After finally getting around to playing with 64-bit assembly recently, I wanted to share the knowledge since there does not seem to be many tutorials out there surprisingly. The available information is mostly scattered between AMD64 programming manuals, assembler documentation, code snippets on the Web, and system call tables or Linux source code. I figured that I would consolidate all of that information here to make things easier. If you just want to see the code, feel free to skip ahead.

I recommend reading through the three AMD programming manuals below located at the AMD Developer Guides & Manuals site if you’re serious about getting into this stuff:

  1. AMD64 Architecture Programmer’s Manual Volume 2: System Programming
  2. AMD64 Architecture Programmer’s Manual Volume 3: General Purpose and System Instructions
  3. AMD64 Architecture Programmer’s Manual Volume 1: Application Programming

These will provide you with a lot of in-depth information about the hardware architecture.

Documentation for NASM can be found here.

I also recommend Jeff Duntemann’s Assembly Language Step by Step book. You can find it on Amazon here.

Finally, Mr. Ryan A. Chapman’s x86_64 Linux System Call Table is a good reference.

Getting Started

Before making nifty assembly programs, you will need an assembler. An assembler is a program that assembles or translates your source code into machine code. We will use the Netwide Assembler (NASM) for this purpose. You can install nasm via apt-get or yum.

You will also need a text editor so you can write your code. Any editor will suffice so long as it saves files in plain text format without special formatting. In other words: do not use something like OpenOffice Writer. Use nano or vim instead. ;)

Why Learn Assembly?

I know what some of you are probably thinking… “Isn’t assembly too old to be useful, dude?” On the contrary, my friend. There are a number of reasons to learn assembly. I’ve listed some fine examples below.

  • Learn how things work on a low level (work with the CPU directly and manage stacks)
  • Analyze malware
  • Write efficient programs for embedded systems
  • Write boot loaders, operating system kernels, and device drivers
  • Reverse engineer software to patch it or re-create an application in a higher-level language
  • Write performant code for parts of a program that require speed
  • It’s fun!

Pretty compelling, huh? Not so fast though…

What Can’t You Do?

You must realize a few things about assembly before moving forward. Due to calling conventions and variances with system calls between operating systems, you cannot assemble the same program you wrote for a 64-bit Linux system and expect it to execute on a machine running Windows. FreeBSD and other operating systems actually have the same calling convention as Linux in long mode thankfully. However, it still can take a considerable amount of work to port a program due to the variation of syscalls.

This is even truer when it comes to other hardware architectures such as ARM, PPC, and SPARC which have their own registers and instruction sets. As a result, you cannot take your shiny new assembly program and run it on your Android phone since these devices do not make use of AMD64 or EM64T (Intel’s implementation of AMD64) processors.

If it is portability you crave, your princess is in another castle. Use a higher-level language such as C, Java, or Ruby. Another point to note is that most modern compilers do a darn good job of optimizing code. The optimization may be so good that it will render any assembly code your wetware could whip up as futile. So don’t try it, human.

Things to Consider

There are actually two dialects of the assembly language for the x86 processor. These are referred to as AT&T and Intel syntax. There are several popular assemblers. Aside from NASM, there’s also GNU’s GAS, Microsoft’s MASM, and Borland’s TASM to name a few. NASM uses the Intel vernacular as does MASM and TASM while GNU’s assembler initially used and primarily uses AT&T syntax. This is not surprising considering Linux’s history with Unix and AT&T. It is worth mentioning that GAS can optionally handle Intel syntax now.

Some of the differences between both dialects are in the table below.

Feature AT&T Intel
Required prefixes $ for immediate values and % for registers None
Operand order source, destination (similar to Linux/Unix commands)
mov $16, %rax
destination, source
mov rax, 16
Addressing memory () []

Do not worry if you fail to understand some of this stuff. We’ll touch on mov, rax, and friends shortly.


You can think of registers as little cubby holes within the CPU. If you’ve ever taken a course in college on C++, your professor may have provided a similar analogy for addressing memory. Unfortunately, there is nowhere near as many registers as there are memory addresses in modern computers. Although, AMD64 has increased the number of registers, so we’ll take what we can get. Registers provide the fastest form of access that a computer has. Let me go ahead and introduce you to the family.

Registers Size
AL, AH, BL, BH, CL, CH, DL, DH, R8B, R9B, R10B, R11B, R12B, R13B, R14B, R15B 8 bits or 1 byte
AX, BX, CX, DX, R8W, R9W, R10W, R11W, R12W, R13W, R14W, R15W, BP, SP, DI, SI, CS, DS, ES, FS, GS, SS, IP, FLAGS 16 bits or 2 bytes
EAX, EBX, ECX, EDX, R8D, R9D, R10D, R11D, R12D, R13D, R14D, R15D, EBP, ESP, EDI, ESI, EIP, EFLAGS 32 bits or 4 bytes
RAX, RBX, RCX, RDX, R8, R9, R10, R11, R12, R13, R14, R15, RBP, RSP, RDI, RSI, RIP, RFLAGS 64 bits or 8 bytes

That was a lot to digest. To simplify matters, the majority of the smaller registers above are actually just the same register trimmed down. For example, R8B, R8W, and R8D are just smaller portions of the 64-bit register R8. The actual registers that exist on an x86-64 CPU (excluding floating point/MMX/3DNow!/SSE/AVX) are: RAX, RBX, RCX, RDX, R8, R9, R10, R11, R12, R13, R14, R15, RBP, RSP, RDI, RSI, RIP, RFLAGS, CS, DS, ES, FS, GS, and SS. The segment registers (CS, DS, ES, FS, GS, and SS) were never extended beyond 16 bits and exist for mostly backward compatibility. Furthermore, the lower 8 bits of BP, SP, DI, and SI can be accessed with REX prefixing as BPL, SPL, DIL, and SIL. However, I won’t be covering that topic in this tutorial.

The ‘L’ and ‘H’ in AL and AH represent the “high” and “low” areas of register AX. AX, BX, CX, and DX all have these. When the x86-64 architecture was created, 8 more general purpose registers (GPRs) were added. They are R8-R15, respectively. These can also store more compact values by appending a ‘B’ for byte, ‘W’ for word, or ‘D’ for double (double word). There is also a name for a 64-bit value: the quadword. This means 16 (word length) * 4 (quad) = 64 bits.

There are rules and caveats to using these registers which I’ll discuss in a section below. Just try and remember RAX, RBX, RCX, RDX, R8-R15, RBP, RSP, RDI, and RSI. You’ll be using those the most. I am not going to cover the MMX/3DNow!, SSE, and AVX registers and their mnemonics since they are outside the scope of this tutorial (as if all the registers above were not enough!)

Instruction Set

Now that you are familiar with the registers, let’s move on to the AMD64 instruction set. Like the IA32 instruction set before it, the 64-bit instructions consist of mnemonics which correspond to opcodes or low-level instructions. These mnemonics enable us to use friendly symbols to call instructions opposed to referencing difficult-to-remember numeric IDs. I have created a table below containing some of the many instructions that we will be using for this tutorial. I am also including other common instructions to pique your interest in the hopes that you will play around with them on your own.

Instruction Description Example
ADD Adds two values and stores the result in the destination (first operand). The sum below will be ‘8’ and it will be stored in RAX. mov rax, 3
mov rbx, 5
add rax, rbx
CALL Performs an unconditional jump to a line of a code. This is not to be confused with JMP (which does not save the callee location) This instruction is paired with RET. call foo_label
DEC Decrements a value. We initially copy a value of ‘5’ into RAX below. The first DEC instruction causes the value in RAX to change to ‘4’. The last DEC instructions yields ‘3’. mov rax, 5
dec rax
dec rax
INC Increments a value. We initially copy a value of ‘1’ into RAX below. The first INC instruction results in a value of ‘2’. The last INC operation yields ‘3’. mov rax, 1
inc rax
inc rax
JMP Jumps to a location in the code unconditionally. jmp foo_label
JNZ, JS, JZ, and friends Conditional jumps that determine the state of various bits in RFLAGS. JNZ jumps if not zero, JZ jumps if zero, and JS jumps if signed for example. In this example, the jump to “foo_label” would occur since 1 - 1 = 0. The zero flag would be triggered in RFLAGS as a result of SUB. mov rax, 1
sub rax, 1
test rax, rax
jz foo_label
LEA Load effective address. This stores a memory location and is relevant to pointers from languages like C and C++. Remember that [] references a memory location in NASM. lea rax, [foo]
MOV Copies a value into a register. The following example causes RAX to contain ‘32’. mov rax, 32
POP Removes the top value from the stack. In the example below, ‘5’ is pushed onto the stack and then popped off and stored in RBX. mov rax, 5
push rax
pop rbx
PUSH Pushes a value onto the stack. ‘64’ is placed onto the stack after the following operation completes. mov rax, 64
push rax
RET Returns to the original location that called CALL. This is paired with CALL. call foo_label
mov r10, 1
mov rax, 1
SUB Subtract. It functions like ADD, only in reverse. The result is stored in the destination (first operand). The difference will be ‘4’ in the example below. mov rax, 8
mov rbx, 4
sub rax, rbx
SYSCALL Call a system procedure in long mode. This instruction replaces the int 0x80 instruction which interrupted the kernel in 32-bit Linux. mov rax, some_call
TEST Tests values and toggles bits in RFLAGS register appropriately. This instruction is frequently used with conditional jumps. In the example below, the value of RAX is tested. If the signed bit in RFLAGS is on, then jump to another location in the code. test rax, rax
js foo_label
XOR Perform an exclusive or. This is often useful for resetting a register to zero and is more efficient than MOV REG, 0. xor rax, rax

Hopefully that was not too much to absorb. There are a plethora of other instructions such as CMP, DIV/IDIV, and MUL/IMUL, but I would like to keep this tutorial limited.

Memory Models and Operating Modes

I would like to briefly touch on memory models and operating modes just so you are in the know. If you do not want the extra information, feel free to skip ahead as this is mostly historical in nature. There are several memory models that exist. These various models handle the way that memory is addressed. I am sure many of you remember in recent history when 32-bit operating systems were limited to around 4G of RAM. There was something called PAE or Physical Address Extension that enabled you to address >4G of memory. This is actually one model called the paged memory model.

There is also the similar segmented model where memory is referred to by a segment and offset. This allowed older x86 architectures like the 8086 to access larger areas of memory (>640K) much like how PAE increases memory accessibility. Using segment and offset is more tedious than simply using a single real address.

That brings us to the flat model. With this model, you simply refer to an address in its entirety. This is less of a hassle than dealing with memory segmentation. Fortunately, 64-bit Linux operates in long mode (which increases the address width for a ton of memory) and uses the flat addressing method. There is no need for memory segmentation (yet) with such a large address space. The masses are happy for now…

And finally, aside from long mode, there are the three legacy modes that x86-64 supports: protected, real, and virtual. Without going into too much detail, protected is the mode that 32-bit Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows ran in. Real mode is what DOS operated in and virtual is a mode that allowed real mode programs to execute in a protected environment.

Calling Convention

This section is important, so pay attention! If you are familiar with C, C++, Java, Ruby, and others, you will know that functions/methods take parameters in a certain order.

void do_something(int foo, float bar, char *baz)  
  /* ... */

We can see that do_something() takes 3 arguments. In order, they are an integer, a float, and a pointer to char. When programming in assembly for 64-bit Linux, you need to obey the same rules. Registers are designated to accept values in a specific order when making system calls. The calls you make look for certain data inside these aforementioned registers. If you fail to feed in the proper data, you may end up with unexpected inputs and/or outputs. Your program may also segfault.

Now don’t let this scare you off, but 64-bit Linux actually has two calling conventions. Thankfully, it’s easy to know when to use either. Whenever you are making system calls, you shove stuff into these registers in this particular order:

RAX = system_call_id
RDI = parameter #1
RSI = parameter #2
RDX = parameter #3
R10 = parameter #4
R8 = parameter #5
R9 = parameter #6

The return value almost always ends up in RAX. You do not have to worry about system calls accepting more than 6 parameters. Otherwise, use the following SysV ABI convention (which happens to be the same for FreeBSD, OS X, and Solaris on x64):

XMM0-7 (these are the SSE registers that accept floating-point values)

If you run out of registers to use for passing values to functions in this convention, then you will use the stack which we’ll cover soon. The two conventions are similar with the exception of the floating-point registers and RCX/R10 differ. Microsoft uses a different calling convention in x64 land (fun fact!)


Not to be confused with segmented memory model; segments are simply sections of code. The three you will commonly find throughout your assembly adventures are the BSS, data, and text segments. The BSS or Block Started by Symbol (also jokingly referred to as “Better Save Space”) section is an area where you specify uninitialized variables. For example, I could allocate space for a struct whose members could be filled by a callee as we will see in part II of this tutorial.

Next comes the data segment. This is the area where you define initialized data. One fine example could be a string constant such as a program name and version. Last but not least, is the text segment. This section usually makes up the bulk of the code and is where you perform instructions.

The Stack

The stack is simply a construct in memory that can hold data for us. It is common for this data structure to be likened to a stack of spring-loaded plates at a buffet. Let’s say there are no plates at first. We have an empty stack. An employee comes along and begins adding plates to the stack. This is just like what the PUSH instruction would be doing. You PUSH a value onto the stack. As the employee adds more plates, the first plate that was added gets buried deeper and deeper. The same occurs as you PUSH more data onto the stack. Now, some hungry fellow comes along and removes a plate. You guessed it… POP! You can either opt to keep or throw away upper data in the stack to get at your first “plate”.

Stack management is important. Many programming languages make use of a stack to hold variables local to a function. It is also a common source for trouble such as stack smashing attacks/buffer overflows. You can store whatever you’d like in it. The stack is also used when you perform the CALL instruction. The return address is pushed onto the stack and then popped off when you use RET. This happens automagically.

Let’s illustrate to help solidify your understanding:

mov rax, 128
push rax     ; the stack now has '128' on it
mov rax, 256
push rax     ; now the stack has '256' at the top and '128' buried under that
pop rax      ; '256' was removed off the stack and placed into RAX
pop rax      ; RAX now contains '128' and '256' is gone forever!

It’s not so bad, eh?

File Formats

This is merely a morsel about file formats. There are a fair amount of them in existence. a.out (old Unix), COFF (Windows PE), ELF (FreeBSD, HP-UX, Linux, and Solaris), and Mach-O (OS X) are prominent formats. We will be using ELF64 for the programs we create. This can be done with NASM using the -f (format) option: nasm -f elf64 -o <output_object_file>.o <input_source_file>.asm

Linking is also required to make the executable. We can use ld for that. The syntax is: ld -o <executable_name> <object_file>.o

Our First Program

This is the moment you have been waiting for. Look no further. Our first 64-bit assembly program for Linux is below.

[BITS 64]

section .bss
  ; nada

section .data
  prompt:          db 'What is your name? '
  prompt_length:   equ $-prompt
  name:            times 30 db 0
  name_length:     equ $-name
  greeting:        db 'Greetings, '
  greeting_length: equ $-greeting

section .text
global _start
  ; Prompt the user for their name
  mov rax, 1                ; '1' is the ID for the sys_write call
  mov rdi, 1                ; '1' is the file descriptor for stdout and our first argument
  mov rsi, prompt           ; prompt string is the second argument
  mov rdx, prompt_length    ; prompt string length is the third argument
  syscall                   ; make the call with all arguments passed

  ; Get the user's name
  mov rax, 0                ; 0 = sys_read
  mov rdi, 0                ; 0 = stdin
  mov rsi, name
  mov rdx, name_length
  push rax                  ; store return value (size of name) on the stack... we'll need this for later

  ; Print our greeting string
  mov rax, 1                ; 1 = sys_write
  mov rdi, 1                ; 1 = stdout
  mov rsi, greeting
  mov rdx, greeting_length

  ; Print the user's name
  mov rax, 1                ; 1 = sys_write
  mov rdi, 1                ; 1 = stdout
  mov rsi, name
  pop rdx                   ; length previously returned by sys_read and stored on the stack

  ; Exit the program normally
  mov rax, 60               ; 60 = sys_exit
  xor rdi, rdi              ; return code 0

All those lines to do something trivial makes you appreciate writing in higher-level languages, doesn’t it? ;)

Anyway, let’s assemble and link this bad boy…

ldilley@develop:~/asm$ nasm -f elf64 -o greet.o greet.asm
ldilley@develop:~/asm$ ld -o greet greet.o
ldilley@develop:~/asm$ ./greet
What is your name? Lloyd
Greetings, Lloyd

Try it yourself!

Breaking it Down

You should understand the segments, instructions, registers, calling convention, and stack. The comments should also help, but let’s discuss the stuff you haven’t seen yet…

[BITS 64] at the top of our source code specifies the target processor mode. Per the NASM documentation, you do not always need this, but it certainly helps document the type of code you are writing. A semicolon allows for a single-line comment. The assembler will ignore any text that comes after it. The “section” keyword denotes the segment. Segments begin with a period in NASM. We have .bss, .data, and .text segments in our code. Variables and constants are defined by labels. The syntax for a label should be a meaningful name followed by a colon. Labels are also used as jump points. You can JMP and CALL to them.

db” stands for “data byte”. There is also dw (data word), dd (data double(word)), dq (data quad(word)). This specifies the storage requirements of the data. In the BSS segment, there are similar keywords to reserve data of the same types. Those keywords are: resb (reserve byte), resw (reserve word), resd (reserve double(word)), and resq (reserve quad(word)).

equ $-” is a slick way to calculate the length of a string. “times 30 db 0” sets aside 30 bytes of storage space for a string and zeroes it out. A word of caution: input length is not checked. A string over 30 bytes will be interpreted by the shell. To remedy this bug, you can either increase the buffer size (change 30 to 255 bytes for example) or sanitize the string/flush anything beyond the length. I am not including that functionality since it would increase code complexity for the reader. If you really want to prevent spillage, see Gunner’s NASM I/O Tutorial. The code is in 32-bit mode, but can be easily adapted by replacing the interrupt instruction with SYSCALL and modifying the registers to meet the 64-bit Linux calling convention.

Finally, “global _start” with a label of “_start:” signifies the main entry point of the program much like main() for C, C++, and Java.

Where Do I Go from Here?

I highly recommend using Ryan Chapman’s x86_64 Linux System Call Table to play around with various system calls. Practice loading the appropriate registers with the proper data. Be aware of what the system calls are doing however. You do not want to inadvertently overwrite or remove files. I also recommend using the various instructions to see how they can affect data stored within registers. Try incrementing and decrementing values, perform some jumps, and push/pop some stuff onto/off the stack. Feel free to use my code as a starting point or the template below.

[BITS 64]

section .bss

section .data

section .text
global _start
  ; Your code here

  ; Exit the program normally
  mov rax, 60      ; 60 = sys_exit
  xor rdi, rdi     ; return code 0

I will also be releasing part II of this tutorial in a week or two. I will discuss endianness, demonstrate analogous C code, and we will create a 64-bit assembly program for Linux that listens on a TCP port and accepts network connections. How cool is that?

I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and that it has helped you in some way. Feel free to link to it. If you have any questions or suggestions, do not hesitate to comment.

Copyright © 2014 Lloyd Dilley (originally written on 4/12/2014) under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License v1.3