain hardware platform which is defined at the time of writing (e.g. a game console, an embedded board) you no longer do this.

How would someone then reference the functions/routines within that assembly code from a language like C or C++?

You need to declare them in your HLL - see your compilers handbook.

How do we know the code we've written in assembly is the fastest it possibly can be?

There is no way to know. Be happy about that and code on.

@flump 2010-10-04 13:01:29

Thank you! I get how you mean assembly just makes it easier for us to write binary; Who wants to remember 0111010110110110 when they can just write MOV! But how am I aware of the effects of what I'm writing has on the processor? How do I know if adding something to the accumulator isn't going to mess with another program being run on my x86 processor? I think I'm to use to the safety of assembly on small micro-controllers, where I know exactly what code is running, what it's using and why!

@Schedler 2010-10-04 13:14:08

@flump: Your worry about changing the accumulator (for example) is taken care of by the underlying operating system. A typical multiprocessing operating system provides an abstract execution environment for multiple processes, in such a way that the processes do not affect each other. However, when writing assembly you need to be aware of calling conventions, i.e. who is going to save which registers upon procedure call, and who is restoring the previous values.

@David Thornley 2010-10-04 13:42:19

Assemblers can offer services other than simple 1-1 translation, such as macros and the like. I've seen neat stuff done with assembler on IBM OS/370, although that's an awful heavyweight assembler for modern times.

@slartibartfast 2010-10-04 13:52:04

@David: true enough. Macro collections of five or more exasperated assembler programmers are called "C compiler" ;)

@Jens Björnhager 2010-10-04 13:53:13

@flump 0111010110110110 is actually a JNE, not a MOV. Just saying :)

@flump 2010-10-04 14:14:24

@jens-bjornhager: haha! It was just a random mash of the keyboard, but thank you for the correction :)

@Anders 2010-10-04 12:15:59

You need to look upon it from the hardware's point of view, the assembly language is created with regard to what the CPU can do. Every time a new feature in a CPU is created an appropriate assembly instruction is created so that it can be used.

Assembly is thus very dependent on the CPU, the high level languages like C++ provides abstractions from this to allow us to not have to think about the details like CPU instructions as well as the compiler generates optimized assembly code.


How many assembly languages are there? How many work well with other languages?

as many as there are different types of CPU. The second question I didn't understand. Assembly per se is not interacting with any other language, the output, the machine code is.

How would someone go about writing a routine in assembly, and then compiling it in to object/binary code?`

The principle is similar to writing in any other compiled language, you create a text file with the assembly instructions, use an assembler to compile it to machine code. Then link it with eventual runtime libraries.

How would someone then reference the functions/routines within that assembly code from a language like C or C++?

C++ and C provide inline assembly so there is no need to link, but if you want to link you need to create the assembly object following the same/similar calling conventions as the host language. For instance some languages when calling a function push the arguments to the function on the stack in a certain order, so you would have to do the same.

How do we know the code we've written in assembly is the fastest it possibly can be?

Because it is closest to the actual hardware. When you are dealing with higher level languages you don't know what the compiler will do with your for loop. However more often than not they do a good and better job of optimizing the code than a human can do (of course in very special circumstances you can probably get a better result).

@flump 2010-10-04 12:34:26

Sorry, perhaps I should of been clearer! Each question was related to x86/x64 processors. So when I was asking how many assembly languages are there I really meant how many assembly languages/compilers are there for the x86 platform? Do many exist or by convention is there just one that people use?

@Anders 2010-10-04 12:52:18

In general you can say like this that there is one assembly language for the CPU, just that not all instructions work for all CPUs.

@Anders 2010-10-04 12:53:06

i.e. the Intel CPU has always tried to stay backwards compatible

@T.E.D. 2010-10-04 12:20:58

We do a fair bit of it in our Real-Time work (more than we should really). A wee bit of assembly can also be quite useful when you are talking to hardware, and need specific machine instructions executed (eg: All writes must be 16-bit writes, or you'll hose nearby registers).

What I tend to see today is assembly insertions in higher-level language code. How exactly this is done depends on your language and sometimes compiler.

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