The Art of
ASSEMBLY LANGUAGE PROGRAMMING

Chapter Eight (Part 2)

Table of Content

Chapter Eight (Part 4)

CHAPTER EIGHT:
MASM: DIRECTIVES & PSEUDO-OPCODES (Part 3)
8.8.4 - The CLASS Type
8.8.5 - The Read-only Operand
8.8.6 - The USE16 USE32 and FLAT Options
8.8.7 - Typical Segment Definitions
8.8.8 - Why You Would Want to Control the Loading Order
8.8.9 - Segment Prefixes
8.8.10 - Controlling Segments with the ASSUME Directive
8.8.11 - Combining Segments: The GROUP Directive
8.8.12 - Why Even Bother With Segments?

8.8.4 The CLASS Type

The final operand to the segment directive is usually the class type. The class type specifies the ordering of segments that do not have the same segment name. This operand consists of a symbol enclosed by apostrophes (quotation marks are not allowed here). Generally you should use the following names: CODE (for segments containing program code); DATA (for segments containing variables constant data and tables); CONST (for segments containing constant data and tables); and STACK (for a stack segment). The following program section illustrates their use:

CSEG            segment public 'CODE'
mov     ax
bx
ret
CSEG            ends

DSEG            segment public 'DATA'
Item1           byte    0
Item2           word    0
DSEG            ends

CSEG            segment public 'CODE'
mov     ax
10
add     AX
Item1
ret
CSEG            ends

SSEG            segment stack 'STACK'
STK             word    4000 dup (?)
SSEG            ends

C2SEG           segment public 'CODE'
ret
C2SEG           ends
end

The actual loading procedure is accomplished as follows. The assembler locates the first segment in the file. Since it's a public combined segment MASM concatenates all other CSEG segments to the end of this segment. Finally since its combine class is 'CODE' MASM appends all segments (C2SEG) with the same class afterwards. After processing these segments MASM scans the source file for the next uncombined segment and repeats the process. In the example above the segments will be loaded in the following order: CSEG CSEG (2nd occurrence) C2SEG DSEG and then SSEG. The general rule concerning how your files will be loaded into memory is the following:

8.8.5 The Read-only Operand

If readonly is the first operand of the segment directive the assembler will generate an error if it encounters any instruction that attempts to write to this segment. This is most useful for code segments though is it possible to imagine a read-only data segment. This option does not actually prevent you from writing to this segment at run-time. It is very easy to trick the assembler and write to this segment anyway. However by specifying readonly you can catch some common programming errors you would otherwise miss. Since you will rarely place writable variables in your code segments it's probably a good idea to make your code segments readonly.

Example of READONLY operand:

seg1            segment readonly para public 'DATA'
.
.
.
seg1            ends
8.8.6 The USE16
USE32
and FLAT Options

When working with an 80386 or later processor MASM generates different code for 16 versus 32 bit segments. When writing code to execute in real mode under DOS you must always use 16 bit segments. Thirty-two bit segments are only applicable to programs running in protected mode. Unfortunately MASM often defaults to 32 bit mode whenever you select an 80386 or later processor using a directive like .386 .486 or .586 in your program. If you want to use 32 bit instructions you will have to explicitly tell MASM to use 16 bit segments. The use16 use32 and flat operands to the segment directive let you specify the segment size.

For most DOS programs you will always want to use the use16 operand. This tells MASM that the segment is a 16 bit segment and it assembles the code accordingly. If you use one of the directives to activate the 80386 or later instruction sets you should put use16 in all your code segments or MASM will generate bad code.

Example of use16 operand:

seg1            segment para public use16 'data'
.
.
.
seg1            ends

The use32 and flat operands tell MASM to generate code for a 32 bit segment. Since this text does not deal with protected mode programming we will not consider these options. See the MASM Programmer's Guide for more details.

If you want to force use16 as the default in a program that allows 80386 or later instructions there is one way to accomplish this. Place the following directive in your program before any segments:

                .option segment:use16
8.8.7 Typical Segment Definitions

Has the discussion above left you totally confused? Don't worry about it. Until you're writing extremely large programs you needn't concern yourself with all the operands associated with the segment directive. For most programs the following three segments should prove sufficient:

DSEG            segment para public 'DATA'

; Insert your variable definitions here

DSEG            ends

CSEG            segment para public use16 'CODE'

; Insert your program instructions here

CSEG            ends

SSEG            segment para stack 'STACK'
stk             word    1000h dup (?)
EndStk          equ     this word
SSEG            ends
end

The SHELL.ASM file automatically declares these three segments for you. If you always make a copy of the SHELL.ASM file when writing a new assembly language program you probably won't need to worry about segment declarations and segmentation in general.

8.8.8 Why You Would Want to Control the Loading Order

Certain DOS calls require that you pass the length of your program as a parameter. Unfortunately computing the length of a program containing several segments is a very difficult process. However when DOS loads your program into memory it will load the entire program into a contiguous block of RAM. Therefore to compute the length of your program you need only know the starting and ending addresses of your program. By simply taking the difference of these two values you can compute the length of your program.

In a program that contains multiple segments you will need to know which segment was loaded first and which was loaded last in order to compute the length of your program. As it turns out DOS always loads the program segment prefix or PSP into memory just before the first segment of your program. You must consider the length of the PSP when computing the length of your program. MS-DOS passes the segment address of the PSP in the ds register. So computing the difference of the last byte in your program and the PSP will produce the length of your program. The following code segment computes the length of a program in paragraphs:

CSEG            segment public 'CODE'
mov     ax
ds          ;Get PSP segment address
sub     ax
seg LASTSEG ;Compute difference

; AX now contains the length of this program (in paragraphs)
.
.
.
CSEG            ends

; Insert ALL your other segments here.

LASTSEG         segment para public 'LASTSEG'
LASTSEG         ends
end
8.8.9 Segment Prefixes

When the 80x86 references a memory operand it usually references a location within the current data segment. However you can instruct the 80x86 microprocessor to reference data in one of the other segments using a segment prefix before an address expression.

A segment prefix is either ds: cs: ss: es: fs: or gs:. When used in front of an address expression a segment prefix instructs the 80x86 to fetch its memory operand from the specified segment rather than the default segment. For example mov ax cs:I[bx] loads the accumulator from address I+bx within the current code segment. If the cs: prefix were absent this instruction would normally load the data from the current data segment. Likewise mov ds:[bp] ax stores the accumulator into the memory location pointed at by the bp register in the current data segment (remember whenever using bp as a base register it points into the stack segment).

Segment prefixes are instruction opcodes. Therefore whenever you use a segment prefix you are increasing the length (and decreasing the speed) of the instruction utilizing the segment prefix. Therefore you don't want to use segment prefixes unless you have a good reason to do so.

8.8.10 Controlling Segments with the ASSUME Directive

The 80x86 generally references data items relative to the ds segment register (or stack segment). Likewise all code references (jumps calls etc.) are always relative to the current code segment. There is only one catch - how does the assembler know which segment is the data segment and which is the code segment (or other segment)? The segment directive doesn't tell you what type of segment it happens to be in the program. Remember a data segment is a data segment because the ds register points at it. Since the ds register can be changed at run time (using an instruction like mov ds ax) any segment can be a data segment. This has some interesting consequences for the assembler. When you specify a segment in your program not only must you tell the CPU that a segment is a data segment but you must also tell the assembler where and when that segment is a data (or code/stack/extra/F/G) segment. The assume directive provides this information to the assembler.

The assume directive takes the following form:

                assume {CS:seg} {DS:seg} {ES:seg} {FS:seg} {GS:seg} {SS:seg}

The braces surround optional items you do not type the braces as part of these operands. Note that there must be at least one operand. Seg is either the name of a segment (defined with the segment directive) or the reserved word nothing. Multiple operands in the operand field of the assume directive must be separated by commas. Examples of valid assume directives:

                assume  DS:DSEG
assume  CS:CSEG
DS:DSEG
ES:DSEG
SS:SSEG
assume  CS:CSEG
DS:NOTHING

The assume directive tells the assembler that you have loaded the specified segment register(s) with the segment addresses of the specified value. Note that this directive does not modify any of the segment registers it simply tells the assembler to assume the segment registers are pointing at certain segments in the program. Like the processor selection and equate directives the assume directive modifies the assembler's behavior from the point MASM encounters it until another assume directive changes the stated assumption.

Consider the following program:

DSEG1           segment para public 'DATA'
var1            word    ?
DSEG1           ends

DSEG2           segment para public 'DATA'
var2            word    ?
DSEG2           ends

CSEG            segment para public 'CODE'
assume  CS:CSEG
DS:DSEG1
ES:DSEG2
mov     ax
seg DSEG1
mov     ds
ax
mov     ax
seg DSEG2
mov     es
ax

mov     var1
0
mov     var2
0
.
.
.
assume  DS:DSEG2
mov     ax
seg DSEG2
mov     ds
ax
mov     var2
0
.
.
.
CSEG            ends
end

Whenever the assembler encounters a symbolic name it checks to see which segment contains that symbol. In the program above var1 appears in the DSEG1 segment and var2 appears in the DSEG2 segment. Remember the 80x86 microprocessor doesn't know about segments declared within your program it can only access data in segments pointed at by the cs ds es ss fs and gs segment registers. The assume statement in this program tells the assembler the ds register points at DSEG1 for the first part of the program and at DSEG2 for the second part of the program.

When the assembler encounters an instruction of the form mov var1 0 the first thing it does is determine var1's segment. It then compares this segment against the list of assumptions the assembler makes for the segment registers. If you didn't declare var1 in one of these segments then the assembler generates an error claiming that the program cannot access that variable. If the symbol (var1 in our example) appears in one of the currently assumed segments then the assembler checks to see if it is the data segment. If so then the instruction is assembled as described in the appendices. If the symbol appears in a segment other than the one that the assembler assumes ds points at then the assembler emits a segment override prefix byte specifying the actual segment that contains the data.

In the example program above MASM would assemble mov VAR1 0 without a segment prefix byte. MASM would assemble the first occurrence of the mov VAR2 0 instruction with an es: segment prefix byte since the assembler assumes es rather than ds is pointing at segment DSEG2. MASM would assemble the second occurrence of this instruction without the es: segment prefix byte since the assembler at that point in the source file assumes that ds points at DSEG2. Keep in mind that it is very easy to confuse the assembler. Consider the following code:

CSEG            segment para public 'CODE'
assume  CS:CSEG
DS:DSEG1
ES:DSEG2
mov     ax
seg DSEG1
mov     ds
ax
.
.
.
jmp     SkipFixDS

assume  DS:DSEG2

FixDS:          mov     ax
seg DSEG2
mov     ds
ax
SkipFixDS:
.
.
.
CSEG            ends
end

Notice that this program jumps around the code that loads the ds register with the segment value for DSEG2. This means that at label SkipFixDS the ds register contains a pointer to DSEG1 not DSEG2. However the assembler isn't bright enough to realize this problem so it blindly assumes that ds points at DSEG2 rather than DSEG1. This is a disaster waiting to happen. Because the assembler assumes you're accessing variables in DSEG2 while the ds register actually points at DSEG1 such accesses will reference memory locations in DSEG1 at the same offset as the variables accessed in DSEG2. This will scramble the data in DSEG1 (or cause your program to read incorrect values for the variables assumed to be in segment DSEG2).

For beginning programmers the best solution to the problem is to avoid using multiple (data) segments within your programs as much as possible. Save the multiple segment accesses for the day when you're prepared to deal with problems like this. As a beginning assembly language programmer simply use one code segment one data segment and one stack segment and leave the segment registers pointing at each of these segments while your program is executing. The assume directive is quite complex and can get you into a considerable amount of trouble if you misuse it. Better not to bother with fancy uses of assume until you are quite comfortable with the whole idea of assembly language programming and segmentation on the 80x86.

The nothing reserved word tells the assembler that you haven't the slightest idea where a segment register is pointing. It also tells the assembler that you're not going to access any data relative to that segment register unless you explicitly provide a segment prefix to an address. A common programming convention is to place assume directives before all procedures in a program. Since segment pointers to declared segments in a program rarely change except at procedure entry and exit this is the ideal place to put assume directives:

                assume  ds:P1Dseg
cs:cseg
es:nothing
Procedure1      proc    near
push    ds              ;Preserve DS
push    ax              ;Preserve AX
mov     ax
P1Dseg      ;Get pointer to P1Dseg into the
mov     ds
ax          ; ds register.
.
.
.
pop     ax              ;Restore ax's value.
pop     ds              ;Restore ds' value.
ret
Procedure1      endp

The only problem with this code is that MASM still assumes that ds points at P1Dseg when it encounters code after Procedure1. The best solution is to put a second assume directive after the endp directive to tell MASM it doesn't know anything about the value in the ds register:

                 .
.
.
ret
Procedure1      endp
assume  ds:nothing

Although the next statement in the program will probably be yet another assume directive giving the assembler some new assumptions about ds (at the beginning of the procedure that follows the one above) it's still a good idea to adopt this convention. If you fail to put an assume directive before the next procedure in your source file the assume ds:nothing statement above will keep the assembler from assuming you can access variables in P1Dseg.

Segment override prefixes always override any assumptions made by the assembler. mov ax cs:var1 always loads the ax register with the word at offset var1 within the current code segment regardless of where you've defined var1. The main purpose behind the segment override prefixes is handling indirect references. If you have an instruction of the form mov ax [bx] the assembler assumes that bx points into the data segment. If you really need to access data in a different segment you can use a segment override thusly mov ax es:[bx].

In general if you are going to use multiple data segments within your program you should use full segment:offset names for your variables. E.g. mov ax DSEG1:I and mov bx DSEG2:J. This does not eliminate the need to load the segment registers or make proper use of the assume directive but it will make your program easier to read and help MASM locate possible errors in your program.

The assume directive is actually quite useful for other things besides just setting the default segment. You'll see some more uses for this directive a little later in this chapter.

8.8.11 Combining Segments: The GROUP Directive

Most segments in a typical assembly language program are less than 64 Kilobytes long. Indeed most segments are much smaller than 64 Kilobytes in length. When MS-DOS loads the program's segments into memory several of the segments may fall into a single 64K region of memory. In practice you could combine these segments into a single segment in memory. This might possibly improve the efficiency of your code if it saves having to reload segment registers during program execution.

So why not simply combine such segments in your assembly language code? Well as the next section points out maintaining separate segments can help you structure your programs better and help make them more modular. This modularity is very important in your programs as they get more complex. As usual improving the structure and modularity of your programs may cause them to become less efficient. Fortunately MASM provides a directive group that lets you treat two segments as the same physical segment without abandoning the structure and modularity of your program.

The group directive lets you create a new segment name that encompasses the segments it groups together. For example if you have two segments named "Module1Data" and "Module2Data" that you wish to combine into a single physical segment you could use the group directive as follows:

ModuleData      group   Module1Data
Module2Data

The only restriction is that the end of the second module's data must be no more than 64 kilobytes away from the start of the first module in memory. MASM and the linker will not automatically combine these segments and place them together in memory. If there are other segments between these two in memory then the total of all such segments must be less than 64K in length. To reduce this problem you can use the class operand to the segment directive to tell the linker to combine the two segments in memory by using the same class name:

ModuleData      group   Module1Data
Module2Data

Module1Data     segment para public 'MODULES'
.
.
.
Module1Data     ends
.
.
.
Module2Data     segment byte public 'MODULES'
.
.
.
Module2Data     ends

With declarations like those above you can use "ModuleData" anywhere MASM allows a segment name as the operand to a mov instruction as an operand to the assume directive etc. The following example demonstrates the usage of the ModuleData segment name:

                assume  ds:ModuleData
Module1Proc     proc    near
push    ds              ;Preserve ds' value.
push    ax              ;Preserve ax's value.
mov     ax
ModuleData  ;Load ds with the segment address
mov     ds
ax          ; of ModuleData.
.
.
.
pop     ax              ;Restore ax's and ds' values.
pop     ds
ret
Module1Proc     endp
assume  ds:nothing

Of course using the group directive in this manner hasn't really improved the code. Indeed by using a different name for the data segment one could argue that using group in this manner has actually obfuscated the code. However suppose you had a code sequence that needed to access variables in both the Module1Data and Module2Data segments. If these segments were physically and logically separate you would have to load two segment registers with the addresses of these two segments in order to access their data concurrently. This would cost you a segment override prefix on all the instructions that access one of the segments. If you cannot spare an extra segment register the situation will be even worse you'll have to constantly load new values into a single segment register as you access data in the two segments. You can avoid this overhead by combining the two logical segments into a single physical segment and accessing them through their group rather than individual segment names.

If you group two or more segments together all you're really doing is creating a pseudo-segment that encompasses the segments appearing in the group directive's operand field. Grouping segments does not prevent you from accessing the individual segments in the grouping list. The following code is perfectly legal:

                assume  ds:Module1Data
mov     ax
Module1Data
mov     ds
ax
.
< Code that accesses data in Module1Data >
.
assume  ds:Module2Data
mov     ax
Module2Data
mov     ds
ax
.
< Code that accesses data in Module2Data >
.
assume  ds:ModuleData
mov     ax
ModuleData
mov     ds
ax
.
< Code that accesses data in both Module1Data and Module2Data >
.
.
.

When the assembler processes segments it usually starts the location counter value for a given segment at zero. Once you group a set of segments however an ambiguity arises; grouping two segments causes MASM and the linker to concatenate the variables of one or more segments to the end of the first segment in the group list. They accomplish this by adjusting the offsets of all symbols in the concatenated segments as though they were all symbols in the same segment. The ambiguity exists because MASM allows you to reference a symbol in its segment or in the group segment. The symbol has a different offset depending on the choice of segment. To resolve the ambiguity MASM uses the following algorithm:

MASM uses the algorithm above if you specify a variable name without a segment prefix. If you specify a segment register override prefix then MASM may choose an arbitrary offset. Often this turns out to be the group offset. So the following instruction sequence without an assume directive telling MASM that the BadOffset symbol is in seg1 may produce bad object code:

DataSegs        group   Data1
Data2
Data3
.
.
.
Data2           segment
.
.
.
BadOffset       word    ?
.
.
.
Data2           ends
.
.
.
assume  ds:nothing
es:nothing
fs:nothing
gs:nothing
mov     ax
Data2               ;Force ds to point at data2 despite
mov     ds
ax                  ; the assume directive above.

mov     ax
ds:BadOffset        ;May use the offset from DataSegs
; rather than Data2!

If you want to force the correct offset use the variable name containing the complete segment:offset address form:

; To force the use of the offset within the DataSegs group use an instruction
; like the following:

mov     ax
DataSegs:BadOffset

; To force the use of the offset within Data2
use:

mov     ax
Data2:BadOffset

You must use extra care when working with groups within your assembly language programs. If you force MASM to use an offset within some particular segment (or group) and the segment register is not pointing at that particular segment or group MASM may not generate an error message and the program will not execute correctly. Reading the offsets MASM prints in the assembly listing will not help you find this error. MASM always displays the offsets within the symbol's segment in the assembly listing. The only way to really detect that MASM and the linker are using bad offsets is to get into a debugger like CodeView and look at the actual machine code bytes produced by the linker and loader.

8.8.12 Why Even Bother With Segments?

After reading the previous sections you're probably wondering what possible good could come from using segments in your programs. To be perfectly frank if you use the SHELL.ASM file as a skeleton for the assembly language programs you write you can get by quite easily without ever worrying about segments groups segment override prefixes and full segment:offset names. As a beginning assembly language programmer it's probably a good idea to ignore much of this discussion on segmentation until you are much more comfortable with 80x86 assembly language programming. However there are three reasons you'll want to learn more about segmentation if you continue writing assembly language programs for any length of time: the real-mode 64K segment limitation program modularity and interfacing with high level languages.

When operating in real mode segments can be a maximum of 64 kilobytes long. If you need to access more than 64K of data or code in your programs you will need to use more than one segment. This fact more than any other reason has dragged programmers (kicking and screaming) into the world of segmentation. Unfortunately this is as far as many programmers get with segmentation. They rarely learn more than just enough about segmentation to write a program that accesses more than 64K of data. As a result when a segmentation problem occurs because they don't fully understand the concept they blame segmentation for their problems and they avoid using segmentation as much as possible.

This is too bad because segmentation is a powerful memory management tool that lets you organize your programs into logical entities (segments) that are in theory independent of one another. The field of software engineering studies how to write correct large programs. Modularity and independence are two of the primary tools software engineers use to write large programs that are correct and easy to maintain. The 80x86 family provides in hardware the tools to implement segmentation. On other processors segmentation is enforced strictly by software. As a result it is easier to work with segments on the 80x86 processors.

Although this text does not deal with protected mode programming it is worth pointing out that when you operate in protected mode on 80286 and later processors the 80x86 hardware can actually prevent one module from accessing another module's data (indeed the term "protected mode" means that segments are protected from illegal access). Many debuggers available for MS-DOS operate in protected mode allowing you to catch array and segment bounds violations. Soft-ICE and Bounds Checker from NuMega are examples of such products. Most people who have worked with segmentation in a protected mode environment (e.g. OS/2 or Windows) appreciate the benefits that segmentation offers.

Another reason for studying segmentation on the 80x86 is because you might want to write an assembly language function that a high level language program can call. Since the HLL compiler makes certain assumptions about the organization of segments in memory you will need to know a little bit about segmentation in order to write such code.

Chapter Eight (Part 2)

Table of Content

Chapter Eight (Part 4)

Chapter Eight: MASM: Directives & Pseudo-Opcodes (Part 3)
26 SEP 1996