Intro To Assembly Programming From A Dummy

29 March, 2017 | santosh

We are all comfortable writing code in high level languages like C, and some would even argue C is not a high level language like Java, or Python etc. But the truth is the more you go closer to the silicon, the more speed you get, trading away the traits of high level design (readability, maintainability etc). Here is an example of this.

Long long ago, so long ago, I was seeing so many executable programs in my ~/bin directory, disturbing the auto-completion in the CLI. I was so lazy to manually delete it, and Makefiles are no use for simple test codes that I write randomly. So I took a bold step of writing a script which would delete any ELF files. The script went like this:


for i in *; do
    if [ -f "$i" ]; then
        if file "$i" | grep ELF > /dev/null ; then
            rm "$i";

Here I could have checked for executable mode of a file, but I don’t want shell scripts lying around to get removed too. Now, back to the story - Later one day, this script took about 2 seconds to loop through and delete all ELFs. For a busy guy like me (you got to believe me ;-)), this was infinity.

$ time ../sh/rmelf
real    0m1.273s
user    0m0.405s
sys 0m1.028s

Then the brave guy (that’s me), took another brave decision of writing it in C, for which the code goes like this:

/* rmelf.c
 * Remove executables (ELF) in a directory.
 * Copyright (C) 2007 - 2010 Santosh Sivaraj (santoshs (_at_)
 * This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or
 * modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as
 * published by the Free Software Foundation, version 2 of the
 * License.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <dirent.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <sys/stat.h>
#include <malloc.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <fcntl.h>


int main (int argv, char *argc[])
        struct dirent *ent, *rent;
        struct stat stat_buf;
        DIR *dir;
        int result, stat_res, fd;
        char file_start[5];

        dir = opendir(".");
        if (!dir) {
                return 0;

        ent = (struct dirent *)malloc(sizeof(struct dirent));
        if (!ent) {
                fprintf(stdout, "Cannot allocate memory for dirent\n",
                        strlen("Cannot allocate memory for dirent\n"));
                return 0;

        result = readdir_r(dir, ent, &rent);
        while (rent && !result) {
                stat_res = stat(rent->d_name, &stat_buf);
                if(stat_res) {
                        result = readdir_r(dir, ent, &rent);

                if (stat_buf.st_mode & S_IFREG) {
                        fd = open(rent->d_name, O_RDONLY);
                        read(fd, file_start, FIRST_FOUR_BYTES);
                        /* fprintf(stdout, file_start, FIRST_FOUR_BYTES); */
                        if(strncmp(file_start+1, "ELF", FIRST_FOUR_BYTES-1) ==
                           0) {
                result = readdir_r(dir, ent, &rent);
        if (result) {
                fprintf(stderr, "Error", strlen("Error"));
        return 0;

I know, that is a comment-less code, bad code, could have been better, but it solved the purpose, so kept it safe. Now, for the same number of files and ELFs, the time this baby takes is:

$ time rmelf 
real    0m0.008s
user    0m0.000s
sys     0m0.008s

Impressive isn’t it ;-)

Ok, the point is moving down the language hierarchy, moving towards the low levels, always guarantees speed. But stability, manageability and readability (Your son may maintain it in the future!) are guaranteed to be non-existent. But there are systems requiring raw power and speed, in case of most embedded systems. So you might want to learn to code your toys.

A small intro on Assembly in Linux

Linux is a protected mode, 32 bit OS. So there are no segment registers, segment registers and paging are already set up.


Don’t confuse with segment registers. The segment here is a section in a program.

section .text   ;Code segment
section .data   ;Data segment
section .bss    ;uninitialized data

Program start

We have to specify where our main program starts or else we would get a linker error. We tell the linker how we have indicated the main section by using

global _start   ;main() as in C
    ; _start and main are customary, but can be any name

Then we start the main section using a label

            ;program starts executing from here.

All arguments to the program (argv[][]) are put into the top of the stack at program execution, so to obtain them we just pop out into a location.

    pop ebx     ;the number of arguments(argc)
    pop ebx     ;the program name(argv[0])
    pop ebx     ;the actual arguments start here

System call

We use Linux system calls for various functions like printing. To get the kernel attention to do some work we issue an interrupt with interrupt number 80h.

The arguments to system a call are placed in ebx, ecx, edx, esi, edi, ebp. If there are more than six, ebx contains the location of the argument list. System calls are declared in unistd.h, and help in section 2 of man page.

Some frequently used system call numbers:

    exit        1
    read        3
    write       4
    creat       8
    sys_close   6

Function arguments are pushed from last to first into the stack.

Some useful ASCII codes:

    \n  10
    \r  13

Labels are used for branching and useful to be used as functions. Looping labels have a dot preceding them.

.loop   dec ax
    ;; other statements
    jnz .loop

For a detailed Assembly language tutorial, see Linux Assembly Tutorial, step-by-step guide.

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