Hello World in ARM Assembly Language

Since K&R’s book on C, it’s become traditional to start any tutorial on a new language is to present a program that prints “Hello world”. For ARM assembly running on Raspbian Linux, that traditional program looks like:

.global _start
  MOV R7, #4
  MOV R0, #1
  MOV R2, #12
  LDR R1, =string
  SWI 0
  MOV R7, #1
  SWI 0
  .ascii "Hello Worldn"

It’s definitely a bit more cryptic than most languages, but it doesn’t look all that bad, now does it? Before I can explain how that works, we’ll need to talk a bit about what we’re programming, and how we can program it. We’re going to go through a bunch of introductory material here; everything that we touch on, I’ll come back to in more detail in a later post.

In the diagram to the right, you can see my attempt to draw a diagram illustrating the important parts of an ARM CPU from our initial perspective. As we learn more about it, we’ll gradually refine this picture, adding more details – but for now, this is what things look like.

For now, we’ll say that the CPU has 5 main parts:

  1. A collection of 16 registers. A register is a memory cell that’s built in to the CPU. On an ARM processor, any time that you want to do any kind of operation – arithmetic, logic, comparison, you name it! – you’ll need to have the values in a register. The first thirteen registers are available to you, to use for whatever you want. The last three are special; R13 is called the stack pointer (SP), R14 is called the link register (LR), and R15 is called the program counter (PC). We’ll talk about what those three mean as we learn to program.
  2. An arithmetic/logic unit (ALU). This is where the CPU does integer arithmetic and logic. Most of our programs will work exclusively with the ALU. (Floating point is important, but it’s possible to do an awful lot of programming without it.)
  3. A floating point unit (FPU). This is where the CPU does floating point arithmetic.
  4. A status register. This is, like the other registers, a chunk of internal storage. But you can’t manipulate it or access it directly. It’s automatically updated by the ALU/FPU. Individual bits of the status register get updated to reflect various conditions about the current status of the CPU, and the results of the previous instruction. For example, the way that you can compare two values in the ARM is to subtract one from the other. If the two values were equal, then the ZERO flag in the status register will be set to 1; otherwise it will be set to 0. There’s a branch instruction that only actually branches if the ZERO flag is set.
  5. A data channel, called the bus. The bus connects the CPU to the rest of the computer. Memory, other storage devices, and input and output devices are all connected to the CPU via the bus. Doing anything that involves communicating through the bus is slow compared to doing anything that doesn’t. For now, we’ll say that memory is the only thing on the bus.

Now that we have a bit of a clue about the basic pieces of this thing we’re going to program, we can start looking at our hello world program. We still need to talk about one other bit of background before we can get started.

For a computer, on the lowest level, a “program” is just a chunk of numbers. It’s not even a chunk of instructions – it’s just numbers. The numbers can be instructions, data, or both at the same time! That last bit might sound strange, but you’ll see instructions like MOV R0, #4. That’s saying load the literal value 4 into register R0. The 4 is a value encoded as a part of an instruction. So that 4 is both literal data sitting in the middle of a collection of instructions, and it’s also a part of an instruction. The actual instruction doesn’t really say “load the value 4”; it says “load the data value that’s at this position in the instruction sequence”.

We’re not going to program the ARM using the numeric instructions directly. We’re going to program the ARM using assembly language. Assembly language is a way of writing that chunk of numbers that is your program, but doing it with a syntax that easy for a human being to read. Then a program called an assembler will translate from that readable format into the raw numeric format used by the computer. Conceptually, the assembler sounds a lot like the compiler that you’d use with a higher level language. But it’s quite different: compilers take your code, and change it. Frequently, if you look at code that your compiler generates, you’d have a hard time recognizing code that was generated for a program that you wrote! But an assembel doesn’t change anything. There’s no restructuring, no optimization, no changes at all. In an assembly language program, you’re describing how to lay out a bunch of instructions and data in memory, and the assembler does nothing but generate that exact memory layout.

Ok. That said, finally, we can get to the program!

Programming in assembly is quite different from programming in any reasonable programming language. There are no abstractions to make your life easier. You need to be painfully explicit about everything. It really brings home just how many abstractions you generally use in your code.

For example, in assembly language, you don’t really have variables. You can store values anywhere you want in the computer’s memory, but you have to decide where to put them, and how to lay them out, by yourself. But as I said before – all of the arithmetic and logic that makes up a program has to be done on values in registers. So a value in memory is only good if you can move it from memory into a register. It’s almost like programming in a language with a total of 16 variables – only you’re only really allowed to use 13 of them!

Not only do you not have variables, but you don’t really have parameters. In a high level programming language, you can just pass things to subroutines. You don’t need to worry about how. Maybe they’re going onto a stack; maybe there’ doing some kind of fancy lambda calculus renaming thing; maybe there’s some magic variables. You don’t need to know or care. But in assembly, there is no built-in notion of parameter-passing. You need to use the computer’s register and memory to build a parameter passing system. In the simplest form of that, which is what we’re using here, you designate certain registers as carrying certain parameters. There’s nothing in assembly to enforce that: if your program puts something into register R3, and a function was expecting it to be in R4, you won’t get any kind of error.

In our “Hello world” program above, the first three instructions are loading specific values into registers expected by the operating system “print” function. For example, MOV R0, #4 means move the specific number 4 into register R0.

Loading literal values into registers are done using the MOV instruction. It’s got two operands, the register to move the data into, and the source of the data. The source of the data can be either a literal value, or another register. If you want to load data from memory, you need to use a different instruction – LDR.

With the LDR instruction, we can see one of the conveniences of using assembly language. We want to print the string “Hello world”. So we need to have that string in memory somewhere. The assembler lets us do that using a .ascii directive. The directive isn’t an ARM instruction; it’s an instruction to the assembler telling it “I want to put this string data into a block in memory”. The .ascii directive is prefaced with a label, which allows us to refer to the beginning of the memory block populated by the directive. Now we can use “string” to refer to the memory block. So the instruction LDR R1, =string is exactly the same as saying LDR R1, address, where address is the memory location where the first byte of the string is stored.

These four instructions have been preparation for calling a function provided by the operating system. R0 and R7 are used by the operating system to figure out what function we want to call. R1 and R2 are being used to pass parameters to the function. The print function expects R1 to contain the memory location of the first byte in the string we want to print, and R2 to contain the number of characters in the string.

We call the function using SWI 0. SWI is the software interrupt function. We can’t call the operating system directly! One of the purposes of the operating system is to provide a safe environment, where different programs can’t accidentally interfere with one another. If you could just branch into an OS function directly, any program would be able to do anything it wanted! But we don’t allow that, so the program can’t directly call anything in the OS. Instead, what it does is send a special kind of signal called an interrupt. Before it runs our program, the operating system has already told the CPU that any time it gets an interrupt, control should be handed to the OS. So the operating system gets called by the interrupt. It sees the values in R0 and R7, and recognizes that the interrupt is a request to run the “print” function, so it does that. Then it returns from the interrupt – and execution continues at the first instruction after the SWI call.

Now it’s returned from the print, and we don’t want to do anything else. If we didn’t put something here to tell the operating system that we’re done, the CPU would just proceed to the next memory address after our SWI, and interpret that as an instruction! We need to specifically say “We’re done”, so that the operating system takes control away from our program. The way we do that is with another SWI call. This SWI is the operating system “exit” call. To exit a program and kill the process, you call SWI with R0=1 and R7=1.

And that’s it. That’s hello-world in assembly.

4 thoughts on “Hello World in ARM Assembly Language”

  1. I love this description. I’m retired now and haven’t programmed in 25 years (I switched careers in 1980), but but I met my first computer while in high school using the SOAP assembler for the IBM650. That was in the late 1950s. Later, I programmed the IBM 360 series and the Intel 4004/8008/8080 series and Motorola 6800 series, also in assembler code. I’ve worked on PDP10s and PDP11s, HP21MXs and a proprietary City Bank computer for their first ATM network. I still love the concept and might even get me one of these ARM machines to get me back in the swing of things…. Keep it up!

  2. I’m hoping that you discuss more details of function calls next. It would be nice to see a short table of R0/R7 values for commonly used functions, and a discussion of the conventions for argument passing.

  3. Some time ago Microsoft created two free e-books to spread the joy of programming in .NET to curious children. They were called “C# is for sharp kids” and “VB is for Very Bright kids”. In these books they put a funny spin on the very first HelloWorld program. Instead of “Hello World”, it printed “Yo!”. 😀


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