8.7. Arrays

Recall that arrays are ordered collections of data elements of the same type that are contiguously stored in memory. Statically allocated single-dimension arrays have the form Type arr[N], where Type is the data type, arr is the identifier associated with the array, and N is the number of data elements. Declaring an array statically as Type arr[N] or dynamically as arr = malloc(N*sizeof(Type)) allocates N x sizeof(Type) total bytes of memory, with arr pointing to it.

To access the element at index i in array arr, use the syntax arr[i]. Compilers commonly convert array references into pointer arithmetic prior to translating to assembly. So, arr+i is equivalent to &arr[i], and *(arr+i) is equivalent to arr[i]. Since each data element in arr is of type Type, arr+i implies that element i is stored at address arr + sizeof(Type) * i.

Table 1 outlines some common array operations and their corresponding assembly instructions. Assume that register %edx stores the address of arr, register %ecx stores the value i, and register %eax represents some variable x.

Table 1. Common Array Operations and Their Corresponding Assembly Representations
Operation Type Assembly Representation

x = arr

int *

movl %edx, %eax

x = arr[0]


movl (%edx), %eax

x = arr[i]


movl (%edx, %ecx,4), %eax

x = &arr[3]

int *

leal 0xc(%edx), %eax

x = arr+3

int *

leal 0xc(%edx), %eax

x = *(arr+3)


movl 0xc(%edx), %eax

Pay close attention to the type of each expression in [ArrayOps]. In general, the compiler uses movl instructions to dereference pointers and the leal instruction to compute addresses.

Notice that to access element arr[3] (or *(arr+3) using pointer arithmetic), the compiler performs a memory lookup on address arr+3*4 instead of arr+3. To understand why this is necessary, recall that any element at index i in an array is stored at address arr + sizeof(Type) * i. The compiler must therefore multiply the index by the size of the data type to compute the correct offset. Recall also that memory is byte-addressable; offsetting by the correct number of bytes is the same as computing an address.

As an example, consider a sample array (array) with five integer elements (Figure 1):

Each integer in the array requires four bytes.
Figure 1. The layout of a five-integer array in memory. Each xi-labeled box represents one byte, each int is four bytes.

Notice that since array is an array of integers, each element takes up exactly four bytes. Thus, an integer array with five elements consumes 20 bytes of contiguous memory.

To compute the address of element 3, the compiler multiplies the index 3 by the data size of the integer type (4) to yield an offset of 12. Sure enough, element 3 in [FigArray6] is located at byte offset x12.

Let’s take a look at a simple C function called sumArray that sums up all the elements in an array:

int sumArray(int *array, int length) {
    int i, total = 0;
    for (i = 0; i < length; i++) {
        total += array[i];
    return total;

The sumArray function takes the address of an array and the array’s associated length and sums up all the elements in the array. Now take a look at the corresponding assembly for the sumArray function:

 <+0>:  push %ebp                    # save ebp
 <+1>:  mov  %esp,%ebp               # update ebp (new stack frame)
 <+3>:  sub  $0x10,%esp              # add 16 bytes to stack frame
 <+6>:  movl $0x0,-0x8(%ebp)         # copy 0 to %ebp-8 (total)
 <+13>: movl $0x0,-0x4(%ebp)         # copy 0 to %ebp-4 (i)
 <+20>: jmp  0x80484ab <sumArray+46> # goto <sumArray+46> (start)
 <+22>: mov  -0x4(%ebp),%eax         # copy i to %eax
 <+25>: lea  0x0(,%eax,4),%edx       # copy i*4 to %edx
 <+32>: mov  0x8(%ebp),%eax          # copy array to %eax
 <+35>: add  %edx,%eax               # copy array+i*4 to %eax
 <+37>: mov  (%eax),%eax             # copy *(array+i*4) to %eax
 <+39>: add  %eax,-0x8(%ebp)         # add *(array+i*4) to total
 <+42>: addl $0x1,-0x4(%ebp)         # add 1 to i
 <+46>: mov  -0x4(%ebp),%eax         # copy i to %eax
 <+49>: cmp  0xc(%ebp),%eax          # compare i with length
 <+52>: jl   0x8048493 <sumArray+22> # if i<length goto <sumArray+22> (loop)
 <+54>: mov  -0x8(%ebp),%eax         # copy total to eax
 <+57>: leave                        # prepare to leave the function
 <+58>: ret                          # return total

When tracing this assembly code, consider whether the data being accessed represents an address or a value. For example, the instruction at <sumArray+13> results in %ebp-4 containing a variable of type int, which is initially set to 0. In contrast, the argument stored at %ebp+8 is the first argument to the function (array) which is of type int * and corresponds to the base address of the array. A different variable (which we call total) is stored at location %ebp-8.

Let’s take a closer look at the five instructions between locations <sumArray+22> and <sumArray+39>:

<+22>: mov  -0x4(%ebp),%eax      # copy i to %eax
<+25>: lea  0x0(,%eax,4),%edx    # copy i*4 to %edx
<+32>: mov  0x8(%ebp),%eax       # copy array to %eax
<+35>: add  %edx,%eax            # copy array+i*4 to %eax
<+37>: mov  (%eax),%eax          # copy *(array+i*4) to %eax
<+39>: add  %eax,-0x8(%ebp)      # add *(array+i*4) to total (total+=array[i])

Recall that the compiler commonly uses lea to perform simple arithmetic on operands. The operand 0x0(,%eax,4) translates to %eax*4 + 0x0. Since %eax holds the value i, this operation copies the value i*4 to %edx. At this point, %edx contains the number of bytes that must be added to calculate the correct offset of array[i].

The next instruction (mov 0x8(%ebp), %eax) copies the first argument (the base address of array) into %eax. Adding %edx to %eax in the next instruction causes %eax to contain array+i*4. Recall that the element at index i in array is stored at address array + sizeof(T) * i. Therefore, %eax now contains the assembly-level computation of the address &array[i].

The instruction at <sumArray+37> dereferences the value located at %eax, placing the value array[i] into %eax. Lastly, %eax is added to the value in %ebp-8, or total. Therefore, the five instructions between locations <sumArray+22> and <sumArray+39> correspond to the line total += array[i] in the sumArray function.