Andreas Christoforou         home     posts

Introduction to AArch64 Architecture


ARM is a family of Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architectures for computer processors that has become the predominant CPU for smartphones.

ARM Architecture

Cortex-A Highest performance Optimized for rich operating systems Application profiles implement a traditional ARM architecture with multiple modes and support a virtual memory system architecture based on an MMU(Memory management Unit). Cortex-A processors provide a range of solutions for devices that make use of a rich operating system such as Linux or Android.

Cortex-R Fast response Optimized for high-performance, hard real-time applications. Real-time profiles implement a traditional ARM architecture with multiple modes and support a protected memory system architecture based on MPU(Memory protection Unit). The Cortex-R processors target high-performance real-time applications such as hard disk controllers.

Cortex-M Smallest/lowest power Optimized for discrete processing and micro-controller. Micro-controller profiles implement a programmers’ model designed for fast interrupt processing, with hardware stacking of registers and support for writing interrupt handlers in high-level languages. The processor is designed for integration into an FPGA and is ideal for use in very low power applications.

The latest ARM architecture, ARMv8, introduces 64-bit capability alongside the existing 32-bit mode.

ARMv8 has two execution modes A64 – 64-bit registers and memory accesses, new instruction set A32 (optional) – backwards compatible with ARMv7-A.

AArch64 Privilege model

There are 4 Privilege levels: EL3 – highest, EL0 – lowest

In ARMv8, the four privilege levels extend this to provide support for virtualization and security

EL0 - This is unprivileged and is used for User-land Applications.

EL1 - This is privileged and is used for running an OS Kernel like Linux.

EL2 - This has a higher level of privilege and can be used to run a hypervisor.

EL3 - This is the highest level of privilege and is used to control (and protect) access to TrustZone.

ARMv8-A provides two security states, Secure and Non-secure. The Non-secure state is also referred to as the Normal World. This enables an Operating System (OS) to run in parallel with a trusted OS on the same hardware, and provides protection against certain software attacks and hardware attacks. EL3 is always Secure, EL2 is always Non-Secure and EL0/1 can be Secure or Non-Secure

ARM TrustZone technology enables the system to be partitioned between the Normal and Secure worlds.


A Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) is a secure area inside a main processor, it runs in parallel of the operating system, in an isolated environment, and it guarantees that the code and data loaded in the TEE are protected.

AArch64 Registers

General purpose Registers

Wn	32-bits	General purpose registers 0-31
Xn	64-bits	General purpose registers 0-31
WZR	32-bits	Zero register (Reads as 0, writes are ignored, a way to ignore results)
XZR	64-bits	Zero register (Reads as 0, writes are ignored, a way to ignore results)
SP	64-bits Stack pointer

X0 – X7    arguments and return value
X8 – X18   temporary registers caller-saved
X19 – X28  callee-saved registers
X29        frame pointer
X30        link register
SP         stack pointer

There are separate link registers for function calls and exceptions

X30 – Updated by branch with link instructions (BL & BLR)
      Use RET instruction to return from sub-routines

ELR_ELn – Updated on exception entry
          Use ERET instruction to return from exceptions

Each exception level has its own stack pointer SP_EL0, SP_EL1, SP_EL2 and SP_EL3

Floating point/SIMD registers

32 bit float registers

S0-S7   arguments and return value
S8-S15	Callee saved register
S16-S15 Corruptible registers
S24-S31 Corruptible registers

64 bit SIMD registers

D0-D7   arguments and return value
D8-D15	Callee saved register
D16-D15 Corruptible registers
D24-D31 Corruptible registers

128 bit SIMD registers

V0-V7   arguments and return value
V8-V15	Callee saved register
V16-V15 Corruptible registers
V24-V31 Corruptible registers

The PC (program counter) is not a general purpose register, and cannot be directly accessed by most instructions.

You can use ADR to get the the address of a PC relative offset

adr x0 label	

AArch64 Exceptions

ARMv8-A exceptions interrupt the processor and change the control flow of the program.

SVC Supervisor Call attempts to access EL1 from EL0. SVC that generates a supervisor call, which are are normally used to request privileged operations or access to system resources from an operating system.
HVC Hypervisor Call attempts to access EL2
SMC Secure Monitor Call attempts to access EL3
HLT Halting software breakpoint Instruction
BRK software breakpoint instruction

Exception handling in ARMv8

In ARMv8, a new exception model has been introduced which defines the concept of exception levels. When an exception occurs, the processor branches to an exception vector table and runs the corresponding handler. In ARMv8, each exception level has its own exception vector table.

Offset from VBAR_EL1 Exception type Exception set level
+0x000 Synchronous Current EL with SP0
+0x080 IRQ/vIRQ
+0x100 FIQ/vFIQ
+0x180 SError/vSError
+0x200 Synchronous Current EL with SPx
+0x280 IRQ/vIRQ
+0x300 FIQ/vFIQ
+0x380 SError/vSError
+0x400 Synchronous Lower EL using ARM64
+0x480 IRQ/vIRQ
+0x500 FIQ/vFIQ
+0x580 SError/vSError
+0x600 Synchronous Lower EL with ARM32
+0x680 IRQ/vIRQ
+0x700 FIQ/vFIQ
+0x780 SError/vSError

Example on Linux Kernel el1_sync

 kernel_entry 1
 mrs	x1, esr_el1			// read the syndrome register
 lsr	x24, x1, #ESR_ELx_EC_SHIFT	// exception class
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_DABT_CUR	// data abort in EL1
 b.eq	el1_da
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_IABT_CUR	// instruction abort in EL1
 b.eq	el1_ia
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_SYS64		// configurable trap
 b.eq	el1_undef
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_SP_ALIGN	// stack alignment exception
 b.eq	el1_sp_pc
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_PC_ALIGN	// pc alignment exception
 b.eq	el1_sp_pc
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_UNKNOWN	// unknown exception in EL1
 b.eq	el1_undef
 cmp	x24, #ESR_ELx_EC_BREAKPT_CUR	// debug exception in EL1	el1_dbg
 b	el1_inv

AArch64 Instructions

Data first loaded into registers, modified, and then stored back in memory or simply discarded once it’s no longer required.

[instr] [cond] [dest]  [src] [operand]

Basic instructions

add - arithmetic instrictions

add w2,w1,#3; w2 = w1 + 3 

mov - copies one register to another or load a value to a register

mov x0, x1; copies x1 into x0
mov x0, #5; move 5 to x0 register

str/ldr - store and load register

str x0, [x1]; stores X0 to memory addressed pointed by x1.  
ldr x0, [x1]; loads from memory addressed pointed by x1 to X0

stp/ldp - store and load pair of register

stp x1, x2, [sp];store x1 at sp and x2 at sp+8
ldp x29, x30, [sp]; load x29 and x30 from stack  

bl/blr - Branch link to register, jumps to a subroutine and stores the return address to x30 link register

blr x0; calls the subroutine at the address stored in x0

b/br - Branch to a register jumps to an address.

br x0;  jump to the address stored in x0

ret - it looks for the return address in the x30 register and jumps there.


No load/store multiple instructions.

Conditional select

CSEL x2, x4, x5 ;cond implements x2 = if cond then x4 else x5
You can define CMOV x1, x2 with new condition  CSEL x1, x2, x1, cond	

No direct access to CPSR register but with System instruction MRS,MSR

AArch64 system configuration is controlled through system registers

TTBR0_EL1 – can be accessed from EL1, EL2 and EL3
TTBR0_EL2 – can be accessed from EL2 and EL3

Accessed using MSR and MRS instructions

MSR - Move System register to general-purpose register

MRS - Move general-purpose register to System register


MRS x0, TTBR0_EL1 ; Move TTBR0_EL1 into x0
MSR TTBR0_EL1, x0 ; Move x0 into TTBR0_EL1

You can find more instructions on the following PDF

ARMv8 A64 Quick Reference

AArch64 MMU

The AArch64 MMU is used to convert from virtual address to physical address and setting the memory attributes, such as access permissions that include read and write permissions for different privilege levels, memory type, and cache policies.

AArch64 Linux uses either 3 levels or 4 levels of translation table with the 4KB page configuration, allowing 39-bit (512GB) or 48-bit (256TB) virtual addresses, respectively, for both user and kernel. With 64KB pages, only 2 levels of translation tables, allowing 42-bit (4TB) virtual address, are used but the memory layout is the same. User addresses have bits 63:48 set to 0 while the kernel addresses have the same bits set to 1. Upper 8 bits of the address can be configured for Tagged Pointers.

Further separate TTBR register for user and kernel TTBRx selection is given by bit 63 of the virtual address.

Translation Lookaside Buffer (TLB)

A translation lookaside buffer (TLB) is a memory cache that is used to reduce the time taken to access a user memory location. It is a part of the chip’s memory-management unit (MMU). The TLB stores the recent translations of virtual memory to physical memory and can be called an address-translation cache.