In computer science, a calling convention is an implementation level (low level) scheme for how subroutines receive parameters from their caller and how they return a result. This is somewhat related to a particular programming language's evaluation strategy but most often not considered part of it (or vice versa) as the latter is considered part of the language rather than the compiler and largely defined on a higher abstraction level.
Calling conventions can differ in:
- where parameters and return values are placed (in registers, on the call stack, a mix of both, or in other memory structures)
- the order in which actual arguments for formal parameters are passed (or the parts of a large or complex argument)
- how a (possibly long or complex) return value is delivered from the callee back to the caller (on the stack, in a register, or within the heap)
- how the task of setting up for and cleaning up after a function call is divided between the caller and the callee
In some cases, differences also include the following:
- conventions on which registers may be directly used by the callee, without being preserved (otherwise regarded as an ABI detail)
- which registers are considered to be volatile and, if volatile, need not be restored by the callee (often regarded as an ABI detail)
Although some languages actually specify (parts of) this in the programming language specification (or in some pivotal implementation), different implementations of such languages (i.e. different compilers) may typically still use various calling conventions, often selectable. One reason for this is performance, another is a frequent adaption to other popular languages conventions (with or without technical reason), and a third is that "platforms" (CPU architecture + operating system combinations) also may impose restrictions or conventions.
This must be considered when combining modules written in multiple languages, or when calling operating system or library APIs from a language other than the one in which they are written; in these cases, special care must be taken to coordinate the calling conventions used by caller and callee. Even a program using a single programming language may use multiple calling conventions, either chosen by the compiler, for code optimization, or specified by the programmer.
CPU architectures always have more than one possible calling convention. With many general-purpose registers and other features, the potential number of calling conventions is large, although some architectures are formally specified to use only one calling convention, supplied by the architect.
Calling conventions on different platforms
The x86 architecture is used with many different calling conventions. Due to the small number of architectural registers, the x86 calling conventions mostly pass arguments on the stack, while the return value (or a pointer to it) is passed in a register. Some conventions use registers for the first few parameters, which may improve performance for short and simple leaf-routines very frequently invoked (i.e. routines that do not call other routines and do not have to be reentrant).
push eAX ; pass some register result push byte[eBP+20] ; pass some memory variable (FASM/TASM syntax) push 3 ; pass some constant call calc ; the returned result is now in eAX
Typical callee structure: (some or all (except ret) of the instructions below may be optimized away in simple procedures)
calc: push eBP ; save old frame pointer mov eBP,eSP ; get new frame pointer sub eSP,localsize ; reserve place for locals . . ; perform calculations, leave result in eAX . mov eSP,eBP ; free space for locals pop eBP ; restore old frame pointer ret paramsize ; free parameter space and return
The PowerPC architecture has a large number of registers so most functions can pass all arguments in registers for single level calls. Additional arguments are passed on the stack, and space for register-based arguments is also always allocated on the stack as a convenience to the called function in case multi-level calls are used (recursive or otherwise) and the registers must be saved. This is also of use in variadic functions, such as
printf(), where the function's arguments need to be accessed as an array. A single calling convention is used for all procedural languages.
The most commonly used calling convention for 32 bit MIPS is the O32 ABI which passes the first four arguments to a function in the registers $a0-$a3; subsequent arguments are passed on the stack. Space on the stack is reserved for $a0-$a3 in case the callee needs to save its arguments, but the registers are not stored there by the caller. The return value is stored in register $v0; a second return value may be stored in $v1. The 64 bit ABI allows for more arguments in registers for more efficient function calls when there are more than four parameters. There is also the N32 ABI which also allows for more arguments in registers. The return address when a function is called is stored in the $ra register automatically by use of the JAL (jump and link) or JALR (jump and link register) instructions.
The N32 and N64 ABIs pass the first eight arguments to a function in the registers $a0-$a7; subsequent arguments are passed on the stack. The return value (or a pointer to it) is stored in the registers $v0; a second return value may be stored in $v1. In both the N32 and N64 ABIs all registers are considered to be 64-bits wide.
On both O32 and N32/N64 the stack grows downwards, however the N32/N64 ABIs require 64-bit alignment for all stack entries. The frame pointer ($30) is optional and in practice rarely used except when the stack allocation in a function is determined at runtime, for example, by calling alloca().
For N32 and N64, the return address is typically stored 8 bytes before the stack pointer although this may be optional.
For the N32 and N64 ABIs, a function must preserve the $S0-$s7 registers, the global pointer ($gp or $28), the stack pointer ($sp or $29) and the frame pointer ($30). The O32 ABI is the same except the calling function is required to save the $gp register instead of the called function.
For multi-threaded code, the thread local storage pointer is typically stored in special hardware register $29 and is accessed by using the mfhw (move from hardware) instruction. At least one vendor is known to store this information in the $k0 register which is normally reserved for kernel use, but this is not standard.
The $k0 and $k1 registers ($26–$27) are reserved for kernel use and should not be used by applications since these registers can be changed at any time by the kernel due to interrupts, context switches or other events.
The SPARC architecture, unlike most RISC architectures, is built on register windows. There are 24 accessible registers in each register window, 8 of them are the "in" registers, 8 are registers for local variables, and 8 are out registers. The in registers are used to pass arguments to the function being called, so any additional arguments need to be pushed onto the stack. However, space is always allocated by the called function to handle a potential register window overflow, local variables, and returning a struct by value. To call a function, one places the arguments for the function to be called in the out registers, when the function is called the out registers become the in registers and the called function accesses the arguments in its in registers. When the called function returns, it places the return value in the first in register, which becomes the first out register when the called function returns.
The System V ABI, which most modern Unix-like systems follow, passes the first six arguments in "in" registers %i0 through %i5, reserving %i6 for the frame pointer and %i7 for the return address.
The standard ARM calling convention allocates the 16 ARM registers as:
- r15 is the program counter.
- r14 is the link register. (The BL instruction, used in a subroutine call, stores the return address in this register).
- r13 is the stack pointer. (The Push/Pop instructions in "Thumb" operating mode use this register only).
- r12 is the Intra-Procedure-call scratch register.
- r4 to r11: used to hold local variables.
- r0 to r3: used to hold argument values passed to a subroutine, and also hold results returned from a subroutine.
If the type of value returned is too large to fit in r0 to r3, or whose size cannot be determined statically at compile time, then the caller must allocate space for that value at run time, and pass a pointer to that space in r0.
Subroutines must preserve the contents of r4 to r11 and the stack pointer. (Perhaps by saving them to the stack in the function prologue, then using them as scratch space, then restoring them from the stack in the function epilogue). In particular, subroutines that call other subroutines *must* save the return address in the link register r14 to the stack before calling those other subroutines. However, such subroutines do not need to return that value to r14—they merely need to load that value into r15, the program counter, to return.
The ARM calling convention mandates using a full-descending stack.
This calling convention causes a "typical" ARM subroutine to
- In the prologue, push r4 to r11 to the stack, and push the return address in r14, to the stack. (This can be done with a single STM instruction).
- copy any passed arguments (in r0 to r3) to the local scratch registers (r4 to r11).
- allocate other local variables to the remaining local scratch registers (r4 to r11).
- do calculations and call other subroutines as necessary using BL, assuming r0 to r3, r12 and r14 will not be preserved.
- put the result in r0
- In the epilogue, pull r4 to r11 from the stack, and pulls the return address to the program counter r15. (This can be done with a single LDM instruction).
|Register||Windows CE 5.0||gcc||Renesas|
|R0||Return values. Temporary for expanding assembly pseudo-instructions. Implicit source/destination for 8/16-bit operations. Not preserved.||Return value, caller saves||Variables/temporary. Not guaranteed|
|R1..R3||Serves as temporary registers. Not preserved.||Caller saved scratch. Structure address (caller save, by default)||Variables/temporary. Not guaranteed|
|R4..R7||First four words of integer arguments. The argument build area provides space into which R4 through R7 holding arguments may spill. Not preserved.||Parameter passing, caller saves||Arguments. Not guaranteed.|
|R8..R13||Serves as permanent registers. Preserved.||Callee Saves||Variables/temporary. Guaranteed.|
|R14||Default frame pointer. (R8-R13 may also serve as frame pointer and leaf routines may use R1-R3 as frame pointer.) Preserved.||Frame Pointer, FP, callee saves||Variables/temporary. Guaranteed.|
|R15||Serves as stack pointer or as a permanent register. Preserved.||Stack Pointer, SP, callee saves||Stack pointer. Guaranteed.|
Threaded code places all the responsibility for setting up for and cleaning up after a function call on the called code. The calling code does nothing but list the subroutines to be called. This puts all the function setup and cleanup code in one place—the prolog and epilog of the function—rather than in the many places that function is called. This makes threaded code the most compact calling convention.
Threaded code passes all arguments on the stack. All return values are returned on the stack. This makes naive implementations slower than calling conventions that keep more values in registers. However, threaded code implementations that cache several of the top stack values in registers—in particular, the return address—are usually faster than subroutine calling conventions that always push and pop the return address to the stack.
- Sweetman, Dominic. See MIPS Run, 2nd edition. Morgan Kaufmann. ISBN 0-12088-421-6.
- MIPS32 Instruction Set Quick Reference
- "Procedure Call Standard for the ARM Architecture" 2008
|The Wikibook Embedded Systems has a page on the topic of: Mixed C and Assembly Programming|
|The Wikibook Reverse Engineering has a page on the topic of: Calling Conventions|
- S. C. Johnson, D. M. Ritchie, Computing Science Technical Report No. 102: The C Language Calling Sequence, Bell Laboratories, September, 1981
- Introduction to assembly on the PowerPC
- Mac OS X ABI Function Call Guide