Chapter 10: Counting like a Computer


Counting like a Human

In many ways, computers count just like humans. So, before we start learning how computers count, let's take a deeper look at how we count.

How many fingers do you have? No, it's not a trick question. Humans (normally) have ten fingers. Why is that significant? Look at our numbering system. At what point does a one-digit number become a two-digit number? That's right, at ten. Humans count and do math using a base ten numbering system. Base ten means that we group everything in tens. Let's say we're counting sheep. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Why did we all of a sudden now have two digits, and re-use the 1 ? That's because we're grouping our numbers by ten, and we have 1 group of ten sheep. Okay, let's go to the next number 11. That means we have 1 group of ten sheep, and 1 sheep left ungrouped. So we continue - 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. Now we have 2 groups of ten. 21 - 2 groups of ten, and 1 sheep ungrouped. 22 - 2 groups of ten, and 2 sheep ungrouped. So, let's say we keep counting, and get to 97, 98, 99, and 100. Look, it happened again! What happens at 100? We now have ten groups of ten. At 101 we have ten groups of ten, and 1 ungrouped sheep. So we can look at any number like this. If we counted 60879 sheep, that would mean that we had 6 groups of ten groups of ten groups of ten groups of ten, 0 groups of ten groups of ten groups of ten, 8 groups of ten groups of ten, 7 groups of ten, and 9 sheep left ungrouped.

So, is there anything significant about grouping things by ten? No! It's just that grouping by ten is how we've always done it, because we have ten fingers. We could have grouped at nine or at eleven (in which case we would have had to make up a new symbol). The only difference between the different groupings of numbers is that we have to re-learn our multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division tables for each grouping. The rules haven't changed, just the way we represent them. Also, some of our tricks that we learned don't always apply, either. For example, let's say we grouped by nine instead of ten. Moving the decimal point one digit to the right no longer multiplies by ten, it now multiplies by nine. In base nine, 500 is only nine times as large as 50.

Counting like a Computer

The question is, how many fingers does the computer have to count with? The computer only has two fingers. So that means all of the groups are groups of two. So, let's count in binary - 0 (zero), 1 (one), 10 (two - one group of two), 11 (three - one group of two and one left over), 100 (four - two groups of two), 101 (five - two groups of two and one left over), 110 (six - two groups of two and one group of two), and so on. In base two, moving the decimal one digit to the right multiplies by two, and moving it to the left divides by two. Base two is also referred to as binary.

The nice thing about base two is that the basic math tables are very short. In base ten, the multiplication tables are ten columns wide, and ten columns tall. In base two, it is very simple:

Table of binary addition

+ | 0 | 1
0 | 0 | 0
1 | 1 | 10

Table of binary multiplication
* | 0 | 1
0 | 0 | 0
1 | 0 | 1

So, let's add the numbers 10010101 with 1100101:

+ 1100101

Now, let's multiply them:

* 1100101

Conversions between Binary and Decimal

Let's learn how to convert numbers from binary (base two) to decimal (base ten). This is actually a rather simple process. If you remember, each digit stands for some grouping of two. So, we just need to add up what each digit represents, and we will have a decimal number. Take the binary number 10010101. To find out what it is in decimal, we take it apart like this:

     1    0    0    1    0    1    0    1
| | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | Individual units (2^0)
| | | | | | 0 groups of 2 (2^1)
| | | | | 1 group of 4 (2^2)
| | | | 0 groups of 8 (2^3)
| | | 1 group of 16 (2^4)
| | 0 groups of 32 (2^5)
| 0 groups of 64 (2^6)
1 group of 128 (2^7)

and then we add all of the pieces together, like this:

1*128 + 0*64 + 0*32 + 1*16 + 0*8 + 1*4 + 0*2 + 1*1 =
128 + 16 + 4 + 1 =

So 10010101 in binary is 149 in decimal. Let's look at 1100101. It can be written as

1*64 + 1*32 + 0 * 16 + 0*8 + 1*4 + 0*2 + 1*1 =
64 + 32 + 4 + 1 =

So we see that 1100101 in binary is 101 in decimal. Let's look at one more number, 11101011001001. You can convert it to decimal by doing

1*8192 + 1*4096 + 1*2048 + 0*1024 + 1*512 + 0*256
+ 1*128 + 1*64 + 0*32 + 0*16 + 1*8 + 0*4
+ 0*2 + 1*1 =

8192 + 4096 + 2048 + 512 + 128 + 64 + 8 + 1 =


Now, if you've been paying attention, you have noticed that the numbers we just converted are the same ones we used to multiply with earlier. So, let's check our results: 101 * 149 = 15049. It worked!

Now let's look at going from decimal back to binary. In order to do the conversion, you have to divide the number into groups of two. So, let's say you had the number 17. If you divide it by two, you get 8 with 1 left over. So that means there are 8 groups of two, and 1 ungrouped. That means that the rightmost digit will be 1. Now, we have the rigtmost digit figured out, and 8 groups of 2 left over. Now, let's see how many groups of two groups of two we have, by dividing 8 by 2. We get 4, with nothing left over. That means that all groups two can be further divided into more groups of two. So, we have 0 groups of only two. So the next digit to the left is 0. So, we divide 4 by 2 and get two, with 0 left over, so the next digit is 0. Then, we divide 2 by 2 and get 1, with 0 left over. So the next digit is 0. Finally, we divide 1 by 2 and get 0 with 1 left over, so the next digit to the left is 1. Now, there's nothing left, so we're done. So, the number we wound up with is 10001.

Previously, we converted to binary 11101011001001 to decimal 15049. Let's do the reverse to make sure that we did it right:

15049 / 2 = 7524    Remaining 1
7524 / 2 = 3762 Remaining 0
3762 / 2 = 1881 Remaining 0
1881 / 2 = 940 Remaining 1
940 / 2 = 470 Remaining 0
470 / 2 = 235 Remaining 0
235 / 2 = 117 Remaining 1
117 / 2 = 58 Remaining 1
58 / 2 = 29 Remaining 0
29 / 2 = 14 Remaining 1
14 / 2 = 7 Remaining 0
7 / 2 = 3 Remaining 1
3 / 2 = 1 Remaining 1
1 / 2 = 0 Remaining 1

Then, we put the remaining numbers back together, and we have the original number! Remember the first division remainder goes to the far right, so from the bottom up you have 11101011001001.

Each digit in a binary number is called a bit, which stands for binary digit. Remember, computers divide up their memory into storage locations called bytes. Each storage location on an x86 processor (and most others) is 8 bits long. Earlier we said that a byte can hold any number between 0 and 255. The reason for this is that the largest number you can fit into 8 bits is 255. You can see this for yourself if you convert binary 11111111 into decimal:

11111111  =

(1 * 2^7) + (1 * 2^6) + (1 * 2^5) + (1 * 2^4) + (1 * 2^3)
+ (1 * 2^2) + (1 * 2^1) + (1 * 2^0) =

128 + 64 + 32 + 16 + 8 + 4 + 2 + 1 =


The largest number that you can hold in 16 bits is 65535. The largest number you can hold in 32 bits is 4294967295 (4 billion). The largest number you can hold in 64 bits is 18,446,744,073,709,551,615. The largest number you can hold in 128 bits is 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456. Anyway, you see the picture. For x86 processors, most of the time you will deal with 4-byte numbers (32 bits), because that's the size of the registers.

Truth, Falsehood, and Binary Numbers

Now we've seen that the computer stores everything as sequences of 1's and 0's. Let's look at some other uses of this. What if, instead of looking at a sequence of bits as a number, we instead looked at it as a set of switches. For example, let's say there are four switches that control lighting in the house. We have a switch for outside lights, a switch for the hallway lights, a switch for the living room lights, and a switch for the bedroom lights. We could make a little table showing which of these were on and off, like so:

Outside   Hallway   Living Room   Bedroom
On Off On On

It's obvious from looking at this that all of the lights are on except the hallway ones. Now, instead of using the words "On" and "Off", let's use the numbers 1 and 0. 1 will represent on, and 0 will represent off. So, we could represent the same information as

Outside   Hallway   Living Room   Bedroom
1 0 1 1

Now, instead of having labels on the light switches, let's say we just memorized which position went with which switch. Then, the same information could be represented as

1            0            1          1

or as


This is just one of many ways you can use the computers storage locations to represent more than just numbers. The computers memory just sees numbers, but programmers can use these numbers to represent anything their imaginations can come up with. They just sometimes have to be creative when figuring out the best representation.

Not only can you do regular arithmetic with binary numbers, they also have a few operations of their own, called binary or logical operations . The standard binary operations are

  • AND

  • OR

  • NOT

  • XOR

Before we look at examples, I'll describe them for you. AND takes two bits and returns one bit. AND will return a 1 only if both bits are 1, and a 0 otherwise. For example, 1 AND 1 is 1, but 1 AND 0 is 0, 0 AND 1 is 0, and 0 AND 0 is 0.

OR takes two bits and returns one bit. It will return 1 if either of the original bits is 1. For example, 1 OR 1 is 1, 1 OR 0 is one, 0 OR 1 is 1, but 0 OR 0 is 0.

NOT only takes one bit and returns its opposite. NOT 1 is 0 and NOT 0 is 1.

Finally, XOR is like OR, except it returns 0 if both bits are 1.

Computers can do these operations on whole registers at a time. For example, if a register has 10100010101010010101101100101010 and another one has 10001000010101010101010101111010, you can run any of these operations on the whole registers. For example, if we were to AND them, the computer will run from the first bit to the 32nd and run the AND operation on that bit in both registers. In this case:

10100010101010010101101100101010 AND

You'll see that the resulting set of bits only has a one where both numbers had a one, and in every other position it has a zero. Let's look at what an OR looks like:

10100010101010010101101100101010 OR

In this case, the resulting number has a 1 where either number has a 1 in the given position. Let's look at the NOT operation:

NOT 10100010101010010101101100101010

This just reverses each digit. Finally, we have XOR, which is like an OR, except if both digits are 1, it returns 0.

10100010101010010101101100101010 XOR

This is the same two numbers used in the OR operation, so you can compare how they work. Also, if you XOR a number with itself, you will always get 0, like this:

10100010101010010101101100101010 XOR

These operations are useful for two reasons:

  • The computer can do them extremely fast

  • You can use them to compare many truth values at the same time

You may not have known that different instructions execute at different speeds. It's true, they do. And these operations are the fastest on most processors. For example, you saw that XORing a number with itself produces 0. Well, the XOR operation is faster than the loading operation, so many programmers use it to load a register with zero. For example, the code

 movl  $0, %eax

is often replaced by

 xorl  %eax, %eax

We'll discuss speed more in Chapter 12, but I want you to see how programmers often do tricky things, especially with these binary operators, to make things fast. Now let's look at how we can use these operators to manipulate true/false values. Earlier we discussed how binary numbers can be used to represent any number of things. Let's use binary numbers to represent what things my Dad and I like. First, let's look at the things I like:

Food: yes
Heavy Metal Music: yes
Wearing Dressy Clothes: no
Football: yes

Now, let's look at what my Dad likes:

Food: yes
Heavy Metal Music: no
Wearing Dressy Clothes: yes
Football: yes

Now, let's use a 1 to say yes we like something, and a 0 to say no we don't. Now we have:

Food: 1
Heavy Metal Music: 1
Wearing Dressy Clothes: 0
Football: 1

Food: 1
Heavy Metal Music: 0
Wearing Dressy Clothes: 1
Football: 1

Now, if we just memorize which position each of these are in, we have



Now, let's see we want to get a list of things both my Dad and I like. You would use the AND operation. So

1101 AND

Which translates to

Things we both like
Food: yes
Heavy Metal Music: no
Wearing Dressy Clothes: no
Football: yes

Remember, the computer has no idea what the ones and zeroes represent. That's your job and your program's job. If you wrote a program around this representation your program would at some point examine each bit and have code to tell the user what it's for (if you asked a computer what two people agreed on and it answered 1001, it wouldn't be very useful). Anyway, let's say we want to know the things that we disagree on. For that we would use XOR, because it will return 1 only if one or the other is 1, but not both. So

1101 XOR

And I'll let you translate that back out.

The previous operations: AND, OR, NOT, and XOR are called boolean operators because they were first studied by George Boole. So, if someone mentiones boolean operators or boolean algebra, you now know what they are talking about.

In addition to the boolean operations, there are also two binary operators that aren't boolean, shift and rotate. Shifts and rotates each do what their name implies, and can do so to the right or the left. A left shift moves each digit of a binary number one space to the left, puts a zero in the ones spot, and chops off the furthest digit to the left. A left rotate does the same thing, but takes the furthest digit to the left and puts it in the ones spot. For example,

Shift left  10010111 = 00101110
Rotate left 10010111 = 00101111

Notice that if you rotate a number for every digit it has (i.e. - rotating a 32-bit number 32 times), you wind up with the same number you started with. However, if you shift a number for every digit you have, you wind up with 0. So, what are these shifts useful for? Well, if you have binary numbers representing things, you use shifts to peek at each individual value. Let's say, for instance, that we had my Dad's likes stored in a register (32 bits). It would look like this:


Now, as we said previously, this doesn't work as program output. So, in order to do output, we would need to do shifting and masking. Masking is the process of eliminating everything you don't want. In this case, for every value we are looking for, we will shift the number so that value is in the ones place, and then mask that digit so that it is all we see. Masking is accomplished by doing an AND with a number that has the bits we are interested in set to 1. For example, let's say we wanted to print out whether my Dad likes dressy clothes or not. That data is the second value from the right. So, we have to shift the number right 1 digit so it looks like this:


and then, we just want to look at that digit, so we mask it by ANDing it with 00000000000000000000000000000001.

00000000000000000000000000000101 AND

This will make the value of the register 1 if my Dad likes dressy clothes, and 0 if he doesn't. Then we can do a comparison to 1 and print the results. The code would look like this:

 #NOTE - assume that the register %ebx holds
# my Dad's preferences

movl %ebx, %eax #This copies the information into %eax so
#we don't lose the original data

shrl $1, %eax #This is the shift operator. It stands
#for Shift Right Long. This first number
#is the number of positions to shift,
#and the second is the register to shift

#This does the masking
andl $0b00000000000000000000000000000001, %eax

#Check to see if the result is 1 or 0
cmpl $0b00000000000000000000000000000001, %eax

je yes_he_likes_dressy_clothes

jmp no_he_doesnt_like_dressy_clothes

And then we would have two labels which printed something about whether or not he likes dressy clothes and then exits. The 0b notation means that what follows is a binary number. In this case it wasn't needed, because 1 is the same in any numbering system, but I put it there for clarity. We also didn't need the 31 zeroes, but I put them in to make a point that the number you are using is 32 bits.

When a number represents a set of options for a function or system call, the individual true/false elements are called flags. Many system calls have numerous options that are all set in the same register using a mechanism like we've described. The open system call, for example, has as its second parameter a list of flags to tell the operating system how to open the file. Some of the flags include:


  • This flag is 0b00000000000000000000000000000001 in binary, or 01 in octal (or any number system for that matter). This says to open the file in write-only mode.


  • This flag is 0b00000000000000000000000000000010 in binary, or 02 in octal. This says to open the file for both reading and writing.


  • This flag is 0b00000000000000000000000001000000 in binary, or 0100 in octal. It means to create the file if it doesn't already exist.


  • This flag is 0b00000000000000000000001000000000 in binary, or 01000 in octal. It means to erase the contents of the file if the file already exists.


  • This flag is 0b00000000000000000000010000000000 in binary, or 02000 in octal. It means to start writing at the end of the file rather than at the beginning.

To use these flags, you simply OR them together in the combination that you want. For example, to open a file in write-only mode, and have it create the file if it doesn't exist, I would use O_WRONLY (01) and O_CREAT (0100). OR'd together, I would have 0101.

Note that if you don't set either O_WRONLY or O_RDWR, then the file is automatically opened in read-only mode (O_RDONLY, except that it isn't really a flag since it's zero).

Many functions and system calls use flags for options, as it allows a single word to hold up to 32 possible options if each option is represented by a single bit.

The Program Status Register

We've seen how bits on a register can be used to give the answers of yes/no and true/false statements. On your computer, there is a register called the program status register. This register holds a lot of information about what happens in a computation. For example, have you ever wondered what would happen if you added two numbers and the result was larger than would fit in a register? The program status register has a flag called the carry flag. You can test it to see if the last computation overflowed the register. There are flags for a number of different statuses. In fact, when you do a compare (cmpl) instruction, the result is stored in this register. The conditional jump instructions (jge, jne, etc) use these results to tell whether or not they should jump. jmp, the unconditional jump, doesn't care what is in the status register, since it is unconditional.

Let's say you needed to store a number larger than 32 bits. So, let's say the number is 2 registers wide, or 64 bits. How could you handle this? If you wanted to add two 64 bit numbers, you would add the least significant registers first. Then, if you detected an carry, you could add I to the most significant register. In fact, this is probably the way you learned to do decimal addition. If the result in one column is more than 9, you simply carried the number to the next most significant column. If you added 65 and 37, first you add 7 and 4 to get 12. You keep the 2 in the right column, and carry the one to the next column. There you add 6, 3, and the 1 you carried. This results in 10. So, you keep the zero in that column and carry the one to the next most significant column, which is empty, so you just put the one there. Luckily, 32 bits is usually big enough to hold the numbers we use regularly.

Additional program status register flags are examined in Appendix B.

Other Numbering Systems

What we have studied so far only applies to positive integers. However, real-world numbers are not always positive integers. Negative numbers and numbers with decimals are also used.

Floating-Point Numbers

So far, the only numbers we've dealt with are integers - numbers with no decimal point. Computers have a general problem with numbers with decimal points, because computers can only store fixed-size, finite values. Decimal numbers can be any length, including infinite length (think of a repeating decimal, like the result of 1 / 3).

The way a computer handles decimals is by storing them at a fixed precision (number of significant bits). A computer stores decimal numbers in two parts - the exponent and the mantissa. The mantissa contains the actual digits that will be used, and the exponent is what magnitude the number is. For example, 12345.2 can be represented as 1.23452 * 10^4. The mantissa is 1.23452 and the exponent is 4 with a base of 10. Computers, however, use a base of 2. All numbers are stored as X.XXXXX * 2^XXXX. The number 1, for example, is stored as 1.00000 * 2^0. Separating the mantissa and the exponent into two different values is called a floating point representation, because the position of the significant digits with respect to the decimal point can vary based on the exponent.

Now, the mantissa and the exponent are only so long, which leads to some interesting problems. For example, when a computer stores an integer, if you add 1 to it, the resulting number is one larger. This does not necessarily happen with floating point numbers. If the number is sufficiently big, adding 1 to it might not even register in the mantissa (remember, both parts are only so long). This affects several things, especially order of operations. If you add 1.0 to a given floating point number, it might not even affect the number if it is large enough. For example, on x86 platforms, a four-byte floating-point number, although it can represent very large numbers, cannot have 1.0 added to it past 16777216.0, because it is no longer significant. The number no longer changes when 1.0 is added to it. So, if there is a multiplication followed by an addition it may give a different result than if the addition is performed first.

You should note that it takes most computers a lot longer to do floating-point arithmetic than it does integer arithmetic. So, for programs that really need speed, integers are mostly used.

Negative Numbers

How would you think that negative numbers on a computer might be represented? One thought might be to use the first digit of a number as the sign, so 00000000000000000000000000000001 would represent the number 1, and 10000000000000000000000000000001 would represent -1. This makes a lot of sense, and in fact some old processors work this way. However, it has some problems. First of all, it takes a lot more circuitry to add and subtract signed numbers represented this way. Even more problematic, this representation has a problem with the number 0. In this system, you could have both a negative and a positive 0. This leads to a lot of questions, like "should negative zero be equal to positive zero?", and "What should the sign of zero be in various circumstances?".

These problems were overcome by using a representation of negative numbers called two's complement representation. To get the negative representation of a number in two's complement form, you must perform the following steps:

  1. Perform a NOT operation on the number

  2. Add one to the resulting number

So, to get the negative of 00000000000000000000000000000001, you would first do a NOT operation, which gives 1111111111111111111111111111110, and then add one, giving 11111111111111111111111111111111. To get negative two, first take 00000000000000000000000000000010. The NOT of that number is 11111111111111111111111111111101. Adding one gives 11111111111111111111111111111110. With this representation, you can add numbers just as if they were positive, and come out with the right answers. For example, if you add one plus negative one in binary, you will notice that all of the numbers flip to zero. Also, the first digit still carries the sign bit, making it simple to determine whether or not the number is positive or negative. Negative numbers will always have a 1 in the leftmost bit. This also changes which numbers are valid for a given number of bits. With signed numbers, the possible magnitude of the values is split to allow for both positive and negative numbers. For example, a byte can normally have values up to 255. A signed byte, however, can store values from -128 to 127.

One thing to note about the two's complement representation of signed numbers is that, unlike unsigned quantities, if you increase the number of bits, you can't just add zeroes to the left of the number. For example, let's say we are dealing with four-bit quantities and we had the number -3, 1101. If we were to extend this into an eight-bit register, we could not represent it as 00001101 as this would represent 13, not -3. When you increase the size of a signed quantity in two's complement representation, you have to perform sign extension. Sign extension means that you have to pad the left-hand side of the quantity with whatever digit is in the sign digit when you add bits. So, if we extend a negative number by 4 digits, we should fill the new digits with a 1. If we extend a positive number by 4 digits, we should fill the new digits with a 0. So, the extension of -3 from four to eight bits will yield 11111101.

The x86 processor has different forms of several instructions depending on whether they expect the quantities they operate on to be signed or unsigned. These are listed in Appendix B. For example, the x86 processor has both a sign-preserving shift-right, sarl, and a shift-right which does not preserve the sign bit, shrl.

Octal and Hexadecimal Numbers

The numbering systems discussed so far have been decimal and binary. However, two others are used common in computing - octal and hexadecimal. In fact, they are probably written more often than binary. Octal is a representation that only uses the numbers 0 through 7. So the octal number 10 is actually 8 in decimal because it is one group of eight. Octal 121 is decimal 81 (one group of 64 (8^2), two groups of 8, and one left over). What makes octal nice is that every 3 binary digits make one octal digit (there is no such grouping of binary digits into decimal). So 0 is 000, 1 is 001, 2 is 010, 3 is 011, 4 is 100, 5 is 101, 6 is 110, and 7 is 111.

Permissions in Linux are done using octal. This is because Linux permissions are based on the ability to read, write and execute. The first bit is the read permission, the second bit is the write permission, and the third bit is the execute permission. So, 0 (000) gives no permissions, 6(110) gives read and write permission, and 5 (101) gives read and execute permissions. These numbers are then used for the three different sets of permissions - the owner, the group, and everyone else. The number 0644 means read and write for the first permission set, and read-only for the second and third set. The first permission set is for the owner of the file. The third permission set is for the group owner of the file. The last permission set is for everyone else. So, 0751 means that the owner of the file can read, write, and execute the file, the group members can read and execute the file, and everyone else can only execute the file.

Anyway, as you can see, octal is used to group bits (binary digits) into threes. The way the assembler knows that a number is octal is because octal numbers are prefixed with a zero. For example 010 means 10 in octal, which is 8 in decimal. If you just write 10 that means 10 in decimal. The beginning zero is what differentiates the two. So, be careful not to put any leading zeroes in front of decimal numbers, or they will be interepreted as octal numbers!

Hexadecimal numbers (also called just "hex") use the numbers 1–15 for each digit. however, since 10–15 don't have their own numbers, hexadecimal uses the letters a through f to represent them. For example, the letter a represents 10, the letter b represents 11, and so on. 10 in hexadecimal is 16 in decimal. In octal, each digit represented three bits. In hexadecimal, each digit represents four bits. Every two digits is a full byte, and eight digits is a 32-bit word. So you see, it is considerably easier to write a hexadecimal number than it is to write a binary number, because it's only a quarter as many digits. The most important number to remember in hexadecimal is f, which means that all bits are set. So, if I want to set all of the bits of a register to 1, I can just do

 movl   $0xFFFFFFFF,  %eax

Which is considerably easier and less error-prone than writing

movl   $0b11111111111111111111111111111111,  %eax

Note also that hexadecimal numbers are prefixed with 0x. So, when we do

 int   $0x80

We are calling interrupt number 128 (8 groups of 16), or interrupt number 0b00000000000000000000000010000000.

Hexadecimal and octal numbers take some getting used to, but they are heavily used in computer programming. It might be worthwhile to make up some numbers in hex and try to convert them back and forth to binary, decimal, and octal.

Order of Bytes in a Word

One thing that confuses many people when dealing with bits and bytes on a low level is that, when bytes are written from registers to memory, their bytes are written out least-significant-portion-first. [1] What most people expect is that if they have a word in a register, say 0x5d 23 ef ee (the spacing is so you can see where the bytes are), the bytes will be written to memory in that order. However, on x86 processors, the bytes are actually written in reverse order. In memory the bytes would be 0xee ef 23 5d on x86 processors. The bytes are written in reverse order from what they would appear conceptually, but the bits within the bytes are ordered normally.

Not all processors behave this way. The x86 processor is a little-endian processor, which means that it stores the "little end", or least-significant byte of its words first.

Register-to-memory transfers on little-endian systems

Other processors are big-endian processors, which means that they store the "big end", or most significant byte, of their words first, the way we would naturally read a number.

Register-to-memory transfers on big-endian systems

This difference is not normally a problem (although it has sparked many technical controversies throughout the years). Because the bytes are reversed again (or not, if it is a big-endian processor) when being read back into a register, the programmer usually never notices what order the bytes are in. The byte-switching magic happens automatically behind the scenes during register-to-memory transfers. However, the byte order can cause problems in several instances:

  • If you try to read in several bytes at a time using movl but deal with them on a byte-by-byte basis using the least significant byte (i.e. - by using %al and/or shifting of the register), this will be in a different order than they appear in memory.

  • If you read or write files written for different architectures, you may have to account for whatever order they write their bytes in.

  • If you read or write to network sockets, you may have to account for a different byte order in the protocol.

As long as you are aware of the issue, it usually isn't a big deal. For more in-depth look at byte order issues, you should read DAV's Endian FAQ at, especially the article "On Holy Wars and a Plea for Peace" by Daniel Cohen.

[1]Significance in this context is referring to which digit they represent. For example, in the number 294, the digit 2 is the most significant because it represents the hundreds place, 9 is the next most significant, and 4 is the least significant.

Converting Numbers for Display

So far, we have been unable to display any number stored to the user, except by the extremely limitted means of passing it through exit codes. In this section, we will discuss converting positive numbers into strings for display.

The function will be called integer2string, and it will take two parameters - an integer to convert and a string buffer filled with null characters (zeroes). The buffer will be assumed to be big enough to store the entire number as a string.(at least 11 characters long, to include a trailing null character).

Remember that the way that we see numbers is in base 10. Therefore, to access the individual decimal digits of a number, we need to be dividing by 10 and displaying the remainder for each digit. Therefore, the process will look like this:

  • Divide the number by ten

  • The remainder is the current digit. Convert it to a character and store it.

  • We are finished if the quotient is zero.

  • Otherwise, take the quotient and the next location in the buffer and repeat the process.

The only problem is that since this process deals with the one's place first, it will leave the number backwards. Therefore, we will have to finish by reversing the characters. We will do this by storing the characters on the stack as we compute them. This way, as we pop them back off to fill in the buffer, it will be in the reverse order that we pushed them on.

The code for the function should be put in a file called integer-to-string.s and should be entered as follows:

#PURPOSE:  Convert an integer number to a decimal string
# for display
#INPUT: A buffer large enough to hold the largest
# possible number
# An integer to convert
#OUTPUT: The buffer will be overwritten with the
# decimal string
# %ecx will hold the count of characters processed
# %eax will hold the current value
# %edi will hold the base (10)
.equ ST_VALUE, 8
.equ ST_BUFFER, 12

.globl integer2string
.type integer2string, @function
#Normal function beginning
pushl %ebp
movl %esp, %ebp
#Current character count
movl $0, %ecx

#Move the value into position
movl ST_VALUE(%ebp), %eax

#When we divide by 10, the 10
#must be in a register or memory location
movl $10, %edi

#Division is actually performed on the
#combined %edx:%eax register, so first
#clear out %edx
movl $0, %edx

#Divide %edx:%eax (which are implied) by 10.
#Store the quotient in %eax and the remainder
#in %edx (both of which are implied).
divl %edi

#Quotient is in the right place. %edx has
#the remainder, which now needs to be converted
#into a number. So, %edx has a number that is
#0 through 9. You could also interpret this as
#an index on the ASCII table starting from the
#character '0'. The ascii code for '0' plus zero
#is still the ascii code for '0'. The ascii code
#for '0' plus 1 is the ascii code for the
#character '1'. Therefore, the following
#instruction will give us the character for the
#number stored in %edx
addl $'0', %edx

#Now we will take this value and push it on the
#stack. This way, when we are done, we can just
#pop off the characters one-by-one and they will
#be in the right order. Note that we are pushing
#the whole register, but we only need the byte
#in %dl (the last byte of the %edx register) for
#the character.
pushl %edx

#Increment the digit count
incl %ecx

#Check to see if %eax is zero yet, go to next
#step if so.
cmpl $0, %eax
je end_conversion_loop

#%eax already has its new value.

jmp conversion_loop

#The string is now on the stack, if we pop it
#off a character at a time we can copy it into
#the buffer and be done.

#Get the pointer to the buffer in %edx
movl ST_BUFFER(%ebp), %edx

#We pushed a whole register, but we only need
#the last byte. So we are going to pop off to
#the entire %eax register, but then only move the
#small part (%al) into the character string.
popl %eax
movb %al, (%edx)
#Decreasing %ecx so we know when we are finished
decl %ecx
#Increasing %edx so that it will be pointing to
#the next byte
incl %edx

#Check to see if we are finished
cmpl $0, %ecx
#If so, jump to the end of the function
je end_copy_reversing_loop
#Otherwise, repeat the loop
jmp copy_reversing_loop

#Done copying. Now write a null byte and return
movb $0, (%edx)

movl %ebp, %esp
popl %ebp

To show this used in a full program, use the following code, along with the count_chars and write_newline functions written about in previous chapters. The code should be in a file called conversion-program.s.

 .include "linux.s"

.section .data

#This is where it will be stored
.ascii "\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0"
.section .text

.globl _start
movl %esp, %ebp

#Storage for the result
pushl $tmp_buffer
#Number to convert
pushl $824
call integer2string
addl $8, %esp

#Get the character count for our system call
pushl $tmp_buffer
call count_chars
addl $4, %esp

#The count goes in %edx for SYS_WRITE
movl %eax, %edx

#Make the system call
movl $SYS_ WRITE, %eax
movl $STDOUT, %ebx
movl $tmp_buffer, %ecx


#Write a carriage return
pushl $STDOUT
call write_newline

movl $SYS_EXIT, %eax
movl $0, %ebx

To build the program, issue the following commands:

as integer-to-string.s -o integer-to-number.o
as count-chars.s -o count-chars.o
as write-newline.s -o write-newline.o
as conversion-program.s -o conversion-program.o
ld integer-to-number.o count-chars.o write-newline.o conversion-
program.o -o conversion-program

To run just type ./conversion-program and the output should say 824.


Know the Concepts

  • Convert the decimal number 5,294 to binary.

  • What number does 0x0234aeff represent? Specify in binary, octal, and decimal.

  • Add the binary numbers 10111001 and 101011.

  • Multiply the binary numbers 1100 1010110.

  • Convert the results of the previous two problems into decimal.

  • Describe how AND, OR, NOT, and XOR work.

  • What is masking for?

  • What number would you use for the flags of the open system call if you wanted to open the file for writing, and create the file if it doesn't exist?

  • How would you represent -55 in a thirty-two bit register?

  • Sign-extend the previous quantity into a 64-bit register.

  • Describe the difference between little-endian and big-endian storage of words in memory.

Use the Concepts

  • Go back to previous programs that returned numeric results through the exit status code, and rewrite them to print out the results instead using our integer to string conversion function.

  • Modify the integer2string code to return results in octal rather than decimal.

  • Modify the integer2string code so that the conversion base is a parameter rather than hardcoded.

  • Write a function called is_negative that takes a single integer as a parameter and returns 1 if the parameter is negative, and 0 if the parameter is positive.

Going Further

  • Modify the integer2string code so that the conversion base can be greater than 10 (this requires you to use letters for numbers past 9).

  • Create a function that does the reverse of integer2string called number2integer which takes a character string and converts it to a register-sized integer. Test it by running that integer back through the integer2string function and displaying the results.

  • Write a program that stores likes and dislikes into a single machine word, and then compares two sets of likes and dislikes for commonalities.

  • Write a program that reads a string of characters from STDIN and converts them to a number.

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