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Chapter: Embedded and Real Time Systems - Computing Platform and Design Analysis

Assembly and Linking

Assembly and linking are the last steps in the compilation process they turn a list of instructions into an image of the program’s bits in memory.



Assembly and linking are the last steps in the compilation process they turn a list of instructions into an image of the program’s bits in memory. Loading actually puts the program in memory so that it can be executed. In this section, we survey the basic techniques required for assembly linking to help us understand the complete compilation and loading process.

Figure 2.16 highlights the role of assemblers and linkers in the compilation process. This process is often hidden from us by compilation commands that do everything required to generate an executable program. As the figure shows, most compilers do not directly generate machine code, but instead create the instruction-level program in the form of human-readable assembly language. Generating assembly language rather than binary instructions frees the compiler writer from details extraneous to the compilation process, which includes the instruction format as well as the exact addresses of instructions and data.


The assembler’s job is to translate symbolic assembly language statements into bit-level representations of instructions known as object code. The assembler takes care of instruction formats and does part of the job of translating labels into addresses. However, since the program may be built from many files, the final steps in determining the addresses of instructions and data are performed by the linker, which produces an executable binary file. That file may not necessarily be located in the CPU’s memory, however, unless the linker happens to create the executable directly in RAM. The program that brings the program into memory for execution is called a loader.


The simplest form of the assembler assumes that the starting address of the assembly language program has been specified by the programmer. The addresses in such a program are known as absolute addresses.




When translating assembly code into object code, the assembler must translate opcodes and format the bits in each instruction, and translate labels into addresses. In this section, we review the translation of assembly language into binary. Labels make the assembly process more complex, but they are the most important abstraction provided by the assembler. Labels let the programmer (a human programmer or a compiler generating assembly code) avoid worrying about the locations of instructions and data. Label processing requires making two passes through the assembly source code as follows:


1. The first pass scans the code to determine the address of each label.


2. The second pass assembles the instructions using the label values computed in the first pass.


As shown in Figure 2.17, the name of each symbol and its address is stored in a symbol table that is built during the first pass. The symbol table is built by scanning from the first instruction to the last.


During scanning, the current location in memory is kept in a program location counter (PLC). Despite the similarity in name to a program counter, the PLC is not used to execute the program, only to assign memory locations to labels. For example, the PLC always makes exactly one pass through the program, whereas the program counter makes many passes over code in a loop. Thus, at the start of the first pass, the PLC is set to the program’s starting address and the assembler looks at the first line. After examining the line, the assembler updates the PLC to the next location (since ARM instructions are four bytes long, the PLC would be incremented by four) and looks at the next instruction. If the instruction begins with a label, a new entry is made in the symbol table, which includes the label name and its value. The value of the label is equal to the current value of the PLC. At the end of the first pass, the assembler rewinds to the beginning of the assembly language file to make the second pass. During the second pass, when a label name is found, the label is looked up in the symbol table and its value substituted into the appropriate place in the instruction.

But how do we know the starting value of the PLC? The simplest case is absolute addressing. In this case, one of the first statements in the assembly language program is a pseudo-op that specifies the origin of the program, that is, the location of the first address in the program. A common name for this pseudo-op (e.g., the one used for the ARM) is the ORG statement.


ORG 2000


Which puts the start of the program at location 2000. This pseudo-op accomplishes this by setting the PLC’s value to its argument’s value, 2000 in this case. Assemblers generally allow a program to have many ORG statements in case instructions or data must be spread around various spots in memory.




Many assembly language programs are written as several smaller pieces rather than as a single large file. Breaking a large program into smaller files helps delineate program modularity. If the program uses library routines, those will already be preassembled, and assembly language source code for the libraries may not be available for purchase.


A linker allows a program to be stitched together out of several smaller pieces. The linker operates on the object files created by the assembler and modifies the assembled code to make the necessary links between files.


Some labels will be both defined and used in the same file. Other labels will be defined in a single file but used elsewhere as illustrated in Figure 2.18. The place in the file where a label is defined is known as an entry point. The place in the file where the label is used is called an external reference.


The main job of the loader is to resolve external references based on available entry points. As a result of the need to know how definitions and references connect, the assembler passes to the linker not only the object file but also the symbol table.


Even if the entire symbol table is not kept for later debugging purposes, it must at least pass the entry points. External references are identified in the object code by their relative symbol identifiers.

The linker proceeds in two phases.


1. First, it determines the address of the start of each object file. The order in which object files are to be loaded is given by the user, either by specifying parameters when the loader is run or by creating a load map file that gives the order in which files are to be placed in memory. Given the order in which files are to be placed in memory and the length of each object file, it is easy to compute the starting address of each file.


2. At the start of the second phase, the loader merges all symbol tables from the object files into a single, large table. It then edits the object files to change relative addresses into addresses. This is typically performed by having the assembler write extra bits into the object file to identify the instructions and fields that refer to labels. If a label cannot be found in the merged symbol table, it is undefined and an error message is sent to the user.

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