Muchen He

Week 2

Updated 2022-01-18

Original slides/talk from Mieszko Lis.

Calling Convention

We’re familiar to definition and calling functions in higher level languages like Java and C and it just works:

int secret_stuff(char *arg, int z) {
  ans = more_secret_stuff(x, y, z, arg);

But on a register level, how does function call actually work? Where does the arguments x go?

The caller and callee must agree on a few things:

Note that this is not language-specific – since it’s possible for a Java function to call binaries in a different language.

All these agreements are esentailly add up to calling convention

Call Frame

Call frame (or activation record) is a record for functions’ local storage. It’s allocated when a function is called and removed when a function returns. The call frame is often arranged as a call stack.

In a call frame, there is a frame pointer that points to the beginning of the frame. This pointer is set when the function is invoked.

There is also a stack pointer that points to the top of the stack. The stack pointer may move since we may put things on the stack inside the function.


Suppose we’re in some function and we call a function foo(), then we allocate the call frame for function foo(). Then the frame pointer will point at the beginning and the stack pointer points to the “top” of stack:

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If inside foo() we call another function bar(), then we allocate call frame for bar() and then we move the stack pointer.

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When bar() returns, we remove the frame and return to foo().

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Arguments and Return

Now knowing the frame and the stack, we can look at how argument and return values are passed around.

How do we go back?

Return addresses is the where the program should go after function finishes/returns. In x86 systems, return addresses are located on stack and in ARM the address is stored in register x30.

Return values are put in rax, and x0 and frame pointers are stored in registers rap (x86) and x29 (ARM).

How do we pass arguments

In x86, we put the arguments in registers rdi, rsi, rdx, etc. ARM does it the same except registers are not named: x0, x1, x2, etc.

If there are more than 7 (x86) or 8 (ARM) arguments, then you can push it on the stack. Values can then be popped from the stack once we enter into the function.

Special Instructions

There are special instructions such as call, ret (x86) and bl, ret that help facilitate function calls. For example, calling ret in ARM is the same as br x30 (branch to address stored in return address register).

Calling A Function Inside A Function

What happens if I’m already inside a function and I call another function? Wouldn’t the inner function overwrite critical registers (such as the return address register x30?).

Then the question becomes: should registers values to be preserved across calls? And there are two options:

In practice, typically some registers are saved by callee and anything else must be saved by the caller.

Example: consider this following function that follows the callee-saved convenction in x86 assembly:

    push  rbp
    mov   rbp, rsp
    sub   rsp, 48

    ; body of function
    mov   rsp, rbp
    pop   rbp

Upon entering the function, we push the base-pointer/frame pointer (rbp), then we put the return address on the stack.

We also move the stack pointer by 48 bytes (or how ever much stack space we need inside this function).

Then we can execute the body of the function.

Once we’re done, we just need to pop the stack by putting the frame pointer (rbp) onto the stack pointer and pop it.

Often in compiler generated code, the frame-pointer is often omitted for optimization reasons (saves one register). Since the compiler can keep track of how much offset to add/remove from the stack.

Despite the optimization, frame pointer is necessary if we don’t know exactly how much we’re putting on the stack in a function (e.g. dynamically-szied memory using alloc()) – since compilers cannot know the stack offset during compile-time.


When a user presses a key for example, it goes into an interrupt handler/service routine. In this case, should the interrupt handler use your memory?

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In practice, there is a red zome which is a fixed-size space below top-of-stack (TOS). This area is guaranteed to not be touched by interrupts.

This is nice because we don’t need to update the stack pointer whenever interrupt happens.

Other Considerations

TL;DR: Calling conventions enables different part of the code to just work.


We want to write some code to print some strings to the screen. We write and utilize a function print which takes a pointer to ASCII string and prints it to stdout.

So let’s start with:

section .text

global _start
    mov  rdi, hi
    call print
    mov  rdi, bye
    call print
    mov  rax, 60
    xor  rdi, rdi
hi  db "hello, world!", 10, 0
bye db "goodbye, cruel world...", 10, 0

The print function is:

    push rdi
    call len
    pop  rdi
    mov  rdx, rax
    mov  rsi, rdi
    mov  rax, 1
    mov  rdi, 1

Here is the len function:

    push rbx
    xor  rbx, rbx
    cmp  byte [rdi], 0
    je   len_end
    inc  rbx
    inc  rdi
    jmp  len_loop
    mov  rax, rbx
    pop  rbx


Ad-hoc Polymorphism

Assembly language can’t distinguish between super:foo() or sub::foo(), so how does this work? Consider these instructions: they go to some address in register rax. These are indirect jumps (e.g. functions).

Then recall dynamic dispatch: consider the code example we’ve seen from week 1. The dispatch for deciding which function to use is only decided during runtime because it’s not possible to know at compile-time.

#include <iostream>

struct Super {
    void foo() { std::cout << "Super::foo()\n"; }
    virtual void bar() { std::cout << "Super::bar()\n"; }

struct Sub : Super {
    void foo() { std::cout << "Sub::foo()\n"; }
    void bar() { std::cout << "Sub::bar()\n"; }

int main() {
    Super *obj  = new Sub();

At ❶, the foo() function is known statically, whereas at ❷, the bar() function is only known at runtime and cannot be inlined beforehand. We can make the following observations:

To achive what we need to do, we need to consider:

Name Mangling

Same field/function names can show up many times in different namespaces and classes. To mangle the name is to make them unique.

A naive way of name-mangling is to label them with numbers: (e.g. foo1, foo2, etc). But this is actually not that good because you don’t know how to sequence them such that each of them is unique.

In C++, for example anything starting with _Z is reserved (user can’t write a function of the same name): and it’s reserved as a prefix for renaming:

Before After mangling
int add(int, int) _Z3addii
double add(double, double) _Z3addd
char *cat(char *, const char *) _Z3catPcPKc
void noarg() _Z5noargv
int Cls::method(int x, int y) _ZN3Cls4methodEii

This does a pretty good job ensuring that functions have a different name. But notice: how and why are return type encoded in the mangled function name?

This is because in C/C++ is that a function with same argument cannot have a different return type.

Example: consider the follwing code:

#include ‹iostream>

struct animal {
   int age;
   const char *name;
   animal(const char *, int);
   void say_name();

animal::animal (const char *n, int a) {
   name n;
   age = a;

void animal: :say_name() {

int main() {
   animal a("whisky", 10);

The first thing we need to consider is data storage. How storage do we need to store one instance of this class.

To compute it we need to store age (4-byte integer) with another 4-byte padding for alignment and name (pointer to some character / so it’s 8 bytes on a 64-bit machine).

Notice: we don’t need to store anything for the functions as they are all non-virtual and doesn’t need dynamic dispatching. So name-mangling shoould be straight forward.

Let’s rename the say_name method:

_ZN6animal8say_nameEv() {

Problem: what is name? How do we find it?

Let’s try again, we need to pass an argument that can be used to identify where the class’s data is:

_ZN6animal8say_nameEP(animal *self) {

So now everytime we we refer to name it’s actually implicitly refering to itself. We we write code in C++ or Java and we use this. for example, such argument is just hidden from us.

Let’s also mangle the constructor now:

_ZN6animalC2EPKcí(animal *self, const char *n, int a) {

_ZN6animalCIEPKci equ_ZN6animalC2EPKci

Now we can represent C++ in lower level C once we’ve done all of this. Now let’s go a step further and look at the assembly:

; Constructor
   mov  qword [rdi+8], rsi
   mov  dword [rdi], edx
; say name
    mov  rdi, qword [rdi+8]
    jmp  puts
    sub  rsp,
    mov  edx, 10
    mov  rsi, WHISKY
    mov  rdi, rsp
    call _ZN6animalC1EPKci
    call _ZN6animal8say_nameEv
    xor  eax, eax ; zeroes the registers for exit code
    add  rsp, 24

WHISKY db "whisky", 0

What happens when we derive class?

Suppose we have this:

struct dog animal {
    dog (const char *, int);
    void say_name();

dog::dog(const char *n, int a) : animal (n, a) { }

void dog: : say_name() {
    puts ("WOOF!");
int main() {
    dog d("whisky", 10);
    animal *a = &d;

and it’s assembly code:

    mov quord [rdi+8], rsi
    mov duord [rdi], edx

    mov rdi, word [rdi+8]
    jmp puts

    jmp _ZN6animalC2EPKci

    sub  rsp, 8
    call _ZN6animal8say_nameEv
    mov  rdi, WOOF
    add  rsp, 8
    jmp  puts

    sub  rsp, 24
    mov  edx, 10
    mov  rsi, WHISKY
    mov  rdi, rsp
    call _ZN3dogC1EPKci
    call _ZN6animal8say_nameEv 
    xor  eax, eax
    add  rsp, 24

Dynamic Dispatching

One way to do is to include a virtual table pointer for virtual functions as part of our data storange:

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This is nice because it’s carried with the object.

Note: When compiled, there’s actually two more fields:

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  1. Base offset
  2. Runtime type info (used by the debugger)

Question: do we need constructors in the virtual table?

No. because constructors are not overridable.

Example: consider previous C++ example except we used virtual keyword for dynamic dispatching (❶):

#include ‹iostream>

struct animal {
  int age;
  const char *name;
  animal(const char *, int);
  virtual void say_name(); 

animal:: animal (const char *n, int a) {
  name n;
  age = a;

void animal: :say_name() {

int main() {
  animal a("whisky", 10);
  delete a;

Now the say_name method is:

    mov  rdi, qword ptr [rdi+16]
    jmp  puts

It’s the same as before except we also need to increase the offset to skip the vtable.


    mov  qword [rdi], _ZTV6animal+16
    mov  qword [rdi+16], rsi
    mov  qword [rdi+8], edx

_ZN6animalC1EPKci eq _ZN6animalC2EPKci

Now in main:

    sub  rsp, 40
    mov  ecx, edi
    mov  edx, 10
    mov  esi, WHISKY
    mov  rax, rsp
    mov  rdi, rax
    call _ZN6animalC1EPKci
    mov  rdi, rsp
    mov  rax, qword [rdi] ; puts vtable in rax
    call quord [rax]     ; calls the address in the vtable (the function)
    xor  eax, eax
    add  rsp, 40


Now knowing we have a vtable, derived class simply just changes the content of the vtable.

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If there are multiple inheritances (i.e. a derived class dog that is both an animal but also derives from a swimmer class).

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Then we simply merge the virtual functions as part of dog’s’ vtable. If it happens that the dog object is casted to a swimmer object, then we can have a second vtable pointer that points to a vtable as if it’s of type swimmer.

Traits / Interface

One thing implication of vtable is that it enables trait – where a derived class can be extended to perform a different behaviour.

For example, given a Dog class, we can extend its behaviour without modifying the original class definition:

struct Dog { age: 132, name: String }

trait Named ( fn say_name(&self); }
impl Named for Dog { fn say_name(&self) ( println!("{}", self. name )} }

trait Swimmer { fn swim(&self); }
impl Swimmer for Dog { fn swim(&self) { println! ("swimming") } }


IN a real computer, there are thigns happening all the time such as events and interrupts. Typically, there are functions for handling this event, and those are closures.

Consider this snippet of code in Go

func addTo(x int) func(int) int {
  return func(y int) int {
    return x + y

func main() {
  add2 := addTo(2)

The function addTo returns a function/closure. So in this case, we call the function addTo to create a new function called add2, then we can call add2 function to produce 9 (since 7 is the parameter).

Same thing in Haskell:

let add2 = (2 +)
in print (add 2 7)

This might be useful because it can be used for higher-order functions like map (applying the same function to a list of objects), event listeners, data hiding (e.g. in jQuery). We can use closures to do lazy-evaluation (we call the function and assign to the variable, but the runtime system don’t evaluate it until the variable is actually needed).

Abstractions on Indirect Jumps Summary

So far we saw function calls, function returns and its calling conventions. We also learned ad-hoc polymorphism to enable object-oriented programming and inherietances, interfaces, and traits. Lastly, we saw how this enables closures.