Lecture 7: Checking for errors and calling Rust functions
1 Checking for errors
2 Calling Functions
2.1 System V AMD64 ABI
2.2 Protecting our Local Variables
2.3 Alignment
2.4 Saving/  Restoring Registers
3 Putting the pieces together
4 What calling convention to use?
5 Testing

Lecture 7: Checking for errors and calling Rust functions

Where we left off last time, we could work with both numbers and booleans in our program. Unfortunately, we had no way of ensuring that we only worked with them consistently, as opposed to, say, applying an arithmetic operation to boolean values. Let’s remedy that. Our intended semantics is that when one of these errors occurs, (1) an appropriate error message is printed out and (2) the program should terminate with a non-zero exit code to indicate there was an error. In order to keep our compiler relatively platform-independent we will use our Rust runtime in stub.rs to implement printing and exiting (since the Rust compiler developers have conveniently already implemented the platform-specific details).

This means when an error happens in our compiled program, we need to call an appropriate Rust function, and pass it arguments to print an appropriate error message. So we need to understand what interface we have to calling Rust functions, what’s called a calling convention.

1 Checking for errors

Error handling is going to be a pervasive feature in our compiled output: we need to check the arguments and returned values of every operation are valid. That sequenece of checking instructions will appear at every location in the program that it’s needed. But the error handling itself is identical everywhere: we want to show some kind of message that describes the error that occured. So for example, we might want to check if a value is a number as follows:

  ... ;; get RAX to have the value we need
  test RAX, 0x0000000000000001 ;; check only the tag bit of the value
  jnz error_not_number         ;; if the bit is set, go to some centralized error handler


(The test instruction performs a bitwise-and of its two arguments and discards the result, but sets the zero and signedness flags to be used with conditional jumps.1test is to and the same way cmp is to sub: they perform the same logical operation, but throw away the results and keep only the flags. It’s convenient in this case, though for more complex tag checks, we might need a cleverer sequence of assembly instructions, possibly involving a second register as a temporary value.)

What code should we have at the error_not_number label? We’d like to be able to be able to print some kind of error message when the arguments to an operation are invalid. But our language doesn’t have any notion of strings yet, so we have no way of representing a message, let alone actually printing it. Fortunately, we have stub.rs available to us, and Rust does have strings and printing. It’s not too hard to define a new function in stub.rs that achieves the desired goal:

type ErrorCode = u64;
static ADD1_ERROR: ErrorCode = 0;
static ADD_ERROR: ErrorCode  = 1;

#[export_name = "\x01snake_error"]
extern "sysv64" fn snake_error(err_code: u64, v: SnakeVal) {
    if err_code == ADD1_ERROR {
        eprintln!("add1 expected a number but got a boolean {}", sprint_snake_val(v));
    } else if err_code == ADD_ERROR {
        eprintln!("+ expected a number but got a boolean {}", sprint_snake_val(v));
    } else {
        eprintln!("I apologize to you, dear user. I made a bug. Here's a snake value: {}", sprint_snake_val(v));

Here we have a function that takes in two arguments: an error code which will be used to decide what the main error message is, and then another argument with a value related to the error message. Then we will use std::process:exit from the Rust standard library to do the platform-specific operation of exiting the process with an appropriate error code.

Now we need to figure out how to call this function from our compiled assembly code programs. This is what the #[export_name = ...] declaration and extern "sysv64" parts are for: the extern "sysv64" says to make this function available to code we link with using the System V AMD64 calling convention, which is the standard x64 calling convention for 64-bit Mac and Linux2Previously we used extern "C", which means "use whatever my default C compiler uses". We’ll use "sysv64" from now on to make it clearer that this doesn’t really have anything to do with C, the language, and the export_name says to make it available under the provided name. This is the other side of the FFI from what we’ve already seen with the start_here function: that allowed Rust to call us, and now we need to understand how to call Rust back.

2 Calling Functions

Let’s take a step back and think about what it means to call a function. In high-level languages like Rust, C/C++, Java or Python, we have some notion of a procedure which includes several different ideas that are not present in assembly code:

Our machine doesn’t work with these primitives, instead these are high-level abstractions that are a convenient fiction for us programmers to use. Our assembly code works directly with the following:

So we see that one of the big differences is that while in our high-level languages, functions have some notion of “private variable”, in assembly code nothing enforces the distinction between values belonging to one function or another. In high-level language we have a kind of notion of private ownership, but in the implementation we have a global view of the registers and memory as a shared resource. So when we implement functions and function calls, we need to come up with a kind of protocol for functions to use to cooperate with each other so that we don’t accidentally overwrite memory that another function was planning to use. That is, we need to teach our functions how to share their resources.

The other big difference is that in our high-level language, we have an intrinsic notion of call-and-return, whereas in low-level code we really only have a single notion of a jump, which we will have to use to encode our call and return protocol. So when we return in assembly code, we need to know where to jump to! This is called the return address and it must be stored somewhere that the callee can access. And when we make a function call with arguments, we need to communicate somehow what the values of the arguments are. The only way we can do this is to use our shared resources: the registers and the stack.

A calling convention then, is simply a protocol for how a caller and a callee can cooperatively use the state of the machine. The main portions of a calling convention are to specify:

To understand how to call a Rust function, we need to understand a bit about the C calling convention. The calling convention describes an agreement between the callers of functions and the callee functions on where to place arguments and return values so the other function can find them, and on which function is responsible for saving any temporary values in registers.

We’ve already encountered one part of the calling convention: “the answer goes in RAX.” This simple statement asserts that the callee places its answer in RAX, and the caller should expect to look for the answer there...which means that the caller should expect the value of RAX to change as a result of the call. If the caller needs to keep the old value of RAX, it is responsible for saving that value before performing the call: we say this is a caller-save register. On the other hand, functions are allowed to manipulate the RSP register to allocate variables on the stack. When the function returns, though, RSP must be restored to its value prior to the function invocation, or else the caller will be hopelessly confused. We say that RSP is a callee-save register. In general, the calling convention specifies which registers are caller-save, and which are callee-save, and we must encode those rules into our compilation as appropriate.

2.1 System V AMD64 ABI

Here is a simple overview of the most relevant portions of the System V AMD64 ABI. We will use this whenever we call into Rust functions from assembly or vice-versa. The full gory details are in the official documentation.

So when we implement a function that is called using this calling convention with 9 arguments, the stack will look like this during the execution:


Arguments 1 through 6 are stored in registers, arguments 7 through 9 are on the stack, below the return address and we have our locals above the return address on the stack. Below the arguments, we have all of the caller’s used memory in the stack. We, the callee, should never touch this for fear of messing up our caller’s local variables.

So we can make a call using this convention by moving the first 6 arguments into the appropriate registers, then pushing the remaining arguments onto the stack in reverse order, pushing the return address and then jumping to the function we want to call. The push instruction decrements RSP by one slot, and then moves its argument into the memory location now pointed to by the new RSP value. Pictorially,



push 42


push 65






The final step of pushing a return address and then jumping somewhere is so common in calling con ventions that x64 has a built-in instruction for it: call. Every instruction exists at some address in memory, and the currently executing instruction’s address is stored in RIP, the instruction pointer. Our assembly code should never modify this register directly. Instead, the call instruction first pushes a return address describing the location of the next instruction to run — i.e. the value of RIP just after the call instruction itself — and then jumps to the specified label.

Putting these instructions together can implement error_not_number as follows.

First we need to declare at the beginning of our generated assembly that we expect our rust code to define a symbol ‘snake_error‘

section .text
global start_here
extern snake_error

Then we define a block that calls the snake_error function.

  mov RSI, RAX   ;; Arg 2: the badly behaved value
  mov RDI, 1     ;; Arg 1: a constant describing which error-code occurred
  call snake_error ;; our error handler


The above has a subtle bug, which may or may not cause a segfault on your machine(!) What is it? We fix it below.

2.2 Protecting our Local Variables

Our snake_error function is a bit of a simple case, it never returns! For the next homework we will implement a function print that prints out a snake value to the user. If we try to do the simple call code above for that, we will run into problems with our stack! Why? Well when we call, we push the return address onto the stack and decrement RSP. But we store our local variables in the addresses below RSP so this will overwrite our first local variable. Even worse, the callee, following the calling convention, will be free to use the remaining addresses below RSP to store their local variables, meaning potentially all of our local variables will get overwritten in the process.

The solution is simple: before we execute the call instruction, we need to decrement RSP so that our local variables will be safely in "caller space" when the callee is running, and then upon return, we increment RSP back to where it was4Some of you may be familiar with alternative implementations where we use an additional register RBP as the base of our stack frame. This is only necessary if the stack frame has dynamic size. Since our snake languages will all have statically bounded frame sizes, we will, like many modern compilers, only use RSP so that RBP is free to use as an additional work register..

So say we have 2 local variables, stored at offsets [RSP - 8] and [RSP - 16], then to call a print function that takes one argument we can do it as follows:

mov RDI, arg ;; the argument to be printed
dec RSP, 16  ;; "save" our local variables on the stack
call print
inc RSP, 2 * 8  ;; restore our stack pointer to the base of our stack frame

2.3 Alignment

Depending on your computer, the above code may not work because it breaks the System V AMD64 calling convention! The reason is the one part of the calling convention we haven’t yet addressed: stack alignment. Upon entry into the callee, the value of RSP + 8 should be divisible by 165The reason this is enforced by the calling convention is simply to make it more convenient to use instructions, such as SIMD instructions that require 16-byte alignment.. Since a call instruction pushes a value onto the stack, and we are always working with 64-bit, i.e., 8 byte values, this means before the call instruction the value of RSP should be divisible by 16. So every time we start executing a function we are precisely misaligned, and so we need to ensure that when we save our local variables, we always save an odd number of 8-byte stack "slots" to re-align the stack. Our prior examples saved 0 and 2 respectively, so neither correctly implemented the calling convention. Instead, if we have an even number n of stack slots, we should round up and push n+1.

How do we know how many locals we have? Consider how the environment grows and shrinks as we manipulate an expression: its maximum size occurs at the deepest number of nested let-bindinngs. Surely we’ll never need more locals than that, since we’ll never have more names in scope at once than that!


Construct a function count_vars that computes this quantity. Work by cases over the AST in sequential form.

This is a safe over-approximation that can be computed before running your compile_to_instrs function, but feel free to do something smarter for each function call if you want something more space-efficient.

If your code ran fine even though it was misaligned, then you may find that it doesn’t work when you submit to gradescope! So if you get bizarre errors from gradescope you cannot replicate on your machine I recommend you check your stack alignment first.

Do Now!

Draw the sequence of stacks that results from our error-handling code, using this more precise understanding of what belongs on the stack.

2.4 Saving/Restoring Registers

For now, we keep all locals on the stack, and all registers are just used for scratch space. Now that we understand the calling convention better, we should just make sure we aren’t using any of the callee-save registers as scratch registers. We’ll learn more about saving/restoring registers later in the course when we start using them for our locals.

3 Putting the pieces together

Our compiler should now insert type checks, akin to the test instruction with which we started this lecture, everywhere that we need to assert the type of some value. We then need to add a label at the end of our compiled output for each kind of error scenario that we face. The code at those labels should move the offending value (likely in RAX) into RDI, followed by the error code into RSI, and then call the snake_error function in stub.rs. That function must be elaborated with a case for each kind of error we face.

We will also need to use count_vars or some similar strategy to correctly adjust our stack before a call, always making sure to align the stack properly.

4 What calling convention to use?

This is our first brush with calling conventions, but it won’t be nearly the last. We used the System V AMD64 calling convention because that’s what the Rust compiler knows how to generate, but that doesn’t mean we need to use it for functions in our source language (as we’ll do soon) that call other functions from the source language. The calling convention is just the protocol for a single call, it doesn’t require at all that all of the stack frames on the stack came from the same calling convention. In fact, we will use a custom calling convention for our own internal calls, which will be preferable in certain ways to the System V calling convention.

5 Testing

Our programs can now produce observable output! Granted, it is only complaints about type mismatches, so far, but even this is useful.


Construct a test program that demonstrates that your type testing works properly. Construct a second test program that demonstrates that your if expressions work properly, too. Hint: sometimes, “no news is good news.”


Enhance your compiler with a new unary primitive, print, that accepts a single argument, prints it to the console, and returns its value.

1test is to and the same way cmp is to sub: they perform the same logical operation, but throw away the results and keep only the flags.

2Previously we used extern "C", which means "use whatever my default C compiler uses". We’ll use "sysv64" from now on to make it clearer that this doesn’t really have anything to do with C, the language

3This is a security nightmare and so in practice we have both software and hardware-level techniques for stopping code from accessing memory it shouldn’t, but it’s a good first approximation to think about memory this way for the purposes of compilation.

4Some of you may be familiar with alternative implementations where we use an additional register RBP as the base of our stack frame. This is only necessary if the stack frame has dynamic size. Since our snake languages will all have statically bounded frame sizes, we will, like many modern compilers, only use RSP so that RBP is free to use as an additional work register.

5The reason this is enforced by the calling convention is simply to make it more convenient to use instructions, such as SIMD instructions that require 16-byte alignment.