Taras Bunyk

Bare metal "Hello, world!"

Published: 2021-10-23T19:22:29.000Z

From time to time I get an itch to write. I mean code. Everything: video games, search engines, operating systems. Many of my old friends wrote their own OSes (or at least bare-metal code), and I have FOMO.

Recently I bought eBook reader with bigger screen than my Kindle. So I went on treasure hunt over internet to fill it with all the awesome free books that I wanted to read, but was not reading, because they did not fit to that tiny Kindle screen. And I found some unfinished free book: "Writing a Simple Operating System - from Scratch" by Nick Blundel (2010). It retriggered that itch to write OS, or at least code that runs without OS again.

Here I'll post notes of my journey, skipping boring parts like explaining benefits of hexadecimal notation.

Installing tools

First things that we need are assembler and VM to run code produced by that assembler, because I would not risk running code written by me on bare metal, and risk formatting my disk.

Book uses Netwide Assembler (NASM) and QEMU as VM. To install them with apt, run:

sudo apt-get install qemu-system-x86 nasm

Or select installation variant for your system:

Book also has alternative to use Bochs emulator, but I prefer Qemu, because it does not require config file to run

To view a binary file, which is sometimes useful, you could use:

od -t x1 -A n boot_sect.bin

od stands for "octal dump" (but could dump other formats), -t x1 stands for "type (-t) hexadecimal (x), 1 byte per number", and -A n stands for "addresses no" (don't print byte offsets).

Not yet hello world

So, every tutorial starts from printing hello world to the screen, but this one will finish with it.

Instead, we start from code that just runs, and does nothing else, at all:

; infinite loop bootsector

loop:                 ; define a label (address in code)
	jmp loop          ; go execute code starting from instruction at label

times 510-($-$$) db 0 ; pad with zeroes, so whole sector is 512 bytes

dw 0xaa55 ; last two bytes are magic number to mark this as boot sector

Assembler is full of abbreviations:

  • jmp stands for jump. It is instruction for CPU to do something.
  • db probably stands for "define byte". This is pseudo-instruction of NASM, that says to just put something into particular address in memory.
  • dw probably stands for "define word" (two bytes)

Interesting, how, unlike in high-level languages, assembler code translates 1 to 1 to bytes that will be loaded to computer memory. Where data, like magic numbers are mixed with instructions.

To compile:

nasm boot_sect.asm -f bin -o boot_sect.bin

To run:

qemu-system-x86_64 boot_sect.bin


When we program CPU, instead of using variables, we use registers to store our data. Each x86 CPU has 4 general purpose registers: ax , bx, cx, dx, able to store word, or 16 bits of data. They are way faster to read or write than memory. Also, each byte of register could be referenced separately, as ah (high) and al (low).

Instruction mov moves data from and to register:

  • mov ax, 123 - set value of ax to decimal 123
  • mov ax, 0xabcd - set value of ax to hexadecimal abcd
  • mov ax, 'a' - set value of ax to ASCII code of 'a'
  • mov bx, ax - copy value of ax to bx (equivalent of bx = ax; in higher-level languages)


Interrupts are like a callbacks of CPU. They allow it to interrupt what it currently runs, and run some other code to handle interrupt, before continuing with current task. They are raised by software instruction (for example int 0x10) , or by some device requiring action (input some data, etc..)

Each interrupt has a number, that is used as index to table set-up by BIOS at the start of memory (address 0x0), that contains pointers to interrupt service routines (ISRs)

Since BIOS has a log of ISRs, they are they are entry points to a set of handlers, indexed with ax register. int 0x10 calls a screen-related ISR defined by ax, and int 0x13 - disk related IO. They both have inside something like switch statement, that branches depending by ax value.


To print a character on the screen, we need to set ah to 0xe (teletype mode screen), al to ascii code of character to print, and call int 0x10. We could set ah once per al characters, and then just change al.

And this is how to write bootsector that prints "Hell!" on the screen using BIOS interrupt:

mov ah, 0x0e 	; teletype mode for BIOS interrupt 

mov al, 'H' 	; char to print
int 0x10 		; call interrupt to print char
mov al, 'e' 
int 0x10 
mov al, 'l'
int 0x10
mov al, 'l'
int 0x10
mov al, '!'

jmp $

times 510-($-$$) db 0 ; pad with zeroes

dw 0xaa55 ; magic number to mark this as boot sector

It prints "Hell!" because "Hello, world!" would be too much work. Until we implement strings.

Or, one cool trick. Since we are so low level, we could look at binary produced, and figure out that code

mov al, 'H'
int 0x10

is compiled to b0 48 cd 10, where 48 is ASCII code of 'H'. So we could write code to print "Hell", like this:

db 0xb0,'H',0xcd,0x10
db 0xb0,'e',0xcd,0x10
db 0xb0,'l',0xcd,0x10
db 0xb0,'l',0xcd,0x10

Lower than that would be just rewiring cables on plugboard.


label: could be seen as constant that stores index of byte in memory from which instruction (or bytes defined by db) after it starts.

The problem is, BIOS loads code of boot sector to address 0x7c00, because beginning of memory is already taken by ISRs, if you remember. To offset our addresses, we could tell assembler that our program will be located there by using directive [org 0x7c00]. We could also do pointer arithmetic manually, be we will do it for more interesting things, which is to print "Hello, world!".

So we could put bunch of bytes somewhere after our code using db "Hello world!", mark their address using msg:, and then use msg to set value of ah.

Just if we will use mv al, msg, it will put into al address marked by msg, and later print ASCII value of it. If we want to do pointer dereferencing, we use square brackets mv al, [msg]. NASM also could do pointer arithmetic for you. This, for example, prints "Hel":

[org 0x7c00] ; Memory offset of boot sector

mov ah, 0x0e; teletype mode

mov al, [msg] ; put value from memory address msg to al
int 0x10 	
mov al, [msg+1] ; put value from memory address msg+1 to al
int 0x10 	
mov al, [msg+2]
int 0x10 	

jmp $ ; loop forever

db "Hello world!"

times 510-($-$$) db 0 ; pad with zeroes
dw 0xaa55 ; magic number to mark this as boot sector

Control structures

In language C, string is sequence of bytes that ends with byte 0. If we create our string like this, we could write code that loops over addresses starting from beginning of string, and stops when reaches zero character.

We already know how to do infinite loops:

jmp loop

; or shorter equivalent:

jmp $

To program loops that end, we need conditional jumps, and comparison instruction.

cmp x, y, compares x with y, and sets result into special flags register. Now, there are instruction that jump depending on the comparison result stored in that register:

  • je - jump if equal
  • jne - if not equal
  • jl - less than
  • jle - less than or equal
  • jg - greater
  • jge - greater or equal

And we need a little bit of arithmetic:

  • inc ax - increments ax (`ax++``)
  • add ax, 2 - adds 2 (or any other value you wish) to ax (ax+=2)

Hello world, finally

Putting it all together:

[org 0x7c00] ; Memory offset of boot sector

mov ah, 0x0e; teletype mode

mov bx, msg ; put address of message to bx

	mov al, [bx] ; prepare to print character to which bx points now

	cmp al, 0    ; is it 0?
	je finish    ; if yes - jump to finish

	int 0x10 	 ; print current character

	inc bx 		 ; go to next byte
jmp loop

jmp $ ; loop forever

db "Hello, world!",0

times 510-($-$$) db 0 ; pad with zeroes

dw 0xaa55 ; magic number to mark this as boot sector

If you forget to jump to finish, and make infinite loop, you could print content of whole memory. Which of course will be trash once you went over "Hello, world!", all the zeroes and magic number.

Next level from here, would probably be to try to fit "fizz buzz" into boot sector, or load more sectors.