Byte alignment and ordering

Realtime systems consist of multiple processors communicating with each other via messages. For message communication to work correctly, the message formats should be defined unambiguously. In many systems this is achieved simply by defining C/C++ structures to implement the message format. Using C/C++ structures is a simple approach, but it has its own pitfalls. The problem is that different processors/compilers might define the same structure differently, thus causing incompatibility in the interface definition.

There are two reasons for these incompatibilities:

Byte Alignment Restrictions

Most 16-bit and 32-bit processors do not allow words and long words to be stored at any offset. For example, the Motorola 68000 does not allow a 16 bit word to be stored at an odd address. Attempting to write a 16 bit number at an odd address results in an exception.

Why Restrict Byte Alignment?

32 bit microprocessors typically organize memory as shown below. Memory is accessed by performing 32 bit bus cycles. 32 bit bus cycles can however be performed at addresses that are divisible by 4. (32 bit microprocessors do not use the address lines A1 and A0 for addressing memory).

The reasons for not permitting misaligned long word reads and writes are not difficult to see. For example, an aligned long word X would be written as X0, X1, X2 and X3. Thus the microprocessor can read the complete long word in a single bus cycle. If the same microprocessor now attempts to access a long word at address 0x000D, it will have to read bytes Y0, Y1, Y2 and Y3. Notice that this read cannot be performed in a single 32 bit bus cycle. The microprocessor will have to issue two different reads at address 0x100C and 0x1010 to read the complete long word. Thus it takes twice the time to read a misaligned long word.

Byte 0 Byte 1 Byte 2 Byte 3
0x1004 X0 X1 X2 X3
0x100C Y0 Y1 Y2
0x1010 Y3

Compiler Byte Padding

Compilers have to follow the byte alignment restrictions defined by the target microprocessors. This means that compilers have to add pad bytes into user defined structures so that the structure does not violate any restrictions imposed by the target microprocessor.

The compiler padding is illustrated in the following example. Here a char is assumed to be one byte, a short is two bytes and a long is four bytes.

User Defined Structure

Actual Structure Definition Used By the Compiler

In the above example, the compiler has added pad bytes to enforce byte alignment rules of the target processor. If the above message structure was used in a different compiler/microprocessor combination, the pads inserted by that compiler might be different. Thus two applications using the same structure definition header file might be incompatible with each other.

Thus it is a good practice to insert pad bytes explicitly in all C-structures that are shared in a interface between machines differing in either the compiler and/or microprocessor.

General Byte Alignment Rules

The following byte padding rules will generally work with most 32 bit processor. You should consult your compiler and microprocessor manuals to see if you can relax any of these rules.

Structure Alignment for Efficiency

Sometimes array indexing efficiency can also determine the pad bytes in the structure. Note that compilers index into arrays by calculating the address of the indexed entry by the multiplying the index with the size of the structure. This number is then added to the array base address to obtain the final address. Since this operation involves a multiply, indexing into arrays can be expensive. The array indexing can be considerably speeded up by just making sure that the structure size is a power of 2. The compiler can then replace the multiply with a simple shift operation.

Byte Ordering

Microprocessors support big-endian and little-endian byte ordering. Big-endian is an order in which the "big end" (most significant byte) is stored first (at the lowest address). Little-endian is an order in which the "little end" (least significant byte) is stored first.

The table below shows the representation of the hexadecimal number 0x0AC0FFEE on a big-endian and little-endian machine. The contents of memory locations 0x1000 to 0x1003 are shown.

0x1000 0x1001 0x1002 0x1003
Big-endian 0x0A 0xC0 0xFF 0xEE
Little-endian 0xEE 0xFF 0xC0 0x0A

Why Different Byte Ordering?

This is a difficult question. There is no logical reason why different microprocessor vendors decided to use different ordering schemes. Most of the reasons are historical. For example, Intel processors have traditionally been little-endian. Motorola processors have always been big-endian.

The situation is actually quite similar to that of Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. Lilliputians were divided into two groups based on the end from which the egg should be broken. The big-endians preferred to break their eggs from the larger end. The little-endians broke their eggs from the smaller end.

Conversion Routines

Routines to convert between big-endian and little-endian formats are actually quite straight forward. The routines shown below will convert from both ways, i.e. big-endian to little-endian and back.

Big-endian to Little-endian conversion and back