The Netwide Assembler: NASM

Next Chapter | Previous Chapter | Contents | Index

Chapter 6: Output Formats

NASM is a portable assembler, designed to be able to compile on any ANSI C-supporting platform and produce output to run on a variety of Intel x86 operating systems. For this reason, it has a large number of available output formats, selected using the -f option on the NASM command line. Each of these formats, along with its extensions to the base NASM syntax, is detailed in this chapter.

As stated in section 2.1.1, NASM chooses a default name for your output file based on the input file name and the chosen output format. This will be generated by removing the extension (.asm, .s, or whatever you like to use) from the input file name, and substituting an extension defined by the output format. The extensions are given with each format below.

6.1 bin: Flat-Form Binary Output

The bin format does not produce object files: it generates nothing in the output file except the code you wrote. Such `pure binary' files are used by MS-DOS: .COM executables and .SYS device drivers are pure binary files. Pure binary output is also useful for operating system and boot loader development.

The bin format supports multiple section names. For details of how nasm handles sections in the bin format, see section 6.1.3.

Using the bin format puts NASM by default into 16-bit mode (see section 5.1). In order to use bin to write 32-bit code such as an OS kernel, you need to explicitly issue the BITS 32 directive.

bin has no default output file name extension: instead, it leaves your file name as it is once the original extension has been removed. Thus, the default is for NASM to assemble binprog.asm into a binary file called binprog.

6.1.1 ORG: Binary File Program Origin

The bin format provides an additional directive to the list given in chapter 5: ORG. The function of the ORG directive is to specify the origin address which NASM will assume the program begins at when it is loaded into memory.

For example, the following code will generate the longword 0x00000104:

        org     0x100 
        dd      label 

Unlike the ORG directive provided by MASM-compatible assemblers, which allows you to jump around in the object file and overwrite code you have already generated, NASM's ORG does exactly what the directive says: origin. Its sole function is to specify one offset which is added to all internal address references within the section; it does not permit any of the trickery that MASM's version does. See section 10.1.3 for further comments.

6.1.2 bin Extensions to the SECTION Directive

The bin output format extends the SECTION (or SEGMENT) directive to allow you to specify the alignment requirements of segments. This is done by appending the ALIGN qualifier to the end of the section-definition line. For example,

section .data   align=16

switches to the section .data and also specifies that it must be aligned on a 16-byte boundary.

The parameter to ALIGN specifies how many low bits of the section start address must be forced to zero. The alignment value given may be any power of two.

6.1.3 Multisection support for the BIN format.

The bin format allows the use of multiple sections, of arbitrary names, besides the "known" .text, .data, and .bss names.

6.1.4 Map files

Map files can be generated in -f bin format by means of the [map] option. Map types of all (default), brief, sections, segments, or symbols may be specified. Output may be directed to stdout (default), stderr, or a specified file. E.g. [map symbols]. No "user form" exists, the square brackets must be used.

6.2 obj: Microsoft OMF Object Files

The obj file format (NASM calls it obj rather than omf for historical reasons) is the one produced by MASM and TASM, which is typically fed to 16-bit DOS linkers to produce .EXE files. It is also the format used by OS/2.

obj provides a default output file-name extension of .obj.

obj is not exclusively a 16-bit format, though: NASM has full support for the 32-bit extensions to the format. In particular, 32-bit obj format files are used by Borland's Win32 compilers, instead of using Microsoft's newer win32 object file format.

The obj format does not define any special segment names: you can call your segments anything you like. Typical names for segments in obj format files are CODE, DATA and BSS.

If your source file contains code before specifying an explicit SEGMENT directive, then NASM will invent its own segment called __NASMDEFSEG for you.

When you define a segment in an obj file, NASM defines the segment name as a symbol as well, so that you can access the segment address of the segment. So, for example:

segment data 

dvar:   dw      1234 

segment code 

        mov     ax,data         ; get segment address of data 
        mov     ds,ax           ; and move it into DS 
        inc     word [dvar]     ; now this reference will work 

The obj format also enables the use of the SEG and WRT operators, so that you can write code which does things like

extern  foo 

      mov   ax,seg foo            ; get preferred segment of foo 
      mov   ds,ax 
      mov   ax,data               ; a different segment 
      mov   es,ax 
      mov   ax,[ds:foo]           ; this accesses `foo' 
      mov   [es:foo wrt data],bx  ; so does this

6.2.1 obj Extensions to the SEGMENT Directive

The obj output format extends the SEGMENT (or SECTION) directive to allow you to specify various properties of the segment you are defining. This is done by appending extra qualifiers to the end of the segment-definition line. For example,

segment code private align=16

defines the segment code, but also declares it to be a private segment, and requires that the portion of it described in this code module must be aligned on a 16-byte boundary.

The available qualifiers are:

NASM's default segment attributes are PUBLIC, ALIGN=1, no class, no overlay, and USE16.

6.2.2 GROUP: Defining Groups of Segments

The obj format also allows segments to be grouped, so that a single segment register can be used to refer to all the segments in a group. NASM therefore supplies the GROUP directive, whereby you can code

segment data 

        ; some data 

segment bss 

        ; some uninitialised data 

group dgroup data bss

which will define a group called dgroup to contain the segments data and bss. Like SEGMENT, GROUP causes the group name to be defined as a symbol, so that you can refer to a variable var in the data segment as var wrt data or as var wrt dgroup, depending on which segment value is currently in your segment register.

If you just refer to var, however, and var is declared in a segment which is part of a group, then NASM will default to giving you the offset of var from the beginning of the group, not the segment. Therefore SEG var, also, will return the group base rather than the segment base.

NASM will allow a segment to be part of more than one group, but will generate a warning if you do this. Variables declared in a segment which is part of more than one group will default to being relative to the first group that was defined to contain the segment.

A group does not have to contain any segments; you can still make WRT references to a group which does not contain the variable you are referring to. OS/2, for example, defines the special group FLAT with no segments in it.

6.2.3 UPPERCASE: Disabling Case Sensitivity in Output

Although NASM itself is case sensitive, some OMF linkers are not; therefore it can be useful for NASM to output single-case object files. The UPPERCASE format-specific directive causes all segment, group and symbol names that are written to the object file to be forced to upper case just before being written. Within a source file, NASM is still case-sensitive; but the object file can be written entirely in upper case if desired.

UPPERCASE is used alone on a line; it requires no parameters.

6.2.4 IMPORT: Importing DLL Symbols

The IMPORT format-specific directive defines a symbol to be imported from a DLL, for use if you are writing a DLL's import library in NASM. You still need to declare the symbol as EXTERN as well as using the IMPORT directive.

The IMPORT directive takes two required parameters, separated by white space, which are (respectively) the name of the symbol you wish to import and the name of the library you wish to import it from. For example:

    import  WSAStartup wsock32.dll

A third optional parameter gives the name by which the symbol is known in the library you are importing it from, in case this is not the same as the name you wish the symbol to be known by to your code once you have imported it. For example:

    import  asyncsel wsock32.dll WSAAsyncSelect

6.2.5 EXPORT: Exporting DLL Symbols

The EXPORT format-specific directive defines a global symbol to be exported as a DLL symbol, for use if you are writing a DLL in NASM. You still need to declare the symbol as GLOBAL as well as using the EXPORT directive.

EXPORT takes one required parameter, which is the name of the symbol you wish to export, as it was defined in your source file. An optional second parameter (separated by white space from the first) gives the external name of the symbol: the name by which you wish the symbol to be known to programs using the DLL. If this name is the same as the internal name, you may leave the second parameter off.

Further parameters can be given to define attributes of the exported symbol. These parameters, like the second, are separated by white space. If further parameters are given, the external name must also be specified, even if it is the same as the internal name. The available attributes are:

For example:

    export  myfunc 
    export  myfunc TheRealMoreFormalLookingFunctionName 
    export  myfunc myfunc 1234  ; export by ordinal 
    export  myfunc myfunc resident parm=23 nodata

6.2.6 ..start: Defining the Program Entry Point

OMF linkers require exactly one of the object files being linked to define the program entry point, where execution will begin when the program is run. If the object file that defines the entry point is assembled using NASM, you specify the entry point by declaring the special symbol ..start at the point where you wish execution to begin.

6.2.7 obj Extensions to the EXTERN Directive

If you declare an external symbol with the directive

    extern  foo

then references such as mov ax,foo will give you the offset of foo from its preferred segment base (as specified in whichever module foo is actually defined in). So to access the contents of foo you will usually need to do something like

        mov     ax,seg foo      ; get preferred segment base 
        mov     es,ax           ; move it into ES 
        mov     ax,[es:foo]     ; and use offset `foo' from it

This is a little unwieldy, particularly if you know that an external is going to be accessible from a given segment or group, say dgroup. So if DS already contained dgroup, you could simply code

        mov     ax,[foo wrt dgroup]

However, having to type this every time you want to access foo can be a pain; so NASM allows you to declare foo in the alternative form

    extern  foo:wrt dgroup

This form causes NASM to pretend that the preferred segment base of foo is in fact dgroup; so the expression seg foo will now return dgroup, and the expression foo is equivalent to foo wrt dgroup.

This default-WRT mechanism can be used to make externals appear to be relative to any group or segment in your program. It can also be applied to common variables: see section 6.2.8.

6.2.8 obj Extensions to the COMMON Directive

The obj format allows common variables to be either near or far; NASM allows you to specify which your variables should be by the use of the syntax

common  nearvar 2:near   ; `nearvar' is a near common 
common  farvar  10:far   ; and `farvar' is far

Far common variables may be greater in size than 64Kb, and so the OMF specification says that they are declared as a number of elements of a given size. So a 10-byte far common variable could be declared as ten one-byte elements, five two-byte elements, two five-byte elements or one ten-byte element.

Some OMF linkers require the element size, as well as the variable size, to match when resolving common variables declared in more than one module. Therefore NASM must allow you to specify the element size on your far common variables. This is done by the following syntax:

common  c_5by2  10:far 5        ; two five-byte elements 
common  c_2by5  10:far 2        ; five two-byte elements

If no element size is specified, the default is 1. Also, the FAR keyword is not required when an element size is specified, since only far commons may have element sizes at all. So the above declarations could equivalently be

common  c_5by2  10:5            ; two five-byte elements 
common  c_2by5  10:2            ; five two-byte elements

In addition to these extensions, the COMMON directive in obj also supports default-WRT specification like EXTERN does (explained in section 6.2.7). So you can also declare things like

common  foo     10:wrt dgroup 
common  bar     16:far 2:wrt data 
common  baz     24:wrt data:6

6.3 win32: Microsoft Win32 Object Files

The win32 output format generates Microsoft Win32 object files, suitable for passing to Microsoft linkers such as Visual C++. Note that Borland Win32 compilers do not use this format, but use obj instead (see section 6.2).

win32 provides a default output file-name extension of .obj.

Note that although Microsoft say that Win32 object files follow the COFF (Common Object File Format) standard, the object files produced by Microsoft Win32 compilers are not compatible with COFF linkers such as DJGPP's, and vice versa. This is due to a difference of opinion over the precise semantics of PC-relative relocations. To produce COFF files suitable for DJGPP, use NASM's coff output format; conversely, the coff format does not produce object files that Win32 linkers can generate correct output from.

6.3.1 win32 Extensions to the SECTION Directive

Like the obj format, win32 allows you to specify additional information on the SECTION directive line, to control the type and properties of sections you declare. Section types and properties are generated automatically by NASM for the standard section names .text, .data and .bss, but may still be overridden by these qualifiers.

The available qualifiers are:

The defaults assumed by NASM if you do not specify the above qualifiers are:

section .text    code  align=16 
section .data    data  align=4 
section .rdata   rdata align=8 
section .bss     bss   align=4

Any other section name is treated by default like .text.

6.4 coff: Common Object File Format

The coff output type produces COFF object files suitable for linking with the DJGPP linker.

coff provides a default output file-name extension of .o.

The coff format supports the same extensions to the SECTION directive as win32 does, except that the align qualifier and the info section type are not supported.

6.5 elf: Executable and Linkable Format Object Files

The elf output format generates ELF32 (Executable and Linkable Format) object files, as used by Linux as well as Unix System V, including Solaris x86, UnixWare and SCO Unix. elf provides a default output file-name extension of .o.

6.5.1 elf Extensions to the SECTION Directive

Like the obj format, elf allows you to specify additional information on the SECTION directive line, to control the type and properties of sections you declare. Section types and properties are generated automatically by NASM for the standard section names .text, .data and .bss, but may still be overridden by these qualifiers.

The available qualifiers are:

The defaults assumed by NASM if you do not specify the above qualifiers are:

section .text    progbits  alloc  exec    nowrite  align=16 
section .rodata  progbits  alloc  noexec  nowrite  align=4 
section .data    progbits  alloc  noexec  write    align=4 
section .bss     nobits    alloc  noexec  write    align=4 
section other    progbits  alloc  noexec  nowrite  align=1

(Any section name other than .text, .rodata, .data and .bss is treated by default like other in the above code.)

6.5.2 Position-Independent Code: elf Special Symbols and WRT

The ELF specification contains enough features to allow position-independent code (PIC) to be written, which makes ELF shared libraries very flexible. However, it also means NASM has to be able to generate a variety of strange relocation types in ELF object files, if it is to be an assembler which can write PIC.

Since ELF does not support segment-base references, the WRT operator is not used for its normal purpose; therefore NASM's elf output format makes use of WRT for a different purpose, namely the PIC-specific relocation types.

elf defines five special symbols which you can use as the right-hand side of the WRT operator to obtain PIC relocation types. They are ..gotpc, ..gotoff,, ..plt and ..sym. Their functions are summarised here:

A fuller explanation of how to use these relocation types to write shared libraries entirely in NASM is given in section 8.2.

6.5.3 elf Extensions to the GLOBAL Directive

ELF object files can contain more information about a global symbol than just its address: they can contain the size of the symbol and its type as well. These are not merely debugger conveniences, but are actually necessary when the program being written is a shared library. NASM therefore supports some extensions to the GLOBAL directive, allowing you to specify these features.

You can specify whether a global variable is a function or a data object by suffixing the name with a colon and the word function or data. (object is a synonym for data.) For example:

global   hashlookup:function, hashtable:data

exports the global symbol hashlookup as a function and hashtable as a data object.

You can also specify the size of the data associated with the symbol, as a numeric expression (which may involve labels, and even forward references) after the type specifier. Like this:

global  hashtable:data (hashtable.end - hashtable) 

        db this,that,theother  ; some data here 

This makes NASM automatically calculate the length of the table and place that information into the ELF symbol table.

Declaring the type and size of global symbols is necessary when writing shared library code. For more information, see section 8.2.4.

6.5.4 elf Extensions to the COMMON Directive

ELF also allows you to specify alignment requirements on common variables. This is done by putting a number (which must be a power of two) after the name and size of the common variable, separated (as usual) by a colon. For example, an array of doublewords would benefit from 4-byte alignment:

common  dwordarray 128:4

This declares the total size of the array to be 128 bytes, and requires that it be aligned on a 4-byte boundary.

6.5.5 16-bit code and ELF

The ELF32 specification doesn't provide relocations for 8- and 16-bit values, but the GNU ld linker adds these as an extension. NASM can generate GNU-compatible relocations, to allow 16-bit code to be linked as ELF using GNU ld. If NASM is used with the -w+gnu-elf-extensions option, a warning is issued when one of these relocations is generated.

6.6 aout: Linux a.out Object Files

The aout format generates a.out object files, in the form used by early Linux systems (current Linux systems use ELF, see section 6.5.) These differ from other a.out object files in that the magic number in the first four bytes of the file is different; also, some implementations of a.out, for example NetBSD's, support position-independent code, which Linux's implementation does not.

a.out provides a default output file-name extension of .o.

a.out is a very simple object format. It supports no special directives, no special symbols, no use of SEG or WRT, and no extensions to any standard directives. It supports only the three standard section names .text, .data and .bss.

6.7 aoutb: NetBSD/FreeBSD/OpenBSD a.out Object Files

The aoutb format generates a.out object files, in the form used by the various free BSD Unix clones, NetBSD, FreeBSD and OpenBSD. For simple object files, this object format is exactly the same as aout except for the magic number in the first four bytes of the file. However, the aoutb format supports position-independent code in the same way as the elf format, so you can use it to write BSD shared libraries.

aoutb provides a default output file-name extension of .o.

aoutb supports no special directives, no special symbols, and only the three standard section names .text, .data and .bss. However, it also supports the same use of WRT as elf does, to provide position-independent code relocation types. See section 6.5.2 for full documentation of this feature.

aoutb also supports the same extensions to the GLOBAL directive as elf does: see section 6.5.3 for documentation of this.

6.8 as86: Minix/Linux as86 Object Files

The Minix/Linux 16-bit assembler as86 has its own non-standard object file format. Although its companion linker ld86 produces something close to ordinary a.out binaries as output, the object file format used to communicate between as86 and ld86 is not itself a.out.

NASM supports this format, just in case it is useful, as as86. as86 provides a default output file-name extension of .o.

as86 is a very simple object format (from the NASM user's point of view). It supports no special directives, no special symbols, no use of SEG or WRT, and no extensions to any standard directives. It supports only the three standard section names .text, .data and .bss.

6.9 rdf: Relocatable Dynamic Object File Format

The rdf output format produces RDOFF object files. RDOFF (Relocatable Dynamic Object File Format) is a home-grown object-file format, designed alongside NASM itself and reflecting in its file format the internal structure of the assembler.

RDOFF is not used by any well-known operating systems. Those writing their own systems, however, may well wish to use RDOFF as their object format, on the grounds that it is designed primarily for simplicity and contains very little file-header bureaucracy.

The Unix NASM archive, and the DOS archive which includes sources, both contain an rdoff subdirectory holding a set of RDOFF utilities: an RDF linker, an RDF static-library manager, an RDF file dump utility, and a program which will load and execute an RDF executable under Linux.

rdf supports only the standard section names .text, .data and .bss.

6.9.1 Requiring a Library: The LIBRARY Directive

RDOFF contains a mechanism for an object file to demand a given library to be linked to the module, either at load time or run time. This is done by the LIBRARY directive, which takes one argument which is the name of the module:

    library  mylib.rdl

6.9.2 Specifying a Module Name: The MODULE Directive

Special RDOFF header record is used to store the name of the module. It can be used, for example, by run-time loader to perform dynamic linking. MODULE directive takes one argument which is the name of current module:

    module  mymodname

Note that when you statically link modules and tell linker to strip the symbols from output file, all module names will be stripped too. To avoid it, you should start module names with $, like:

    module  $kernel.core

6.9.3 rdf Extensions to the GLOBAL directive

RDOFF global symbols can contain additional information needed by the static linker. You can mark a global symbol as exported, thus telling the linker do not strip it from target executable or library file. Like in ELF, you can also specify whether an exported symbol is a procedure (function) or data object.

Suffixing the name with a colon and the word export you make the symbol exported:

    global  sys_open:export

To specify that exported symbol is a procedure (function), you add the word proc or function after declaration:

    global  sys_open:export proc

Similarly, to specify exported data object, add the word data or object to the directive:

    global  kernel_ticks:export data

6.10 dbg: Debugging Format

The dbg output format is not built into NASM in the default configuration. If you are building your own NASM executable from the sources, you can define OF_DBG in outform.h or on the compiler command line, and obtain the dbg output format.

The dbg format does not output an object file as such; instead, it outputs a text file which contains a complete list of all the transactions between the main body of NASM and the output-format back end module. It is primarily intended to aid people who want to write their own output drivers, so that they can get a clearer idea of the various requests the main program makes of the output driver, and in what order they happen.

For simple files, one can easily use the dbg format like this:

nasm -f dbg filename.asm

which will generate a diagnostic file called filename.dbg. However, this will not work well on files which were designed for a different object format, because each object format defines its own macros (usually user-level forms of directives), and those macros will not be defined in the dbg format. Therefore it can be useful to run NASM twice, in order to do the preprocessing with the native object format selected:

nasm -e -f rdf -o rdfprog.i rdfprog.asm 
nasm -a -f dbg rdfprog.i

This preprocesses rdfprog.asm into rdfprog.i, keeping the rdf object format selected in order to make sure RDF special directives are converted into primitive form correctly. Then the preprocessed source is fed through the dbg format to generate the final diagnostic output.

This workaround will still typically not work for programs intended for obj format, because the obj SEGMENT and GROUP directives have side effects of defining the segment and group names as symbols; dbg will not do this, so the program will not assemble. You will have to work around that by defining the symbols yourself (using EXTERN, for example) if you really need to get a dbg trace of an obj-specific source file.

dbg accepts any section name and any directives at all, and logs them all to its output file.

Next Chapter | Previous Chapter | Contents | Index