The Tutorials at, only in both 32 and 64-bit versions, with some nasm tricks and commentary. #inprogress
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Doing Things with Assembly Language and NASM

This is just a list of short assembly language programs that I used to reboot my assembly language skills, this time in X86 and X86_64. ("This time" because the last time I wrote assembly language I was writing for the Motorola 68000 line.)

The tutorial I based this off of is at The source code for the original tutorial, as well as the website, is by GitHub contributor Daniel Givney at Assembly Tutorials.

I'll see if I can't scrape together some other, more esoteric examples in the future.

Getting Started

There's a Makefile. It has a nice help¹.

You will need to be running Linux on an Intel platform. These lessons do not apply to ARM chips like those on the Raspberry Pi (although it would be super cool if they did!).

You will need a copy of nasm, the Netwide Assembler, the most popular assembler currently in widespread use. There are other assemblers, such as GAS (Used by the GNU GCC project), MASM (from Microsoft), and so forth, but NASM is popular, well-understood, and well-supported. You will also need a linker; the Makefile assumes you have the linker suppled with GNU Binutils. On Ubuntu-based platforms this comes with the build-essentials package. If you have a different distribution, consult your archive. If you can compile a C program, you're fine.

Lesson 2

There is no Lesson 1. Okay, there is, but I didn't do it. While I was looking around for tutorials I found a couple that taught different things, and one of the things they all agreed on was a proper exit command. Since all Lesson 2 does is add that command, that's what I did.

I also used a few NASM features not in the ASM Tutorial. The %define Nasm preprocessor allows you to provide named constants, and I've used them here.

The syntax equ $-msg basically means "The address from HERE, the first byte of this named data segment, minus the address named," which puts into len the length of the string. It only works because len is the immediate next data segment.

Differences between the 32 and 64 bit versions.

The biggest difference that I see is that the Syscalls have all be redefined. "Write" and "exit" were 4 & 1 in 32-bit Linux, but 1 & 60 int 64-bit, respectively. The ASM Tutorial was 32-bit only, and used the first four registers. When I ported it to the 64-bit version, the syscall for write() uses different registers.

The 32 bit version uses int 80h to interrupt the kernel. The 64 bit uses syscall. The Linux System Call Table is handy here.


So far, the assembly language programs have two sections: one for constant data, the other for the actual program. Before either section there are macros and directives. Right now the only macros I'm using define constants.

We aren't allocating any memory that's not in a .data segment. And that's okay. Everything is happening inside registers. The CPU has 16 of them. Some of them have side-effects and optimizations, and others are required for some operations. The AX register, for example, used to be the destination for mathematical operations. The X86_64 CPU architecture is built around stack-based operations, and the command push reg will push a value (either a register or memory contents) onto the stack pointed to by the SP and BP registers, and then increment those registers. So, you know, there are quirks to memorize.

The Makefile contains compiling and linking instructions. They're different for 32 and 64 bit programs, and learning those differences would be useful if you intend to write a lot of assembly language.

Lesson 3

Lesson 3 is a lot like lesson 2, only instead of knowing the length of the string, we're going to calculate it, using the NULL value as our end-of-string marker. This also introduces comparison and jump commands!

The question embedded in my comment in the source file is legitimate. At the time, I didn't know if sub sets things like the "is zero" flag when two values are the same value, the way cmp does. The Intel X86 Manual (Warning: PDF, and very big!) doesn't say they do, and the contents of those flags should probably not be regarded as robust or reliable after a sub operation.

With the 64-bit version, rather than blindly copy the ax/bx/cx/dx sequence of registers, I deliberately chose to use RSI (the Source Index Register) for my data source. While the first eight registers are considered "general purpose," RSI is (somewhat) optimized to read data out of memory and its use is a signal to the CPU's predictive cache. I don't know if that's any use to me yet, but it's something I'm aware of and I might someday have a use for it.

Memory addressing syntax

Lesson three also introduces the cmp byte [rax], 0 syntax, which does a few things. First, there are a crazy number of opcodes for the X86 architecture, and cmp is only one-half. An opcode is the numeric representation of an instruction to the chip; it's bit sequence literally instructs which nanoscopic wires in the chip to light up to perform an operation. Not including the wild stuff, an Intel chip has something like 1,900 opcodes. But you'll only need to know about 20 of them.

The [rax] syntax tells nasm to generate the cmp opcode for which the first operand is an address in memory; cmp will fetch the thing at that address first before doing the comparison. (I'm not sure if this occupies another register or what. The manual doesn't say!) The byte command says that the comparison is on a byte-by-byte basis, so that's a different opcode, but I suspect nasm makes it easy to remember which is which with mnemonics. You don't need to know different ASM commands for "compare two registers," "compare a memory location with a register," and "compare a memory location with a constant," because nasm's syntax makes it easy to understand those operations.

What I do know is that the one thing you can't do is compare two memory locations directly. cmp works with two registers, or a register and a memory location, or a register and a constant, but no other combination.

Lesson 4: Subroutines

Lesson four introduces two new pairs of instructions: push & pop, and call and ret. The first two push values onto the stack and then pop them off. The latter two call a subroutine and then return from it; call pushes the address of the next instruction onto the stack, and ret pops it off and sets the IPR (Instruction Pointer Register) to the calling routine.

In these examples, I think I've engaged in what is known as callee cleanup, which means that the subroutine has the responsibility for restoring the registers after using them. Then again, I may be hopelessly confused. Hopefully, future lessons will clear up the cdecl() and other assembly conventions.

As is clear in the commit and in the comments itself, I've hopelessly abused convention by storing the results in the EDX and RDX registers, rather than EAX as is the convention. On the one hand this is definitely unstylish ASM, on the other hand it's something one can do in hand-written ASM, saving exactly one cycle (register copies are cheap, people) on my computer that (checks lshw) executes approximately 2,870,000 instructions per second.

Lesson 5: Includes

Lesson 5 takes the functions we wrote in Lesson 4 and moves them into their own file, so that they can be called multiple time. This means that the "register abuse" I engaged in in Lesson 4 has to be backed out; I have to be "good" and use the registers as recommended by the textbooks, because now they'll have multiple users and the conventions must be honored in that case.

Lesson 7 & 8: Print-with-linefeed and Argv

Lesson 6 is virtually indistinguishable from Lessons 5 and 7; it's a tiny jump to using null instead of LF as our terminator, and I was already doing that. Lesson 7 creates a wrapper around puts() that automatically appends a line-feed to the end of your null-terminated string.

This leads into lesson 8, in which the environment provides a new chunk of memory containing the strings with which the program was initialized, and pointers to those strings are placed on the stack. The first value on the stack is the number of pointers.

With the "add a line feed" wrapper, the original text has you putting your line-feed string data into the stack, but I cheaped out and made my line-feed a two-byte (LF + NULL) constant and referred to it by address instead.

One thing I did learn here? When I ported it to X86_64, it broke badly. It turns out that syscall, unlike int 80h, clobbers the counter register rcx. And since that's what we were using in the 32-bit version as our argv counter, I preserved that semantic in the 64-bit version, which also means I had to modify putslf() to push rcx onto the stack and pop it off afterward.

Sidebar: A bug!

Early on in Lesson 4, I spotted and fixed a bug where I had one too many pops off the stack (see commit 89b58186), but what perplexed me is how the system didn't crash with a stack underflow. Now I know why: the stack had two values on it already: the counter, and the pointer to the program name, which is always argv[0]. Kinda cool to realize that now.

More to come... maybe


Yours truly! Elf M. Sternberg


Daniel Givney does not specify a license for his code, but it is his copyright. I did type in, modify, and write these examples on my own (I find that I only learn things in my brain if they go through my fingers, so I rarely cut-and-paste anything), and unless Daniel has a complaint, I'm tagging my code with the MIT License. See the LICENSE.txt file for the full details.



¹ I firmly believe that no command, typed blindy, should modify the contents of your hard drive. Make takes target arguments, and you should specify the targets you want built. So make by itself only issues help.