'Hello World!' in ARM assembly



Categories: Android NDK Tags: Android ARM Assembly NDK

Over the last few weeks, in an effort to port a small C library to the platform, I’ve been doing a fair bit of tinkering around with the Android NDK. The NDK is primarily intended to allow Android developers to write performance-critical portions of their apps in native C or C++, which interface with the Android Java API through JNI. As the C library in question required porting some x86 SIMD assembly, I figured it would be helpful for me to get to know the bare bones of the ARM architecture. As a means to this end, we can use the NDK’s cross-compiler as a standalone tool to write a simple ‘Hello World!’ console “app” in ARM assembly. As Android is effectively Linux under the hood, we can apply our x86 Linux assembly programming skills to the ARM platform.

First things first: ‘Hello World!’ in x86 assembly

Briefly, the method involves invoking system calls by talking directly to the underlying Linux kernel. An example of how to do this in x86 assembly is given here. As ARM uses a different ABI to x86 (registers are named different things, for a start), this code needs a tiny bit of modification.

Firstly, notice that system calls are identified numerically – in the x86 example, #1 refers to exit() and #4 refers to write(). To invoke a system call, we put its identifier in the EAX register, pass (up to 6) arguments in EBX, ECX, EDX, ESI, EDI, EBP, respectively, and interrupt 0x80 is generated. This is described in further detail here. In contrast, the ARM ‘EABI’ calling convention uses a different method which is described vaguely in these patch notes. We can glean that, on ARM, the system call identifier is put in register R7, arguments are passed in R0-R6 (respecting “EABI arrangement” where appropriate, i.e. 64-bit arguments), and the kernel is called with the ‘SWI 0’ instruction.

Secondly, as they are not guaranteed to be the same on each platform, we must look up the system call identifiers for exit() and write(). For this we refer to the Linux kernel source – $LINUX_SOURCE_ROOT/arch/arm/include/asm/unistd.h, specifically. As it turns out, these two system calls do have the same identifiers on both x86 and ARM platforms.


Our ARM assembly code, in GAS syntax, looks very much like (see inline comments for details):


    .ascii      "Hello, ARM!\n"
len = . - msg


.globl _start
    /* syscall write(int fd, const void *buf, size_t count) */
    mov     %r0, $1     /* fd -> stdout */
    ldr     %r1, =msg   /* buf -> msg */
    ldr     %r2, =len   /* count -> len(msg) */
    mov     %r7, $4     /* write is syscall #4 */
    swi     $0          /* invoke syscall */

    /* syscall exit(int status) */
    mov     %r0, $0     /* status -> 0 */
    mov     %r7, $1     /* exit is syscall #1 */
    swi     $0          /* invoke syscall */


Save the above as hello.S and run it through the GNU cross-assembler provided with the NDK. I will assume that you have the prebuilt NDK toolchain directory in your PATH (in my case here, /Users/peterdn/android-ndk/toolchains/arm-linux-androideabi-4.4.3/prebuilt/darwin-x86/bin):

arm-linux-androideabi-as -o hello.o hello.S
arm-linux-androideabi-ld -s -o hello hello.o

Deploying to Android

For many, the easiest way to test the above binary is by deploying it to an Android device with an ARM processor. This also means we can take advantage of the insanely useful ‘adb’ tool. If you happen to be running vanilla Linux on an ARM device, the binary should still run, providing your kernel supports the newer EABI (I believe 2.6.15 and above).

To deploy and test on Android, simply run:

adb push hello /data/local/tmp/hello
adb shell /data/local/tmp/hello

It is also possible to run the binary locally on your device using the Android Terminal Emulator, as below: