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Risc-V Assembly Language Hello World

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Last time, we started talking about the Risc-V CPU. We looked at some background and now we are going to start to look at its Assembly Language. We’ll write a program to print “Hello World!” to the terminal window, cross-compile it with GCC and run it in a Risc-V emulator. This program lets us start discussing some features of the core Risc-V instruction set. Risc-V supports 32-bit, 64-bit or 128-bit implementations, here we’ll run using 64-bits.

We’ll start with the program, then discuss various aspects of the Assembly instructions it uses and finally discuss how to build and run the program.

Hello World

First let’s present the program and then we’ll discuss it. This program works by making Linux system calls and like all Linux programs starts execution at the globally exported _start label. The program uses the Assembly directives specified in the GCC documentation.

# Risc-V Assembler program to print "Hello World!"
# to stdout.
# a0-a2 - parameters to linux function services
# a7 - linux function number

.global _start      # Provide program starting address to linker

# Setup the parameters to print hello world
# and then call Linux to do it.

_start: addi  a0, x0, 1      # 1 = StdOut
        la    a1, helloworld # load address of helloworld
        addi  a2, x0, 13     # length of our string
        addi  a7, x0, 64     # linux write system call
        ecall                # Call linux to output the string

# Setup the parameters to exit the program
# and then call Linux to do it.

        addi    a0, x0, 0   # Use 0 return code
        addi    a7, x0, 93  # Service command code 93 terminates
        ecall               # Call linux to terminate the program

helloworld:      .ascii "Hello World!\n"

The ‘#’ character is the comment character and anything after it on a line is a comment.


The Risc-V processor has 32 registers labeled x0 to x31 and a program counter (PC). x0 is a zero register, and x1-x31 can be used by programs as they wish. If you look at our listing for Hello World, you will notice that we are using registers a0, a1, a2 and a7. What are these? Since the Risc-V architecture provides no standards for register usage, and typical Assembly language programming requires a stack pointer, subroutine return register and some sort of function calling convention, these are defined in an Application Binary Interface (ABI). This is a software standard that the operating system defines so that programs and libraries can work together properly. Here GCC knows about the Risc-V Linux ABI where register usage is defined as:


Register ABI Use by convention Preserved?
x0 zero hardwired to 0, ignores writes n/a
x1 ra return address for jumps no
x2 sp stack pointer yes
x3 gp global pointer n/a
x4 tp thread pointer n/a
x5 t0 temporary register 0 no
x6 t1 temporary register 1 no
x7 t2 temporary register 2 no
x8 s0 or fp saved register 0 or frame pointer yes
x9 s1 saved register 1 yes
x10 a0 return value or function argument 0 no
x11 a1 return value or function argument 1 no
x12 a2 function argument 2 no
x13 a3 function argument 3 no
x14 a4 function argument 4 no
x15 a5 function argument 5 no
x16 a6 function argument 6 no
x17 a7 function argument 7 no
x18 s2 saved register 2 yes
x19 s3 saved register 3 yes
x20 s4 saved register 4 yes
x21 s5 saved register 5 yes
x22 s6 saved register 6 yes
x23 s7 saved register 7 yes
x24 s8 saved register 8 yes
x25 s9 saved register 9 yes
x26 s10 saved register 10 yes
x27 s11 saved register 11 yes
x28 t3 temporary register 3 no
x29 t4 temporary register 4 no
x30 t5 temporary register 5 no
x31 t6 temporary register 6 no
pc (none) program counter n/a


Which was taken from here. A0 to a7 are the registers used to pass function parameters (arguments), and a7 is used for Linux system calls where you specify the Linux function number from unistd.h.


We only use three Assembly instructions in this program: LA, ADDI and ECALL. Risc-V works hard to define as few instructions as possible. As a result some instructions have multiple uses. For instance ADDI is add an intermediate to a register, which is of the form:

      ADDI RD, RS, imm

Where RD is the destination register, RS the source register and imm is a 12-bit immediate value. Instructions are 32-bits in length so the size of the immediate value tends to be whatever is leftover after setting the opcode and any required registers.

You can define a NOP instruction with:

      ADDI x0, x0, 0

Or load immediate with:

      ADDI RD, X0, imm

The Assembler will take opcodes like NOP or LI (Load Immediate) and translate them into the correct underlying instruction. Here we used ADDI, but when we decompile the compiled program we’ll see the decompiler uses these aliases. These do make your program more readable. All our ADDI instructions use the LI pattern.

Risc-V provides a separate opcode to call the operating system. This is the ECALL instruction. When calling Linux, A7 is the Linux service number and A0 to A6 contain any parameters. When calling write, we need the file descriptor (1 for stdout), the string to write and the length in bytes to write, which we put in registers A0, A1 and A2. The return code which we don’t check will be in A0. This differs from most other architectures that use the interrupt mechanism for this purpose. The Risc-V designers feel it is cleaner to separate operating system calls from interrupts, even though both cause kernel privileged instructions to execute.

The remaining instruction is LA, which isn’t a Risc-V instruction, but rather it tells the Assembler that we want to load an address into a register. Then we leave it up to the Assembler to figure out how to do this. If we are running with 64-bit addressing then this address will be 64-bits. We can’t load this with a single load immediate instruction since the biggest immediate value is 20-bits, with most smaller. This means to load the address we either need to do many instructions to load this address piece by piece using load immediates, shifts, logical operations and/or arithmetic operations. The Assembler has inside knowledge of the value of this address, so it can, say use PC relative addressing to load this address. There are a lot of tricks to deal with 64-bit values from 32-bit instructions, that we don’t have room to go into now, but perhaps in a future blog article.


I don’t have a Risc-V processor, so I built the program using cross-compilation. The instructions on installing the GCC tools for this on a Debian based Linux are here. Then to build you run:

riscv64-linux-gnu-as -march=rv64imac -o HelloWorld.o HelloWorld.s
riscv64-linux-gnu-ld -o HelloWorld HelloWorld.o

We can run a Risc-V objdump to see what was produced with:

riscv64-linux-gnu-objdump -d HelloWorld

And get:

HelloWorld:     file format elf64-littleriscv

Disassembly of section .text:

00000000000100b0 <_start>:
   100b0: 00100513           li a0,1
   100b4: 00001597           auipc a1,0x1
   100b8: 02058593           addi a1,a1,32 # 110d4 <__DATA_BEGIN__>
   100bc: 00d00613           li a2,13
   100c0: 04000893           li a7,64
   100c4: 00000073           ecall
   100c8: 00000513           li a0,0
   100cc: 05d00893           li a7,93
   100d0: 00000073           ecall

We see it has interpreted the ADDI instructions that are just loading an immediate as LI. 

The “LA a1, helloworld” directive has been compiled to:

   100b4: 00001597           auipc a1,0x1
   100b8: 02058593           addi a1,a1,32 # 110d4 <__DATA_BEGIN__>

AUIPC is add immediate to PC, so it put PC+1 into A1 then the ADDI adds the offset to the beginning of the data section. Actually the Assembler set these as needing relocation and then the constants were filled in by the linker in the LD command. The good thing is that the Assembler and Linker took care of these details so we didn’t need to. Loading addresses and large integers is always a challenge in RISC processors.


Now I have our HelloWorld executable on my Intel i3 laptop running Ubuntu Linux. To run it, I use the TinyEMU Risc-V emulator. There are instructions on running a mini version of Linux under the emulator, you can then mount your /tmp folder and copy the executable over. Then it runs.

The whole process is:

stephen@stephenubuntu:~/riscV/HelloWorld$ bash -x ./build
+ riscv64-linux-gnu-as -march=rv64imac -o HelloWorld.o HelloWorld.s
+ riscv64-linux-gnu-ld -o HelloWorld HelloWorld.o
stephen@stephenubuntu:~/riscV/HelloWorld$ cp HelloWorld /tmp
stephen@stephenubuntu:~/riscV/HelloWorld$ cd ../../Downloads/diskimage-linux-riscv-2018-09-23/
stephen@stephenubuntu:~/Downloads/diskimage-linux-riscv-2018-09-23$ temu root_9p-riscv64.cfg 
[    0.307640] NET: Registered protocol family 17
[    0.308079] 9pnet: Installing 9P2000 support
[    0.311914] EXT4-fs (vda): couldn't mount as ext3 due to feature incompatibilities
[    0.312757] EXT4-fs (vda): mounting ext2 file system using the ext4 subsystem
[    0.325269] EXT4-fs (vda): mounted filesystem without journal. Opts: (null)
[    0.325552] VFS: Mounted root (ext2 filesystem) on device 254:0.
[    0.326420] devtmpfs: mounted
[    0.326785] Freeing unused kernel memory: 80K
[    0.326949] This architecture does not have kernel memory protection.
~ # mount -t 9p /dev/root /mnt
~ # cp /mnt/HelloWorld .
~ # ./HelloWorld 
Hello World!
~ # 

Note: I had to add:

      kernel: "kernel-riscv64.bin",

To root_9p-riscv64.cfg in order for it to start properly.


This simple Hello World program showed us a basic Risc-V Assembly Language program that loads some registers and calls Linux to print a string and then exit. This was still a long blog posting since we needed to explain all the Assembly elements and then how to build and run the program without requiring any Risc-V hardware.

Written by smist08

September 7, 2019 at 10:38 pm

Posted in RiscV

Tagged with , , , ,