Program crashes, only in 64-bit mode

This is a story of a program that worked, until it broke on a 64-bit platform.

Consider this 1-line code:

printf("error: %s\n", strerror(errno));

This code can fail mysteriously with a Segmentation fault on 64-bit platforms, if you do not include the header unistd.h. The compiler does not complain about a missing prototype for strerror() if you do not include that header.1 Instead it silently assumes the function returns an int.

The generated assembly2 can explain things a bit better:

call    __error
movl    (%rax), %edi
movl    $0, %eax
call    strerror
movl    %eax, %esi
movl    $.LC0, %edi
movl    $0, %eax
call    printf
movl    $0, %eax

The interesting part is in the line right after call strerror. The movl copies the contents of EAX register to ESI.3 But guess what? strerror() returns a memory address, and the address is 64 bits. But EAX register is only 32 bits wide! The correct register would be RAX. RAX consists of EAX and an additional higher-order 32 bits.

This is because the compiler assumed that strerror() returns an int, which is 32 bits wide on amd64 platform.

A quick run of the program under gdb reveals the state of the registers.4

Before the copy:

rax            0x800874100      34368602368
rsi            0x800740b43      34367343427

After the copy:

rax            0x800874100      34368602368
rsi            0x874100 8864000

Note how only the lower 32 bits have been copied from RAX to RSI. This is not a valid address, so when printf() tries to look it up, it fails.

We can try the same program on a 32-bit system and it works.5 The reason is that an int and a memory address (pointer) are both 32 bits wide there. The generated assembly for i386 confirms:

call    __error
movl    (%eax), %eax
movl    %eax, (%esp)
call    strerror
movl    %eax, 4(%esp)
movl    $.LC0, (%esp)
call    printf

strerror() returned a 32-bit address on EAX, and all of it went to the stack as an argument for printf(). 6

On amd64 platform, the calling convention is to put the arguments of a function on to RDI, RSI, RDX, RCX.


  1. gcc 4.2 on FreeBSD 8.4. It does generate a warning with -Wall option.
  2. gcc -S command saves generated assembly in a .s file.
  3. The amd64 convention is to pass our two function arguments in RDI, RSI registers.
  4. Under gdb, use nexti and info reg commands.
  5. On gcc under amd64, use gcc -m32 to specify a 32-bit target.
  6. The i386 convention is to push function arguments onto the process stack.
amd64  gcc  c  x86  asm 

See also