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Inside Calling Conventions

, 1 Feb 2005 CPOL
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Difference between different the calling conventions.

Introduction

Hi! In this article, I will try to explain all the calling conventions, their advantages and disadvantages. I will also explain why in C we can pass variable number of arguments and not in C++, and also cover fast call.

Background

Knowledge of assembly coding will be helpful but I will try to explain as much as I can, so don't worry and just relax.

Using the code

So you all must have come across the famous words, "Calling convention", in your career till now. If not, be prepared for runtime error such as value of ESP not saved properly across function calls. So what is all this about calling convention? Don't worry, all your doubts will be cleared. Why C can pass variable number of arguments to a function and C++ cannot? what is fast call? So, ready to go...

We will start by Cdecl calling convention or the C Declaration style. Just have a look at the simple code below:

#include "stdio.h"

int __cdecl Function(int a, int b, int c)
{
    return a + b -c;
}

void main()
{
    int r = Function(1, 2, 3);
}

Just a simple function and a main. Now, we will start with assembly. For those who don't know assembly, don't worry, it's not a big deal thanks to Microsoft. We will use Dumpbin utility that ships with VC++ to disassemble the code and get the assembly. First compile the code using the command line: cl Cdecltest.c, and the output will be the obj and exe. We will now use the Dumpbin utility on command line:

dumpbin /disam Cdecltest.obj > Cdecltest.txt

and redirect the output to a text file. The output is:

Dump of file CdeclTest.obj

File Type: COFF OBJECT

_Function:
  00000000: 55                 push        ebp
  00000001: 8B EC              mov         ebp,esp
  00000003: 8B 45 08           mov         eax,dword ptr [ebp+8]
  00000006: 03 45 0C           add         eax,dword ptr [ebp+0Ch]
  00000009: 2B 45 10           sub         eax,dword ptr [ebp+10h]
  0000000C: 5D                 pop         ebp
  0000000D: C3                 ret
_main:
  0000000E: 55                 push        ebp
  0000000F: 8B EC              mov         ebp,esp
  00000011: 51                 push        ecx
  00000012: 6A 03              push        3
  00000014: 6A 02              push        2
  00000016: 6A 01              push        1
  00000018: E8 00 00 00 00     call        0000001D
  0000001D: 83 C4 0C           add         esp,0Ch
  00000020: 89 45 FC           mov         dword ptr [ebp-4],eax
  00000023: 8B E5              mov         esp,ebp
  00000025: 5D                 pop         ebp
  00000026: C3                 ret

where the first two lines of main are known as prolog and always have Opcode 55 8B EC. While passing the parameters to the function from the main, we are pushing it on the stack. Arguments are pushed from right to left, i.e., push 3, push 2 and push 1, and finally the return address where it has to return after executing the function. Now take a look at the stack diagram:

Initially, the stack pointer is at 98H, i.e., high memory location. As we go on pushing, the stack becomes as shown above. Now the problem begins in calling function. If we pop three entries assuming we have pushed three arguments, then it will pop the return address and then it wont know at what address to return. So have a look at the assembly code of the function call and try to understand how it pops element without disturbing the return address. As seen, it first pushes its ebp (base pointer) at address 80H, then moves the stack pointer in ebp.

now look at instruction mov eax,dword ptr [ebp+8], i.e., nothing but address 88H i.e., the pushed element 1 then next instruction is add eax,dword ptr [ebp+0Ch], i.e., ebp+0Ch gives second element i.e., 2 and addition of them similarly it gets the third element. Then it pops Ebp at address 80Hi.e stack becomes as in figure 1 and then it returns which is the correct return address i.e., 84H.

This is all the assembly programming we needed. So once again, back to our main discussion. Sorry for diverting you from the track. But now a problem is that the stack is not cleaned, i.e., we haven't popped the three elements pushed on the stack. So someone needs to clean it up, who will it be......????? Back to the assembly... in the main, after the call, there is an instruction add esp,0Ch which cleans the stack 0CH since three elements were pushed. If two elements would be pushed, it will be... you got it right... add esp,08h.

That's it. So in CDecl calling convention, the main one who calls the function has the responsibility of cleaning the stack.

StdCall (std calling convention __stdcall)

#include "stdio.h"

int __stdcall Function(int a, int b, int c)
{
    return a + b -c;
}

void main()
{
    int r = Function(1, 2, 3);
}

And similarly, let's look at the assembly code: cl stdcalltest.c and then dumpbin /disasm stdcalltest.obj > stdcalltest.txt.

Dump of file StdcallTest.obj

File Type: COFF OBJECT

_Function@12:
  00000000: 55                 push        ebp
  00000001: 8B EC              mov         ebp,esp
  00000003: 8B 45 08           mov         eax,dword ptr [ebp+8]
  00000006: 03 45 0C           add         eax,dword ptr [ebp+0Ch]
  00000009: 2B 45 10           sub         eax,dword ptr [ebp+10h]
  0000000C: 5D                 pop         ebp
  0000000D: C2 0C 00           ret         0Ch
_main:
  00000010: 55                 push        ebp
  00000011: 8B EC              mov         ebp,esp
  00000013: 51                 push        ecx
  00000014: 6A 03              push        3
  00000016: 6A 02              push        2
  00000018: 6A 01              push        1
  0000001A: E8 00 00 00 00     call        0000001F
  0000001F: 89 45 FC           mov         dword ptr [ebp-4],eax
  00000022: 8B E5              mov         esp,ebp
  00000024: 5D                 pop         ebp
  00000025: C3

As seen from the assembly code, in stdcall, the stack is cleaned by the function called. I.e., ret 0Ch in the last line of the function.

So if you are using a function which is called twenty times, the cleanup code will be placed only once in the function called, if __stdcall is used. But if __cdecl is used, it will be twenty times in the code, i.e., everywhere in main after function is called, and if we have say fifty functions in a file each of which is called twenty times, then the size of the EXE in CDecl will be large. But then what is the advantage of __cdecl... that's something that only C has and not even C++.

In __cdecl calling convention, you can pass variable number of arguments. Remember the ellipses (...). But it is not possible in __stdcall which C++ uses. Let's see how. As seen in __stdcall, the function cleanup code is placed only once in the function and the value is ret no. of args passed. I.e., if three arguments are passed, then 0Ch, which is fixed so we cannot pass variable number of arguments to the function. Whereas in __cdecl, the cleanup code is number of times the function is called, so it is possible to cleanup as it knows the number of arguments passed each time. Got it? Else refer to the above explanation and the assembly code. Also observe the function name mangling in assembly code in both cases. The function name is prefixed by _. But in case __stdcall contains @somevalue, that value is nothing but the size of numbers of elements passed on the stack that has to be cleaned up before returning. So in our case, it is ...yes, you got it right.

For __cdecl, call _Function, and for __stdcall, _Function@12.

Anyways, one more example to clear up things.

Below is the code using __cdecl calling convention and it will compile:

#include "stdio.h"

int __cdecl Function(int a,...)
{
    //do some processing with all arguments
    return 1;
}

void main()
{
    int r = Function(1, 2, 3);
}

Below is the code using __stdcall calling convention and it will not compile:

#include "stdio.h"

int __stdcall Function(int a, ...)
{
    //do some processing with all arguments
    return a;
}

void main()
{
    int r = Function(1, 2, 3);
    int x = Function(1, 2);
}

Now last but not the least, fast call. So, let's have a look at the assembly code:

#include "stdio.h"

int __fastcall Function(int a, int b, int c)
{
    return a + b -c;
}

void main()
{
    int r = Function(1, 2, 3);
}
Microsoft (R) COFF Binary File Dumper Version 6.00.8168
Copyright (C) Microsoft Corp 1992-1998. All rights reserved.


Dump of file FastCallTest.obj

File Type: COFF OBJECT

@Function@12:
  00000000: 55                 push        ebp
  00000001: 8B EC              mov         ebp,esp
  00000003: 83 EC 08           sub         esp,8
  00000006: 89 55 F8           mov         dword ptr [ebp-8],edx
  00000009: 89 4D FC           mov         dword ptr [ebp-4],ecx
  0000000C: 8B 45 FC           mov         eax,dword ptr [ebp-4]
  0000000F: 03 45 F8           add         eax,dword ptr [ebp-8]
  00000012: 2B 45 08           sub         eax,dword ptr [ebp+8]
  00000015: 8B E5              mov         esp,ebp
  00000017: 5D                 pop         ebp
  00000018: C2 04 00           ret         4
_main:
  0000001B: 55                 push        ebp
  0000001C: 8B EC              mov         ebp,esp
  0000001E: 51                 push        ecx
  0000001F: 6A 03              push        3
  00000021: BA 02 00 00 00     mov         edx,2
  00000026: B9 01 00 00 00     mov         ecx,1
  0000002B: E8 00 00 00 00     call        00000030
  00000030: 89 45 FC           mov         dword ptr [ebp-4],eax
  00000033: 8B E5              mov         esp,ebp
  00000035: 5D                 pop         ebp
  00000036: C3                 ret

In the case of fast call, as seen from the assembly code of main, just one variable is pushed and two are passed using registers. I.e., in the case of fast call, first and second arguments are passed through the register and rest as normal, i.e., on stack. Since registers are used for passing, it's much faster, but only a maximum of two arguments can be passed through registers. Also notice the name mangling, the function begins with @ and has number of arguments passed, i.e., in our case, @Function@12.

A quick review

Calling convention Stack cleaning responsibility Name mangling Advantages
__stdcall The called function (i.e., cleanup code only once) _FunctionName@4*argumentspassed small size of EXE
__cdecl The calling function (each time function is called) _Function can pass variable number of arguments
__fastcall The called function (i.e., cleanup code only once) @FunctionName@4*argumentspassed fast calling by the use of registers

Note

I would like to thank Mr. Sameer Vasani, my team, and my friend Rahul Bhamre from whom I have learnt a lot and is still learning new stuff.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Sachin R Sangoi
Technical Lead
India India
Hi I am Sachin Sangoi from Mumbai. Working in VC++ from 9 years (From July 2004).Completed BE Electronics + PG CDAC + MBA Finance.
I would like to thanx Mr Sameer Vasani, my team and my friend Rahul bhamre from whom i learnt a lot.They have been a great help.
Thanx 2 all my friends especially Rahul B, Sandeep C, Sandeep K, Govind P, Rohit P, Pratik P who have all been there when needed.
 
Happy Coding Smile | :)

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