Memory Model

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The SeaBIOS code is required to support multiple x86 CPU memory models. This requirement impacts the code layout and internal storage of SeaBIOS.

x86 Memory Models

The x86 line of CPUs has evolved over many years. The original 8086 chip used 16bit pointers and could only address 1 megabyte of memory. The 80286 CPU still used 16bit pointers, but could address up to 16 megabytes of memory. The 80386 chips could process 32bit instructions and could access up to 4 gigabyte of memory. The most recent x86 chips can process 64bit instructions and access 16 exabytes of ram.

During the evolution of the x86 CPUs from the 8086 to the 80386 the BIOS was extended to handle calls in the various modes that the CPU implemented.

This section outlines the five different x86 CPU execution and memory access models that SeaBIOS supports.

16bit real mode

This mode is a segmented memory mode invoked by callers. The CPU defaults to executing 16bit instructions. Callers typically invoke the BIOS by issuing an "int x" instruction which causes a software interrupt that is handled by the BIOS. The SeaBIOS code also handles hardware interrupts in this mode. SeaBIOS can only access the first 1 megabyte of memory in this mode, but it can access any part of that first megabyte.

16bit bigreal mode

This mode is a segmented memory mode that is used for option roms. The CPU defaults to executing 16bit instructions and segmented memory accesses are still used. However, the segment limits are increased so that the entire first 4 gigabytes of memory is fully accessible. Callers can invoke all the 16bit real mode functions while in this mode and can also invoke the Post Memory Manager (PMM) functions that are available during option rom execution.

16bit protected mode

CPU execution in this mode is similar to 16bit real mode. The CPU defaults to executing 16bit instructions. However, each segment register indexes a "descriptor table", and it is difficult or impossible to know what the physical address of each segment is. Generally speaking, the BIOS can only access code and data in the f-segment. The PCIBIOS, APM BIOS, and PNP BIOS all have documented 16bit protected mode entry points.

Some old code may attempt to invoke the standard 16bit real mode entry points while in 16bit protected mode. The PCI BIOS specification explicitly requires that the legacy "int 1a" real mode entry point support 16bit protected mode calls if they are for the PCI BIOS. Callers of other legacy entry points in protected mode have not been observed and SeaBIOS does not support them.

32bit segmented mode

In this mode the processor runs in 32bit mode, but the segment registers may have a limit and may have a non-zero offset. In effect, this mode has all of the limitations of 16bit protected mode - the main difference between the modes is that the processor defaults to executing 32bit instructions. In addition to these limitations, callers may also run the SeaBIOS code at varying virtual addresses and so the code must support code relocation. The PCI BIOS specification and APM BIOS specification define 32bit segmented mode interfaces.

32bit flat mode

In this mode the processor defaults to executing 32bit instructions, and all segment registers have an offset of zero and allow access to the entire first 4 gigabytes of memory. This is the only "sane" mode for 32bit code - modern compilers and modern operating systems will generally only support this mode (when running 32bit code). Ironically, it's the only mode that is not strictly required for a BIOS to support. SeaBIOS uses this mode internally to support the POST and BOOT phases of execution.

code16gcc

In order to produce code that can run when the processor is in a 16bit mode, SeaBIOS uses the binutils ".code16gcc" assembler flag. This instructs the assembler to emit extra prefix opcodes so that the 32bit code produced by gcc will run even when the processor is in 16bit mode. Note that gcc always produces 32bit code - it does not know about the ".code16gcc" flag and does not know that the code will run in a 16bit mode.

SeaBIOS uses the same code for all of the 16bit modes (16bit real mode, 16bit bigreal mode, and 16bit protected mode) and that code is assembled using ".code16gcc". SeaBIOS is careful to use segment registers properly so that the same code can run in the different 16bit modes that it needs to support.

C code mode flags

Two compile time flags are available to determine the memory model the code is intended for: MODE16 and MODESEGMENT. When compiling for the 16 bit modes, MODE16 is true and MODESEGMENT is true. In 32bit segmented mode, MODE16 is false and MODESEGMENT is true. In 32bit flat mode both MODE16 and MODESEGMENT are false.

Common memory used at run-time

There are several memory areas that the SeaBIOS "runtime" phase makes use of:

  • 0x000000-0x000400: Interrupt descriptor table (IDT). This area defines 256 interrupt vectors as defined by the Intel CPU specification for 16bit irq handlers. This area is read/writable at runtime and can be accessed from 16bit real mode and 16bit bigreal mode calls. SeaBIOS only uses this area to maintain compatibility with legacy systems.
  • 0x000400-0x000500: BIOS Data Area (BDA). This area contains various legacy flags and attributes. The area is read/writable at runtime and can be accessed from 16bit real mode and 16bit bigreal mode calls. SeaBIOS only uses this area to maintain compatibility with legacy systems.
  • 0x09FC00-0x0A0000 (typical): Extended BIOS Data Area (EBDA). This area contains a few legacy flags and attributes. The area is typically located at 0x9FC00, but it can be moved by option roms, by legacy operating systems, and by SeaBIOS if CONFIG_MALLOC_UPPERMEMORY is not set. Its actual location is determined by a pointer in the BDA. The area is read/writable at runtime and can be accessed from 16bit real mode and 16bit bigreal mode calls. SeaBIOS only uses this area to maintain compatibility with legacy systems.
  • 0x0E0000-0x0F0000 (typical): "low" memory. This area is used for custom read/writable storage internal to SeaBIOS. The area is read/writable at runtime and can be accessed from 16bit real mode and 16bit bigreal mode calls. The area is typically located at the end of the e-segment, but the build may position it anywhere in the 0x0C0000-0x0F0000 region. However, if CONFIG_MALLOC_UPPERMEMORY is not set, then this region is between 0x090000-0x0A0000. Space is allocated in this region by either marking a global variable with the "VARLOW" flag or by calling malloc_low() during initialization. The area can be grown dynamically (via malloc_low), but it will never exceed 64K.
  • 0x0F0000-0x100000: The BIOS segment. This area is used for both runtime code and static variables. Space is allocated in this region by either marking a global variable with VAR16, one of the VARFSEG flags, or by calling malloc_fseg() during initialization. The area is read-only at runtime and can be accessed from 16bit real mode, 16bit bigreal mode, 16bit protected mode, and 32bit segmented mode calls.

All of the above areas are also read/writable during the SeaBIOS initialization phase and are accessible when in 32bit flat mode.

Segmented mode memory access

The assembler entry functions for segmented mode calls (all modes except 32bit flat mode) will arrange to set the data segment (%ds) to be the same as the stack segment (%ss) before calling any C code. This permits all C variables located on the stack and C pointers to data located on the stack to work as normal.

However, all code running in segmented mode must wrap non-stack memory accesses in special macros. These macros ensure the correct segment register is used. Failure to use the correct macro will result in an incorrect memory access that will likely cause hard to find errors.

There are three low-level memory access macros:

  • GET_VAR / SET_VAR : Accesses a variable using the specified segment register. This isn't typically used directly by C code.
  • GET_FARVAR / SET_FARVAR : Assigns the extra segment (%es) to the given segment id and then performs the given memory access via %es.
  • GET_FLATPTR / SET_FLATPTR : These macros take a 32bit pointer, construct a segment/offset pair valid in real mode, and then perform the given access. These macros must not be used in 16bit protected mode or 32bit segmented mode.

Since most memory accesses are to common memory used at run-time, several helper macros are also available.

  • GET_IDT / SET_IDT : Access the interrupt descriptor table (IDT).
  • GET_BDA / SET_BDA : Access the BIOS Data Area (BDA).
  • GET_EBDA / SET_EBDA : Access the Extended BIOS Data Area (EBDA).
  • GET_LOW / SET_LOW : Access internal variables marked with VARLOW. (There are also related macros GET_LOWFLAT / SET_LOWFLAT for accessing storage allocated with malloc_low.)
  • GET_GLOBAL : Access internal variables marked with the VAR16 or VARFSEG flags. (There is also the related macro GET_GLOBALFLAT for accessing storage allocated with malloc_fseg.)

Memory available during initialization

During the POST phase the code can fully access the first 4 gigabytes of memory. However, memory accesses are generally limited to the common memory used at run-time and areas allocated at runtime via one of the malloc calls:

  • malloc_high : Permanent high-memory zone. This area is used for custom read/writable storage internal to SeaBIOS. The area is located at the top of the first 4 gigabytes of ram. It is commonly used for storing standard tables accessed by the operating system at runtime (ACPI, SMBIOS, and MPTable) and for DMA buffers used by hardware drivers. The area is read/writable at runtime and an entry in the e820 memory map is used to reserve it. When running on an emulator that has only 1 megabyte of ram this zone will be empty.
  • malloc_tmphigh : Temporary high-memory zone. This area is used for custom read/writable storage during the SeaBIOS initialization phase. The area generally starts after the first 1 megabyte of ram (0x100000) and ends prior to the Permanent high-memory zone. When running on an emulator that has only 1 megabyte of ram this zone will be empty. The area is not reserved from the operating system, so it must not be accessed after the SeaBIOS initialization phase.
  • malloc_tmplow : Temporary low-memory zone. This area is used for custom read/writable storage during the SeaBIOS initialization phase. The area resides between 0x07000-0x90000. The area is not reserved from the operating system and by specification it is required to be zero'd at the end of the initialization phase.

The "tmplow" and "tmphigh" regions are only available during the initialization phase. Any access (either read or write) after completion of the initialization phase can result in difficult to find errors.