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9.3.7 Unwinding

The ABI for the ARM Architecture specifies a standard format for exception unwind information. This information is used when an exception is thrown to determine where control should be transferred. In particular, the unwind information is used to determine which function called the function that threw the exception, and which function called that one, and so forth. This information is also used to restore the values of callee-saved registers in the function catching the exception.

If you are writing functions in assembly code, and those functions call other functions that throw exceptions, you must use assembly pseudo ops to ensure that appropriate exception unwind information is generated. Otherwise, if one of the functions called by your assembly code throws an exception, the run-time library will be unable to unwind the stack through your assembly code and your program will not behave correctly.

To illustrate the use of these pseudo ops, we will examine the code that G++ generates for the following C++ input:

void callee (int *);

caller () 
  int i;
  callee (&i);
  return i; 

This example does not show how to throw or catch an exception from assembly code. That is a much more complex operation and should always be done in a high-level language, such as C++, that directly supports exceptions.

The code generated by one particular version of G++ when compiling the example above is:

	@ Function supports interworking.
	@ args = 0, pretend = 0, frame = 8
	@ frame_needed = 1, uses_anonymous_args = 0
	stmfd	sp!, {fp, lr}
	.save {fp, lr}
	.setfp fp, sp, #4
	add	fp, sp, #4
	.pad #8
	sub	sp, sp, #8
	sub	r3, fp, #8
	mov	r0, r3
	bl	_Z6calleePi
	ldr	r3, [fp, #-8]
	mov	r0, r3
	sub	sp, fp, #4
	ldmfd	sp!, {fp, lr}
	bx	lr

Of course, the sequence of instructions varies based on the options you pass to GCC and on the version of GCC in use. The exact instructions are not important since we are focusing on the pseudo ops that are used to generate unwind information.

An important assumption made by the unwinder is that the stack frame does not change during the body of the function. In particular, since we assume that the assembly code does not itself throw an exception, the only point where an exception can be thrown is from a call, such as the bl instruction above. At each call site, the same saved registers (including lr, which indicates the return address) must be located in the same locations relative to the frame pointer.

The .fnstart (see .fnstart pseudo op) pseudo op appears immediately before the first instruction of the function while the .fnend (see .fnend pseudo op) pseudo op appears immediately after the last instruction of the function. These pseudo ops specify the range of the function.

Only the order of the other pseudos ops (e.g., .setfp or .pad) matters; their exact locations are irrelevant. In the example above, the compiler emits the pseudo ops with particular instructions. That makes it easier to understand the code, but it is not required for correctness. It would work just as well to emit all of the pseudo ops other than .fnend in the same order, but immediately after .fnstart.

The .save (see .save pseudo op) pseudo op indicates registers that have been saved to the stack so that they can be restored before the function returns. The argument to the .save pseudo op is a list of registers to save. If a register is “callee-saved” (as specified by the ABI) and is modified by the function you are writing, then your code must save the value before it is modified and restore the original value before the function returns. If an exception is thrown, the run-time library restores the values of these registers from their locations on the stack before returning control to the exception handler. (Of course, if an exception is not thrown, the function that contains the .save pseudo op restores these registers in the function epilogue, as is done with the ldmfd instruction above.)

You do not have to save callee-saved registers at the very beginning of the function and you do not need to use the .save pseudo op immediately following the point at which the registers are saved. However, if you modify a callee-saved register, you must save it on the stack before modifying it and before calling any functions which might throw an exception. And, you must use the .save pseudo op to indicate that you have done so.

The .pad (see .pad) pseudo op indicates a modification of the stack pointer that does not save any registers. The argument is the number of bytes (in decimal) that are subtracted from the stack pointer. (On ARM CPUs, the stack grows downwards, so subtracting from the stack pointer increases the size of the stack.)

The .setfp (see .setfp pseudo op) pseudo op indicates the register that contains the frame pointer. The first argument is the register that is set, which is typically fp. The second argument indicates the register from which the frame pointer takes its value. The third argument, if present, is the value (in decimal) added to the register specified by the second argument to compute the value of the frame pointer. You should not modify the frame pointer in the body of the function.

If you do not use a frame pointer, then you should not use the .setfp pseudo op. If you do not use a frame pointer, then you should avoid modifying the stack pointer outside of the function prologue. Otherwise, the run-time library will be unable to find saved registers when it is unwinding the stack.

The pseudo ops described above are sufficient for writing assembly code that calls functions which may throw exceptions. If you need to know more about the object-file format used to represent unwind information, you may consult the Exception Handling ABI for the ARM Architecture available from