Appendix E: C Idioms in Assembly Language

This appendix is for C programmers learning assembly language. It is meant to give a general idea about how C constructs can be implemented in assembly language.

If Statement

In C, an if statement consists of three parts - the condition, the true branch, and the false branch. However, since assembly language is not a block structured language, you have to work a little to implement the block-like nature of C. For example, look at the following C code:

if (a == b)
/* True Branch Code Here */
/* False Branch Code Here */

/* At This Point, Reconverge */

In assembly language, this can be rendered as:

 #Move a and b into registers for comparison
movl a, %eax
movl b, %ebx

cmpl %eax, %ebx

#If True, go to true branch
je true_branch
false_branch: #This label is unnecessary,
#only here for documentation
#False Branch Code Here

#Jump to recovergence point
jmp reconverge

#True Branch Code Here

#Both branches recoverge to this point

As you can see, since assembly language is linear, the blocks have to jump around each other. Recovergence is handled by the programmer, not the system.

A case statement is written just like a sequence of if statements.

Function Call

A function call in assembly language simply requires pushing the arguments to the function onto the stack in reverse order, and issuing a call instruction. After calling, the arguments are then popped back off of the stack. For example, consider the C code:

 printf("The number is %d", 88);

In assembly language, this would be rendered as:

 .section .data
.ascii "The number is %d\0"
.section .text
pushl $88
pushl $text_string
call printf
popl %eax
popl %eax #%eax is just a dummy variable,
#nothing is actually being done
#with the value. You can also
#directly re-adjust %esp to the
#proper location.

Variables and Assignment

Global and static variables are declared using .data or .bss entries. Local variables are declared by reserving space on the stack at the beginning of the function. This space is given back at the end of the function.

Interestingly, global variables are accessed differently than local variables in assembly language. Global variables are accessed using direct addressing, while local variables are accessed using base pointer addressing. For example, consider the following C code:

int my_global_var;

int foo()
int my_local_var;

my_local_var = 1;
my_global_var = 2;

return 0;

This would be rendered in assembly language as:

 .section .data
.lcomm my_global_var, 4

.type foo, @function
pushl %ebp #Save old base pointer
movl %esp, $ebp #make stack pointer base pointer
subl $4, %esp #Make room for my_local_var
.equ my_local_var, -4 #Can now use my_local_var to
#find the local variable

movl $1, my_local_var(%ebp)
movl $2, my_global_var

movl %ebp, %esp #Clean up function and return
popl %ebp

What may not be obvious is that accessing the global variable takes fewer machine cycles than accessing the local variable. However, that may not matter because the stack is more likely to be in physical memory (instead of swap) than the global variable is.

Also note that in the C programming language, after the compiler loads a value into a register, that value will likely stay in that register until that register is needed for something else. It may also move registers. For example, if you have a variable foo, it may start on the stack, but the compiler will eventually move it into registers for processing. If there aren't many variables in use, the value may simply stay in the register until it is needed again. Otherwise, when that register is needed for something else, the value, if it's changed, is copied back to its corresponding memory location. In C, you can use the keyword volatile to make sure all modifications and references to the variable are done to the memory location itself, rather than a register copy of it, in case other processes, threads, or hardware may be modifying the value while your function is running.


Loops work a lot like if statements in assembly language - the blocks are formed by jumping around. In C, a while loop consists of a loop body, and a test to determine whether or not it is time to exit the loop. A for loop is exactly the same, with optional initialization and counter-increment sections. These can simply be moved around to make a while loop.

In C, a while loop looks like this:

while(a < b)
/* Do stuff here */

/* Finished Looping */

This can be rendered in assembly language like this:

movl a, %eax
movl b, %ebx
cmpl %eax, %ebx
jge loop_end

#Do stuff here

jmp loop_begin

#Finished looping

The x86 assembly language has some direct support for looping as well. The %ecx register can be used as a counter that ends with zero. The loop instruction will decrement %ecx and jump to a specified address unless %ecx is zero. For example, if you wanted to execute a statement 100 times, you would do this in C:

 for(i=0; i < 100; i++)
/* Do process here */

In assembly language it would be written like this:

movl $100, %ecx
#Do Process Here

#Decrement %ecx and loops if not zero
loop loop_begin

#Continues on to here

One thing to notice is that the loop instruction requires you to be counting backwards to zero. If you need to count forwards or use another ending number, you should use the loop form which does not include the loop instruction.

For really tight loops of character string operations, there is also the rep instruction, but we will leave learning about that as an exercise to the reader.


Structs are simply descriptions of memory blocks. For example, in C you can say:

struct person {
char firstname[40];
char lastname[40];
int age;

This doesn't do anything by itself, except give you ways of intelligently using 84 bytes of data. You can do basically the same thing using .equ directives in assembly language. Like this:

 .equ PERSON_SIZE, 84

When you declare a variable of this type, all you are doing is reserving 84 bytes of space. So, if you have this in C:

void foo()
struct person p;

/* Do stuff here */

In assembly language you would have:

#Standard header beginning
pushl %ebp
movl %esp, %ebp

#Reserve our local variable
subl $PERSON_SIZE, %esp
#This is the variable's offset from %ebp

#Do Stuff Here

#Standard function ending
movl %ebp, %esp
popl %ebp

To access structure members, you just have to use base pointer addressing with the offsets defined above. For example, in C you could set the person's age like this:

 p.age  =  30;

In assembly language it would look like this:

 movl $30, P_VAR + PERSON_AGE_OFFSET(%ebp)


Pointers are very easy. Remember, pointers are simply the address that a value resides at. Let's start by taking a look at global variables. For example:

int global_data = 30;

In assembly language, this would be:

 .section .data
.long 30

Taking the address of this data in C:

 a = &global_data;

Taking the address of this data in assembly language:

 movl $global_data, %eax

You see, with assembly language, you are almost always accessing memory through pointers. That's what direct addressing is. To get the pointer itself, you just have to go with immediate mode addressing.

Local variables are a little more difficult, but not much. Here is how you take the address of a local variable in C:

void foo()
int a;
int *b;

a = 30;

b = &a;

*b = 44;

The same code in assembly language:

#Standard opening
pushl %ebp
movl %esp, %ebp

#Reserve two words of memory
subl $8, $esp
.equ A_VAR, -4
.equ B_VAR, -8

#a = 30
movl $30, A_VAR(%ebp)

#b = &a
movl $A_VAR, B_VAR(%ebp)
addl %ebp, B_VAR(%ebp)

#*b = 30
movl B_VAR(%ebp), %eax
movl $30, (%eax)

#Standard closing
movl %ebp, %esp
popl %ebp

As you can see, to take the address of a local variable, the address has to be computed the same way the computer computes the addresses in base pointer addressing. There is an easier way - the processor provides the instruction leal, which stands for "load effective address". This lets the computer compute the address, and then load it wherever you want. So, we could just say:

 #b = &a
leal A_VAR(%ebp), %eax
movl %eax, B_VAR(%ebp)

It's the same number of lines, but a little cleaner. Then, to use this value, you simply have to move it to a general-purpose register and use indirect addressing, as shown in the example above.

Getting GCC to Help

One of the nice things about GCC is its ability to spit out assembly language code. To convert a C language file to assembly, you can simply do:

gcc -S file.c

The output will be in file.s. It's not the most readable output - most of the variable names have been removed and replaced either with numeric stack locations or references to automatically-generated labels. To start with, you probably want to turn off optimizations with -O0 so that the assembly language output will follow your source code better.

Something else you might notice is that GCC reserves more stack space for local variables than we do, and then AND's %esp [1] This is to increase memory and cache efficiency by double-word aligning variables.

Finally, at the end of functions, we usually do the following instructions to clean up the stack before issuing a ret instruction:

 movl %ebp, %esp
popl %ebp

However, GCC output will usually just include the instruction leave. This instruction is simply the combination of the above two instructions. We do not use leave in this text because we want to be clear about exactly what is happening at the processor level.

I encourage you to take a C program you have written and compile it to assembly language and trace the logic. Then, add in optimizations and try again. See how the compiler chose to rearrange your program to be more optimized, and try to figure out why it chose the arrangement and instructions it did.

[1]Note that different versions of GCC do this differently.

No comments: