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Stack Memory

Stack Memory is part of the main memory reserved for the temporary storage of data (transient data), mainly used in function call, interrupt/exception handling. The ARM Cortex-M processor uses a full descending stack model. The processor also implements two stacks, the main stack and the process stack, with a pointer for each held in independent registers

Last update: 2022-06-04


STM32-Tutorials F411RE_Stack.zip

Stack#

Stack Memory is part of the main memory reserved for the temporary storage of data (transient data), mainly used in function call, interrupt/exception handling.

Stack Memory is accessed in Last In First Out LIFO manner. The stack can be accessed using PUSH, POP or memory instructions such as LDR, STR.

The stack is traced by the Stack Pointer (SP), and is used to save below information:

  • Temporary storage for processor register values
  • Temporary storage for local variables of functions
  • Save the context of the current executing code before moving to exception/ interrupt handing routine

Stack Memory models

Processor Stacks#

The ARM Cortex-M processor uses a full descending stack. This means the stack pointer indicates the last stacked item on the stack memory. When the processor pushes a new item onto the stack, it decrements the stack pointer and then writes the item to the new memory location. The processor implements two stacks, the main stack and the process stack, with independent copies of the stack pointer.


The Stack Pointer (SP) is register R13. In Thread mode, bit[1] of the CONTROL register indicates the stack pointer to use:

  • 0: Main Stack Pointer (MSP). This is the default after reset, used for all exception/ interrupt handler and also for code running in thread mode.
  • 1: Process Stack Pointer (PSP). This alternative stack is only can be used in thread mode. It is usually used for application task in embedded systems and OS

On reset, the processor loads the MSP with the value from address 0x00000000.

Processor mode Code execute Access level Stack used
Thread Applications Privileged or unprivileged Main stack or process stack
Handler Exception handlers Always privileged Main stack

Stack placement#

In ARM projects based on ARM CMSIS, the linker decides to place Stack at the end of RAM.

Let check the linker file STM32F411RETX_FLASH.ld:

/* Highest address of the user mode stack */
_estack = ORIGIN(RAM) + LENGTH(RAM); /* end of "RAM" Ram type memory */

_Min_Heap_Size = 0x200; /* required amount of heap */
_Min_Stack_Size = 0x400; /* required amount of stack */

/* Memories definition */
MEMORY
{
  RAM    (xrw)    : ORIGIN = 0x20000000,   LENGTH = 128K
  FLASH    (rx)    : ORIGIN = 0x8000000,   LENGTH = 512K
}

On reset, the processor loads the MSP with the value from address 0x00000000. At that initial address, the Interrupt Vector Table must be there.

The startup code in startup_stm32f411retx.s defines the isr_vector as below:

.section .isr_vector,"a",%progbits
  .type g_pfnVectors, %object
  .size g_pfnVectors, .-g_pfnVectors

g_pfnVectors:
  .word _estack
  .word Reset_Handler
  .word NMI_Handler
...

with the value of _estack at the 0x00000000 which is declared in the linker script:

/* Sections */
SECTIONS
{
  /* The startup code into "FLASH" Rom type memory */
  .isr_vector :
  {
    . = ALIGN(4);
    KEEP(*(.isr_vector)) /* Startup code */
    . = ALIGN(4);
  } >FLASH
...

Stack placement for Full Descending Stack

Prologue and Epilogue sequences#

In assembly language programming, the function prologue is a few lines of code at the beginning of a function, which prepare the stack and registers for use within the function. Similarly, the function epilogue appears at the end of the function, and restores the stack and registers to the state they were in before the function was called.

Prologue

A function prologue typically does the following actions if the architecture has a base pointer (also known as frame pointer) and a stack pointer:

  • Pushes current base pointer onto the stack, so it can be restored later.
  • Value of base pointer is set to the address of stack pointer (which is pointed to the top of the stack) so that the base pointer will point to the top of the stack.
  • Moves the stack pointer further by decreasing or increasing its value, depending on whether the stack grows down or up. On x86, the stack pointer is decreased to make room for the function’s local variables.

Example:

push    {r7}                            ; Save frame pointer 
sub     sp, #20             ; Reserve 20 bytes
add     r7, sp, #0          ; Set frame pointer to new stack pointer
str     r0, [r7, #12]       ; Save params on R0-R3 to stack
str     r1, [r7, #8]
str     r2, [r7, #4]
str     r3, [r7, #0]

Epilogue

Function epilogue reverses the actions of the function prologue and returns control to the calling function. It typically does the following actions (this procedure may differ from one architecture to another):

  • Drop the stack pointer to the current base pointer, so room reserved in the prologue for local variables is freed.
  • Pops the base pointer off the stack, so it is restored to its value before the prologue.
  • Returns to the calling function, by popping the previous frame’s program counter off the stack and jumping to it.

Example:

adds    r7, #20             ; Return back to last stack pointer
mov     sp, r7              
ldr.w   r7, [sp], #4        ; Get last frame pointer
bx      lr                  ; Exit function by brach and execute saved instruction in LR

Example#

In this example, we will create 2 Stack Regions and assign them to MSP and PSP.


Step 0: Create a new project

You should create a bare-metal project which just has a few files including a linker and a main.


Step 1: Define Stack Start Address

The stack model is that Main Stack and Process Stack are a half of allocated stack space. By default, after reset, the processor uses the Main Stack, therefore, Main Stack is located at the start of Stack region.

Main Stack and Process Stack

In the linker script STM32F411RETX_FLASH.ld, define 2 new symbols _msp_stack and _psp_stack:

/* Highest address of the user mode stack */
_estack = ORIGIN(RAM) + LENGTH(RAM); /* end of "RAM" Ram type memory */

_Min_Heap_Size = 0x200; /* required amount of heap */
_Min_Stack_Size = 0x400; /* required amount of stack */

_msp_stack = _estack;
_psp_stack = _estack - _Min_Stack_Size / 2;

Step 2: Demo program to change Stack to PSP

int add(int a, int b, int c, int d) {
  return a+b+c+d;
}

void SVC_Handler() {
  // this function call uses MSP
  int sum = add(5,6,7,8);
}

__attribute__((naked)) void changeStackToPSP(void) {
  // change PSP
  __asm volatile("LDR R0, =_psp_stack");
  __asm volatile("MSR PSP, R0");

  // set SPSEL bit
  __asm volatile("MRS R1, CONTROL");
  __asm volatile("ORR R1, R1, #2");
  __asm volatile("MSR CONTROL, R1");

  // return
  __asm volatile("BX LR");
}

void callSVC() {
  __asm volatile("SVC #0");
}

int main(void)
{
  changeStackToPSP();
  // this function call uses PSP
  int sum = add(1,2,3,4);

  // trigger SVC will force to use MSP
  callSVC();

  /* Loop forever */
    for(;;);
}

Step 4: At reset

You have to place a breakpoint right at the Reset_Handler function which is the first instruction loaded into PC.

Right after CPU reset:

  • The MSP register is loaded from the address 0x00000000 in System Memory (alias to 0x08000000 in Flash) which has _estack value.
  • The PC register then is loaded with the value at the address 0x00000004 which is the address of Reset_Handler (added 1 to set the Thumb bit).

_estack and Reset_Handler are loaded to MSP and PC at reset


Step 5: Application changes to use PSP

To change to PSP stack, we have to write a special function that set a new value to PSP regsiter, and set a bit in CONTROL register.

__attribute__((naked)) is used to tell compiler that this function is embedded assembly function and compiler does not generate prologue and epilogue sequences for it. The compiler only supports basic __asm statements in __attribute__((naked)) functions.

Note that:

  • The _psp_stack symbol is defined in the linker script.
  • Manually return from a naked function (no epilogue) using assembly instruction BX LR
__attribute__((naked)) void changeStackToPSP(void) {
  // change PSP
  __asm volatile("LDR R0, =_psp_stack");
  __asm volatile("MSR PSP, R0");

  // set SPSEL bit
  __asm volatile("MRS R1, CONTROL");
  __asm volatile("ORR R1, R1, #2");
  __asm volatile("MSR CONTROL, R1");

  // return
  __asm volatile("BX LR");
}

Change to Process Stack

Application is using PSP


Step 6: Exception Handler uses MSP

When CPU sees an SVC call, it automatically changes to MSP Stack by setting SP to MSP.

MSP is used in Exception Handler

During an exception/ interrupt handler, MSP is used.

Exception is using MSP

If we do not clear the SPSEL in the CONTROL register, the SP register will be switch back to PSP after returning from the exception/ interrupt handler.

Procedure Call Standard for Arm Architecture (AAPCS)#

A Procedure Call Standard or Calling Convention defines how different compilation units, even when compiled by different compilers, can work together. It defines how parameters are passed from one function to another, which registers and other program states must be preserved by caller a callee and what might be altered by the callee. The procedure call standard is one in a set of standards, which define the application binary interface (ABI) a compilation unit has to respect.

Parameters and Arguments
  • A parameter is a variable name and type, which is part of the declaration of the function
  • An argument, on the other side, is the actual value passed into a function
Caller-saved and Callee-saved registers
  • The general-purpose registers R0-R3 are used to pass arguments to a function and also return values. They are not needed to be preserved by the callee, they are caller-saved.
  • The registers R4-R8, R10 and R11 are used to hold local variables within a function. A caller can expect them to be unchanged, when the called function returns: They are callee-saved.
Passing arguments

The arguments are bound to registers, which is used to pass the argument to the function. When all caller-saved registers (R0 to R3) are bound to arguments, the stack is used to pass all arguments left:

int add(int a, int b, int c, int d, int e) {
    return a+b+c+d+e;
}

int main() {
    int sum = add(1,2,3,4,5);
}
xxxxxxx<main>:
 8000266:   2305        movs    r3, #5          ; 
 8000268:   9300        str     r3, [sp, #0]    ; save arg 5 to stack
 800026a:   2304        movs    r3, #4          ; save arg 4 to R3
 800026c:   2203        movs    r2, #3          ; save arg 3 to R2
 800026e:   2102        movs    r1, #2          ; save arg 2 to R1
 8000270:   2001        movs    r0, #1          ; save arg 1 to R0
 8000272:   f7ff ffb1   bl  80001d8 <add>       ; call to function
...
080001d8 <add>:
 80001d8:   b480        push    {r7}            ; save frame pointer
 80001da:   b085        sub sp, #20             ; reserve 20 bytes on stack
 80001dc:   af00        add r7, sp, #0          ; set new frame pointer
 80001de:   60f8        str r0, [r7, #12]       ; save arg 1 to stack
 80001e0:   60b9        str r1, [r7, #8]        ; save arg 2 to stack
 80001e2:   607a        str r2, [r7, #4]        ; save arg 3 to stack
 80001e4:   603b        str r3, [r7, #0]        ; save arg 4 to stack
 80001e6:   68fa        ldr r2, [r7, #12]       ; get arg 1 from stack
 80001e8:   68bb        ldr r3, [r7, #8]        ; get arg 2 from stack
 80001ea:   441a        add r2, r3              ; sum += arg 1 + arg 2
 80001ec:   687b        ldr r3, [r7, #4]        ; get arg 3 from stack
 80001ee:   441a        add r2, r3              ; sum += arg 3
 80001f0:   683b        ldr r3, [r7, #0]        ; get arg 4 from stack
 80001f2:   441a        add r2, r3              ; sum += arg 4
 80001f4:   69bb        ldr r3, [r7, #24]       ; get arg 5 from stack
 80001f6:   4413        add r3, r2              ; sum += arg 5
 80001f8:   4618        mov r0, r3              ; save sum to r0 as return value
 80001fa:   3714        adds    r7, #20         ; restore frame pointer
 80001fc:   46bd        mov sp, r7              ; restore stack pointer
 80001fe:   f85d 7b04   ldr.w   r7, [sp], #4    ; get saved frame pointer, pop back stack pointer
 8000202:   4770        bx  lr                  ; return
...

Arguments on stack during function call

Context Saving on Stack#

When application is running, if there is any exception/ interrupt raised, the processor will do a special procedure called “Context Saving”.

Context saving allows the current executing application flow is saved and then restored because all registers would have the same values as when the interrupt started.

This context saving also be used to switch tasks which is used in OS.

Automatic context saving on stack

When the processor takes an exception, unless the exception is a tail-chained or a late-arriving exception, the processor pushes information onto the current stack. This operation is referred as stacking and the structure of eight data words is referred as stack frame.

When using floating-point routines, the Cortex-M4 processor automatically stacks the architected floating-point state on exception entry.

Stack frame layout with Floating-point Unit or without it

The stack frame includes the return address. This is the address of the next instruction in the interrupted program. This value is restored to the PC at exception return so that the interrupted program resumes.

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