Hardware Stack (Abstract Data Type) Part 4
Posted by JanWan
Last Updated: April 04, 2012

Hardware Stack

A common use of stacks at the architecture level is as a means of allocating and accessing memory.

Basic architecture of a stack


A typical stack, storing local data and call information for nested procedure calls (not necessarily nested procedures!). This stack grows downward from its origin. The stack pointer points to the current topmost datum on the stack. A push operation decrements the pointer and copies the data to the stack; a pop operation copies data from the stack and then increments the pointer. Each procedure called in the program stores procedure return information (in yellow) and local data (in other colors) by pushing them onto the stack. This type of stack implementation is extremely common, but it is vulnerable to buffer overflow attacks (see the text).

A typical stack is an area of computer memory with a fixed origin and a variable size. Initially the size of the stack is zero. A stack pointer, usually in the form of a hardware register, points to the most recently referenced location on the stack; when the stack has a size of zero, the stack pointer points to the origin of the stack.

The two operations applicable to all stacks are:

§ push operation, in which a data item is placed at the location pointed to by the stack pointer, and the address in the stack pointer is adjusted by the size of the data item;

§ pop or pull operation: a data item at the current location pointed to by the stack pointer is removed, and the stack pointer is adjusted by the size of the data item.

There are many variations on the basic principle of stack operations. Every stack has a fixed location in memory at which it begins. As data items are added to the stack, the stack pointer is displaced to indicate the current extent of the stack, which expands away from the origin.

Stack pointers may point to the origin of a stack or to a limited range of addresses either above or below the origin (depending on the direction in which the stack grows); however, the stack pointer cannot cross the origin of the stack. In other words, if the origin of the stack is at address 1000 and the stack grows downwards (towards addresses 999, 998, and so on), the stack pointer must never be incremented beyond 1000 (to 1001, 1002, etc.). If a pop operation on the stack causes the stack pointer to move past the origin of the stack, a stack underflow occurs. If a push operation causes the stack pointer to increment or decrement beyond the maximum extent of the stack, a stack overflow occurs.

Some environments that rely heavily on stacks may provide additional operations, for example:

§ Duplicate: the top item is popped, and then pushed again (twice), so that an additional copy of the former top item is now on top, with the original below it.

§ Peek: the topmost item is inspected (or returned), but the stack pointer is not changed, and the stack size does not change (meaning that the item remains on the stack). This is also called top operation in many articles.

§ Swap or exchange: the two topmost items on the stack exchange places.

§ Rotate (or Roll): the n topmost items are moved on the stack in a rotating fashion. For example, if n=3, items 1, 2, and 3 on the stack are moved to positions 2, 3, and 1 on the stack, respectively. Many variants of this operation are possible, with the most common being called left rotate and right rotate.

Stacks are either visualized growing from the bottom up (like real-world stacks), or, with the top of the stack in a fixed position (see image [note in the image, the top (28) is the stack 'bottom', since the stack 'top' is where items are pushed or popped from]), a coin holder, a Pez dispenser, or growing from left to right, so that "topmost" becomes "rightmost". This visualization may be independent of the actual structure of the stack in memory. This means that a right rotates will move the first element to the third position, the second to the first and the third to the second. Here are two equivalent visualizations of this process:

apple                         banana

banana    ===right rotate==>  cucumber

cucumber                      apple

cucumber                      apple

banana    ===left rotate==>   cucumber

apple                         banana

A stack is usually represented in computers by a block of memory cells, with the "bottom" at a fixed location, and the stack pointer holding the address of the current "top" cell in the stack. The top and bottom terminology are used irrespective of whether the stack actually grows towards lower memory addresses or towards higher memory addresses.

Pushing an item on to the stack adjusts the stack pointer by the size of the item (either decrementing or incrementing, depending on the direction in which the stack grows in memory), pointing it to the next cell, and copies the new top item to the stack area. Depending again on the exact implementation, at the end of a push operation, the stack pointer may point to the next unused location in the stack, or it may point to the topmost item in the stack. If the stack points to the current topmost item, the stack pointer will be updated before a new item is pushed onto the stack; if it points to the next available location in the stack, it will be updated after the new item is pushed onto the stack.

Popping the stack is simply the inverse of pushing. The topmost item in the stack is removed and the stack pointer is updated, in the opposite order of that used in the push operation.

Hardware support

Stack in main memory

Most CPUs have registers that can be used as stack pointers. Processor families like the x86Z806502, and many others have special instructions that implicitly use a dedicated (hardware) stack pointer to conserve opcode space. Some processors, like thePDP-11 and the 68000, also have special addressing modes for implementation of stacks, typically with a semi-dedicated stack pointer as well (such as A7 in the 68000). However, in most processors, several different registers may be used as additional stack pointers as needed (whether updated via addressing modes or via add/sub instructions).

Stack in registers or dedicated memory

The x87 floating point architecture is an example of a set of registers organised as a stack where direct access to individual registers (relative the current top) is also possible. As with stack-based machines in general, having the top-of-stack as an implicit argument allows for a small machine code footprint with a good usage of bus bandwidth and code caches, but it also prevents some types of optimizations possible on processors permitting random access to the register file for all (two or three) operands. A stack structure also makes superscalar implementations with register renaming (for speculative execution) somewhat more complex to implement, although it is still feasible, as exemplified by modern x87 implementations.

Sun SPARCAMD Am29000, and Intel i960 are all examples of architectures using register windows within a register-stack as another strategy to avoid the use of slow main memory for function arguments and return values.

There are also a number of small microprocessors that implements a stack directly in hardware and some microcontrollers have a fixed-depth stack that is not directly accessible. Examples are the PIC microcontrollers, the Computer Cowboys MuP21, the Harris RTX line, and the Novix NC4016. Many stack-based microprocessors were used to implement the programming language Forth at the microcode level. Stacks were also used as a basis of a number of mainframes and mini computers. Such machines were called stack machines, the most famous being the Burroughs B5000.


Notes continue into the next blog:
Applications (Abstract Data Type (ADT)) 


This is good stuff