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Posted at 2012-11-16 14:27 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Friday Q&A 2012-11-16: Let's Build objc_msgSend
by Mike Ash  

The objc_msgSend function underlies everything we do in Objective-C. Gwynne Raskind, reader and occasional Friday Q&A guest contributor, suggested that I talk about how objc_msgSend works on the inside. What better way to understand how something works than to build it from scratch? Let's build objc_msgSend.

Tramapoline! Trampopoline!
Whenever you write an Objective-C message send:

    [obj message]

The compiler generates a call to objc_msgSend:

    objc_msgSend(obj, @selector(message));

objc_msgSend then takes care of dispatching the message.

How does it do that? It looks up the appropriate function pointer, or IMP, to invoke, then jumps to it. Any arguments passed to objc_msgSend end up being arguments to the IMP after the jump. The return value from the IMP ends up as the return value seen by the caller.

Because objc_msgSend only takes control long enough to obtain the right function pointer and directly jump to it, it's sometimes referred to as a trampoline. In general, any small piece of code that serves to redirect code somewhere else can be called a trampoline.

It is this trampolining behavior that makes objc_msgSend special. Because it simply looks up the right code and then jumps directly to it, it's relatively generic. It works with any combination of parameters passed to it, because it just leaves them alone for the method IMP to read. Return values are a bit trickier, but it turns out that every possible return type can be accounted for with just a couple of variants of objc_msgSend.

Unfortunately, this trampoline behavior cannot be written in pure C. There is no way to write a C function that passes through generic parameters to another function. You can come close by using variable arguments, but variable arguments are passed differently from normal arguments and in a way that's slower, so it's not compatible with regular C parameters.

If you could write objc_msgSend in C, the basic idea would look something like this:

    id objc_msgSend(id self, SEL _cmd, ...)
        Class c = object_getClass(self);
        IMP imp = class_getMethodImplementation(c, _cmd);
        return imp(self, _cmd, ...);

This is actually a bit over-simplified. There's a method cache to make the whole lookup faster, so it's more like this:

    id objc_msgSend(id self, SEL _cmd, ...)
        Class c = object_getClass(self);
        IMP imp = cache_lookup(c, _cmd);
            imp = class_getMethodImplementation(c, _cmd);
        return imp(self, _cmd, ...);

Except that, for speed, cache_lookup is implemented inline.

In Apple's runtime, the whole function is implemented in assembly for maximum speed. objc_msgSend runs for every single Objective-C message send, and the simplest action in app can result in thousands or millions of messages.

To simplify things a bit, my own implementation will do the bare minimum in assembly, with all of the smarts in a separate C function. The assembly itself will do the equivalent of:

    id objc_msgSend(id self, SEL _cmd, ...)
        IMP imp = GetImplementation(self, _cmd);
        imp(self, _cmd, ...);

Then GetImplementation can do all of the work in a more understandable fashion.

The assembly code needs to:

  1. Save all potential parameters somewhere safe, so that GetImplementation won't overwrite them.
  2. Call GetImplementation.
  3. Save the return value somewhere.
  4. Restore all of the parameter values.
  5. Jump to the IMP returned from GetImplementation.

So let's get started!

I'm going to use x86-64 assembly here, as it's the most convenient to work with on a Mac. The same principles would apply for i386 or ARM.

This function goes into its own file, which I called msgsend-asm.s. This file can be passed to the compiler as just another source file, and it will assemble it and link it into the rest of the program.

The first thing to do is to actually declare the global symbol. For boring historical reasons, C functions get an extra leading underscore in their global symbol name:

    .globl _objc_msgSend

The compiler will happily link against the nearest available objc_msgSend. Simply linking this into a test app is enough to get [obj message] expressions going to our own code rather than Apple's runtime, which is terribly convenient when it comes to testing this code to make sure it actually works.

Integer and pointer parameters are passed in registers %rsi, %rdi, %rdx, %rcx, %r8, and %r9. Any additional parameters beyond what would fit in there get passed on the stack. The first thing this function does is save those six registers onto the stack as well, so they can be restored later:

    pushq %rsi
    pushq %rdi
    pushq %rdx
    pushq %rcx
    pushq %r8
    pushq %r9

In addition to these registers, the %rax register acts as something of a hidden parameter. It's used for variable-argument calls, and in that case it stores the number of vector registers passed in, which is used by the called function to properly prepare the variable argument list. In case the target method is a variable-argument method, I save this register as well:

    pushq %rax

For completeness, the %xmm registers used to pass floating-point arguments really ought to be saved as well. However, if I can safely assume that GetImplementation doesn't use any floating point, then I can ignore them, which I do simply to keep the code shorter.

Next, I align the stack. Mac OS X requires that the stack be aligned to a 16-byte boundary when making function calls. The above code leaves us with an aligned stack anyway, but it's nice to have code to explicitly handle it so that you don't have to worry about making sure everything is lined up, or wondering why your app is crashing in dyld functions. To align the stack, I save the existing stack pointer into %r12 after saving the original value of %r12 onto the stack. The choice of %r12 is somewhat arbitrary, and any caller-saved register would do. The important thing is that the value is guaranteed to survive across the call to GetImplementation. Then I and the stack pointer with -0x10, which just clears the bottom four bits:

    pushq %r12
    mov %rsp, %r12
    andq $-0x10, %rsp

Now the stack pointer is aligned. It's also safely past any of the saved registers from above, since the stack grows down, and this alignment procedure will only move it further down.

It's finally time to call into GetImplementation. It takes two parameters, self and _cmd. Calling conventions are for those two parameters to go into %rsi and %rdi, respectively. However, they were passed into objc_msgSend like that, and haven't been moved, so nothing has to be done to get them into place. All that has to be done is actually make the call to GetImplementation, which also gets a leading underscore:

    callq _GetImplementation

Integer and pointer return values are returned in %rax, so that's where the returned IMP is found. Since %rax has to be restored to its original state, the returned IMP needs to be moved elsewhere. I arbitrarily chose to store it into %r11:

    mov %rax, %r11

Now it's time to start putting things back the way they were. The first item is to restore the stack pointer, which was stashed in %r12, and restore the old value of %r12:

    mov %r12, %rsp
    popq %r12

Then pop all of the argument registers off the stack in the opposite order from when they were pushed:

    popq %rax
    popq %r9
    popq %r8
    popq %rcx
    popq %rdx
    popq %rdi
    popq %rsi

Everything is now ready. The argument registers are restored to how they were before. All parameters intended for the target method are in the place where the target method will expect to find them. The IMP itself is in %r11, so all that has to be done is to jump there:

    jmp *%r11

And that's it! There's nothing more to be done in the assembly code. The jump passes control to the method implementation. From the perspective of that code, it looks exactly as if the message sender directly invoked the method. All of the indirection above just disappears. When the method returns, it will return directly to the caller of objc_msgSend without any further intervention. Any return value from the method will be found in the correct place.

There's a bit of subtlety when it comes to unusual return values. Large structs (anything too large to be returned in a register) are the most common example of this. On x86-64, large structs are returned by using a hidden first parameter. When you make a call like this:

    NSRect r = SomeFunc(a, b, c);

The call gets translated to something more like this:

    NSRect r;
    SomeFunc(&r, a, b, c);

The address of memory to use for the return value gets passed in %rdi. Since objc_msgSend expects %rdi and %rsi to contain self and _cmd, it won't work for messages that return large structs. This same basic problem exists on many different platforms. The runtime solves this problem by providing a separate objc_msgSend_stret function used for struct returns, which works like objc_msgSend, but knows to find self in %rsi and _cmd in %rdx.

A similar problem arises on some platforms with messages that return floating point values. On those platforms, the runtime provides objc_msgSend_fpret (and on x86-64, objc_msgSend_fpret2 for extremely special cases).

Method Lookup
Let's move on to the implementation of GetImplementation. The above assembly trampoline means that this code can be written in C. Remember that in the real runtime, this code is all straight assembly, in order to get the best speed possible. Not only does this allow for fine control over the code, but it also eliminates the need to save and restore all of those registers like the code above does.

GetImplementation could simply call class_getMethodImplementation and be done with it, foisting all of the work onto the Objective-C runtime. This is a bit boring, though. The real objc_msgSend looks in the class's method cache first, for maximum speed. Since GetImplementation is intended to mimic objc_msgSend, it will do the same. Only if the cache doesn't contain an entry for the given selector will it fall back to querying the runtime.

The first thing we need is some struct definitions. The method cache is a private set of structures accessed through the class structure, so to get to it we need our own definitions. Note that, while private, these definitions are all available as part of Apple's open source release of the Objective-C runtime.

First comes the definition for a single cache entry:

    typedef struct {
        SEL name;
        void *unused;
        IMP imp;
    } cache_entry;

Pretty easy. Don't ask me about the unused field, I don't know why that's there. Here's the definition for the cache as a whole:

    struct objc_cache {
        uintptr_t mask;
        uintptr_t occupied;        
        cache_entry *buckets[1];

The cache is implemented as a hash table. This table is built for speed and simplicity over all else, so it's a bit unusual. The table size is always a power of two. The table is indexed by selector, and the bucket index is computed by simply taking the selector's value, possibly shifting it to get rid of irrelevant low bits, and performing a logical and with the appropriate mask. While we're at it, here are macros used to compute the bucket index for a particular selector and mask:

    #ifndef __LP64__
    # define CACHE_HASH(sel, mask) (((uintptr_t)(sel)>>2) & (mask))
    # define CACHE_HASH(sel, mask) (((unsigned int)((uintptr_t)(sel)>>0)) & (mask))

Finally, there's the structure for the class itself. This is what a Class actually points to:

    struct class_t {
        struct class_t *isa;
        struct class_t *superclass;
        struct objc_cache *cache;
        IMP *vtable;

Let's get started with GetImplementation now that the necessary structs are there:

    IMP GetImplementation(id self, SEL _cmd)

The first thing it does is get the object's class. The real objc_msgSend does this with the equivalent of self->isa, but I'll be gentle and use the official API for that part:

        Class c = object_getClass(self);

Since I want access to the guts, I'll immediately cast to a pointer to the class_t struct:

        struct class_t *classInternals = (struct class_t *)c;

Now it's time to look up the IMP. We'll start off with it set to NULL. If we find an entry in the cache, we'll set it. If it's still NULL after checking the cache, we'll fall back to the slow path:

        IMP imp = NULL;

Next, grab a pointer to the cache:

        struct objc_cache *cache = classInternals->cache;

Compute the bucket index, and grab a pointer to the array of buckets:

        uintptr_t index = CACHE_HASH(_cmd, cache->mask);
        cache_entry **buckets = cache->buckets;

Next, we search for a cache entry with the appropriate selector. The runtime uses linear chaining, so it's just a matter of searching subsequent buckets until either we find a match or find a NULL entry:

        for(; buckets[index] != NULL; index = (index + 1) & cache->mask)
            if(buckets[index]->name == _cmd)
                imp = buckets[index]->imp;

If no entry was found, we fall back to the slow path and call into the runtime. In the real objc_msgSend, all of the above code is written in assembly, and this is the point where it would drop out of assembly and call into the runtime itself. Once the cache has been tried and no entry was found, any hope for a fast message send is gone. The need to go fast becomes much less important at this point, partly because it's already doomed to be slow, and partly because this path should be taken extremely rarely. Because of that, it's acceptable to drop out of the assembly code and call into more maintainable C:

        if(imp == NULL)
            imp = class_getMethodImplementation(c, _cmd);

The IMP has now been obtained, one way or another. If it was in the cache, it was retrieved from there, and otherwise it was populated by the runtime. The class_getMethodImplementation call will also populate the cache, so subsequent calls will go faster. All that's left is to return it the IMP:

        return imp;

To make sure this stuff actually works, I whipped up a quick test program:

    @interface Test : NSObject
    - (void)none;
    - (void)param: (int)x;
    - (void)params: (int)a : (int)b : (int)c : (int)d : (int)e : (int)f : (int)g;
    - (int)retval;

    @implementation Test

    - (id)init
        fprintf(stderr, "in init method, self is %p\n", self);
        return self;

    - (void)none
        fprintf(stderr, "in none method\n");

    - (void)param: (int)x
        fprintf(stderr, "got parameter %d\n", x);

    - (void)params: (int)a : (int)b : (int)c : (int)d : (int)e : (int)f : (int)g
        fprintf(stderr, "got params %d %d %d %d %d %d %d\n", a, b, c, d, e, f, g);

    - (int)retval
        fprintf(stderr, "in retval method\n");
        return 42;


    int main(int argc, char **argv)
        for(int i = 0; i < 20; i++)
            Test *t = [[Test alloc] init];
            [t none];
            [t param: 9999];
            [t params: 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7];
            fprintf(stderr, "retval gave us %d\n", [t retval]);

            NSMutableArray *a = [[NSMutableArray alloc] init];
            [a addObject: @1];
            [a addObject: @{ @"foo" : @"bar" }];
            [a addObject: @("blah")];
            a[0] = @2;
            NSLog(@"%@", a);

I also added some debug logs to GetImplementation to make sure it actually got called, in case I screwed up the build and ended up calling the runtime's implementation by mistake. Everything worked, and even the literals and subscripting called the replacement implementation.

At its core, objc_msgSend is relatively simple. The way that it's used requires the use of assembly code, however, which makes it more difficult to understand than it really needs to be. Additionally, the extreme performance demands and requisite optimizations mean that it's pretty dense and tricky assembly. However, by building a simple assembly trampoline and then reimplementing the logic in C, we can see just how it works, and there really isn't all that much to it.

This should be obvious, but never ship your own objc_msgSend in your own app. You'll break stuff and you'll be sorry. Do this for educational purposes only.

That's it for today's hallucinatory, assembly-soaked article. Come back next time for more fun, games, and hacking. As I've said roughly one thousand times by now, but can't help but reminding you, Friday Q&A is driven by reader suggestions. If you have a topic that you'd like to see me write about, please send it in!

Did you enjoy this article? I'm selling whole books full of them! Volumes II and III are now out! They're available as ePub, PDF, print, and on iBooks and Kindle. Click here for more information.


For better compatibility with real life, I'd add a test for nil self so that messaging nil does nothing rather than crash.
Thanks for the detailed article! I think your use of %r12 isn't safe though, according to the ABI spec it's supposed to be callee-saved.
Vasi: You're right, of course. I was concentrating on my guarantees as the caller and completely forgot about my responsibilities as the callee. I've updated the code to save and restore r12. Thanks for pointing that out.
Awesome explanation. It's been ages I have coded any assembler. Nice.
Thanks a lot for this great article! I am trying to do the same thing for the iOS simulator, but having trouble to find out the right registers. Any clues or links ?
The iOS simulator uses i386 so you'll need to follow those rules for parameter passing and returning. Unfortunately, i386 passes parameters completely differently. Due to the relative lack of registers, it does all parameter passing on the stack, so you'll have to take a rather different approach to building the trampoline there. For more information on just how the parameter passing works, Apple spells out their i386 ABI here:

Thanks for all your articles. They've been a big help!
Here is the official source code for the assembly part behind objc messaging (for arm): https://github.com/bavarious/objc4/blob/master/runtime/Messengers.subproj/objc-msg-arm.s

Enjoy ! :P
unused is for better memory alignment (serve as padding).

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