7.4.2. Loops in assembly

Like if statements, loops in assembly are also implemented using jump instructions. However, loops enable instructions to be revisited based on the result of an evaluated condition.

The sumUp() function shown below sums up all the positive integers from 1 to a user-defined integer. This code is intentionally written sub-optimally to illustrate a while loop in C:

int sumUp(int n) {
    //initialize total and i
    int total = 0;
    int i = 1;

    while (i <= n) {  //while i is less than or equal to n
        total += i;   //add i to total
        i++;          //increment i by 1
    }
    return total;
}

Compiling this code and disassembling it using GDB yields the following assembly code:

Dump of assembler code for function sumUp:
0x400526 <+0>:   push   %rbp
0x400527 <+1>:   mov    %rsp,%rbp
0x40052a <+4>:   mov    %edi,-0x14(%rbp)
0x40052d <+7>:   mov    $0x0,-0x8(%rbp)
0x400534 <+14>:  mov    $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)
0x40053b <+21>:  jmp    0x400547 <sumUp+33>
0x40053d <+23>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax
0x400540 <+26>:  add    %eax,-0x8(%rbp)
0x400543 <+29>:  add    $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)
0x400547 <+33>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax
0x40054a <+36>:  cmp    -0x14(%rbp),%eax
0x40054d <+39>:  jle    0x40053d <sumUp+23>
0x40054f <+41>:  mov    -0x8(%rbp),%eax
0x400552 <+44>:  pop    %rbp
0x400553 <+45>:  retq

Again, we will not draw out the stack explicitly in this example. However, we encourage readers to draw the stack out themselves.

The first five instructions

The first five instructions of this function set the stack up for function execution and sets up temporary values for function execution:

0x400526 <+0>:   push   %rbp                 # save %rbp onto the stack
0x400527 <+1>:   mov    %rsp,%rbp            # update the value of %rbp (new frame)
0x40052a <+4>:   mov    %edi,-0x14(%rbp)     # copy n to %rbp-0x14
0x40052d <+7>:   mov    $0x0,-0x8(%rbp)      # copy 0 to %rbp-0x8 (total)
0x400534 <+14>:  mov    $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)      # copy 1 to %rbp-0x4 (i)

Recall that stack locations store temporary variables in a function. For simplicity we will refer to the location marked by %rbp-0x8 as total and %rbp - 0x4 as i. The input parameter to sumUp (n) is moved to stack location %rbp-0x14. Despite the placement of temporary variables on the stack, keep in mind that the stack pointer has not changed after the execution of the first instruction (i.e. push %rbp).

The heart of the loop

The next seven instructions in the sumUp() function represent the heart of the loop:

0x40053b <+21>:  jmp    0x400547 <sumUp+33>  # goto <sumUp+33>
0x40053d <+23>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax      # copy i to %eax
0x400540 <+26>:  add    %eax,-0x8(%rbp)      # add i to total (total += i)
0x400543 <+29>:  add    $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)      # add 1 to i (i += 1)
0x400547 <+33>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax      # copy i to %eax
0x40054a <+36>:  cmp    -0x14(%rbp),%eax     # compare i to n
0x40054d <+39>:  jle    0x40053d <sumUp+23>  # if (i <= n) goto <sumUp+23>
  • The first instruction is a direct jump to <sumUp+33>, which sets the instruction pointer (%rip) to address 0x400547.

  • The next instruction that executes is mov -0x4(%rbp),%eax, which places the value of i in register %eax. Register %rip is updated to 0x40054a.

  • The cmp instruction at <sumUp+36> compares i to n and sets the appropriate condition code registers. Register %rip is set to 0x40054d.

The jle instruction then executes. The instructions that execute next depend on whether or not the branch is taken.

Suppose the branch is taken (i.e. i <= n is true). Then the instruction pointer is set to 0x40053d and program execution jumps to <sumUp+23>. The following instructions then execute in sequence:

  • The mov instruction at <sumUp+23> copies i to register %eax

  • The add %eax,-0x8(%rbp) adds i to total (i.e. total += i).

  • The add instruction at <sumUp+29> then adds 1 to i (i.e. i += 1).

  • The mov instruction at <sumUp+33> copies the updated value of i to register %eax.

  • The cmp instruction then compares i to n and sets the appropriate condition code registers.

  • Next jle executes. If i is less than or equal to n, program execution once again jumps to <sumUp+23> and the loop (defined between <sumUp+23> and <sumUp+39>) repeats.

If the branch is not taken (i.e. i is not less than or equal to n), the following instructions execute:

0x40054f <+41>:  mov    -0x8(%rbp),%eax     # copy total to %eax
0x400552 <+44>:  pop    %rbp                # restore rbp
0x400553 <+45>:  retq                       # return (total)

These instructions copy total to register %eax, restores %rbp to its original value, and exits the function. Thus, the function returns total upon exit.

Table 1 shows the assembly and C goto form of the sumUp() function side by side:

Table 1. Translating sumUp() into goto C form.
Assembly Translated Goto Form
<sumUp>:
   <+0>:   push   %rbp
   <+1>:   mov    %rsp,%rbp
   <+4>:   mov    %edi,-0x14(%rbp)
   <+7>:   mov    $0x0,-0x8(%rbp)
   <+14>:  mov    $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)
   <+21>:  jmp    0x400547 <sumUp+33>
   <+23>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax
   <+26>:  add    %eax,-0x8(%rbp)
   <+29>:  add    $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)
   <+33>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax
   <+36>:  cmp    -0x14(%rbp),%eax
   <+39>:  jle    0x40053d <sumUp+23>
   <+41>:  mov    -0x8(%rbp),%eax
   <+44>:  pop    %rbp
   <+45>:  retq
int sumUp(int n) {
    int total = 0;
    int i = 1;
    goto start;
body:
    total += i;
    i += 1;
start:
    if (i <= n) {
        goto body;
    }
    return total;
}

This code is also equivalent to the following C code without goto statements:

int sumUp(int n) {
    int total = 0;
    int i = 1;
    while (i <= n) {
        total += i;
        i += 1;
    }
    return total;
}

For loops in assembly

The primary loop in the sumUp() function can also be written as a for loop:

int sumUp2(int n) {
    int total = 0;             //initialize total to 0
    int i;
    for (i = 1; i <= n; i++) { //loop initialize i to 1, increment i by 1 while i<=n
        total += i;            //updates total by i
    }
    return total;
}

It yields identical assembly code as our while loop example. We repeat the assembly code below and annotate each line with its English translation:

Dump of assembler code for function sumUp2:
0x400554 <+0>:   push   %rbp                   #save %rbp
0x400555 <+1>:   mov    %rsp,%rbp              #update %rpb (new stack frame)
0x400558 <+4>:   mov    %edi,-0x14(%rbp)       #copy %edi to %rbp-0x14 (n)
0x40055b <+7>:   movl   $0x0,-0x8(%rbp)        #copy 0 to %rbp-0x8 (total)
0x400562 <+14>:  movl   $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)        #copy 1 to %rbp-0x4 (i)
0x400569 <+21>:  jmp    0x400575 <sumUp2+33>   #goto <sumUp2+33>
0x40056b <+23>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax        #copy i to %eax [loop]
0x40056e <+26>:  add    %eax,-0x8(%rbp)        #add i to total (total+=i)
0x400571 <+29>:  addl   $0x1,-0x4(%rbp)        #add 1 to i (i++)
0x400575 <+33>:  mov    -0x4(%rbp),%eax        #copy i to %eax [start]
0x400578 <+36>:  cmp    -0x14(%rbp),%eax       #compare i with n
0x40057b <+39>:  jle    0x40056b <sumUp2+23>   #if (i <= n) goto loop
0x40057d <+41>:  mov    -0x8(%rbp),%eax        #copy total to %eax
0x400580 <+44>:  pop    %rbp                   #prepare to leave the function
0x400581 <+45>:  retq                          #return total

To understand why the for loop version of this code results in identical assembly to the while loop version of the code, recall that the for loop has the following representation:

for ( <initialization>; <boolean expression>; <step> ){
    <body>
}

And that it is equivalent to the following while loop representation:

<initialization>
while (<boolean expression>) {
    <body>
    <step>
}

Since every for loop can be represented by a while loop, the following two C programs are equivalent representations for the above assembly:

Table 2. Equivalent ways to write the sumUp function.
For loop While loop
int sumUp2(int n) {
    int total = 0;
    int i = 1;
    for (i; i <= n; i++) {
        total += i;
    }
    return total;
}
int sumUp(int n){
    int total = 0;
    int i = 1;
    while (i <= n) {
        total += i;
        i += 1;
    }
    return total;
}