Interfacing Assembly Language Routines with dBASE
by Ralph Davis
Creating Assembler Programs with DEBUG
DEBUG is the assembly language programmer's best friend. It is a
powerful tool for exploring the computer's memory, testing assembly
language programs, studying program listings, and creating new
programs. Additionally, it can be used to rebuild corrupted data
files, convert hidden files to accessible files, or simply analyze
file structures. Our main interest in DEBUG here is to create
assembly language routines for use with dBASE II and dBASE III.
It is tempting to use DEBUG because of its interpreter-like
qualities. You can quickly enter code and then see if it works.If
it does, you call it .COM and write it to disk. If it
doesn't, you trace through the old code, enter new code, and try
again. Eventually, you come up with a program that works through
trial-and-error. However, this can lead to sloppy programming
habits and inefficient code, so it is important to bear in mind
what you want a particular program to accomplish.
DEBUG has some limitations. Most importantly, it only recognizes
absolute addresses. When you write a program for submission to
an assembler, you label the instructions and data you will need
to refer to, then refer to them with the label. You don't need
to know the actual addresses. DEBUG, on the other hand, obliges
you to look through your program listing and find addresses
whenever you refer to them. For instance, instead of entering
JMP EXIT, you must enter JMP 02FC. Instead of CALL HEXPRINT, you
use CALL 05AE. Instead of MOV BX, OFFSET DATA, you need MOV BX,
0105. If your routine is small, this does not present a problem.
But as you add features and it becomes larger, this becomes a
serious impediment. If you add or alter instructions, thereby
changing an absolute address, you have to change every reference
to it. And the only way to find the references is to page
through the entire program, line by line. For this reason, DEBUG
is best for creating short utility programs.
Most often, programs created with DEBUG use BIOS or DOS
interrupts to manipulate the hardware. Some typical functions
that appear in this issue are setting the cursor (see the example
on page 4-72C of the Developer's Release Reference Manual and the
program listed in this issue), manipulating the shift keys, or
swapping printer ports. Programs of this type should not contain
DEBUG has another important limitation: it only understands
hexadecimal numbers. There is simply nothing you can do to make
it accept decimal numbers. This is not a problem when entering
addresses or interrupt numbers, as most assembly language
programmers think these values in hexadecimal anyway. But very
few programmers think in hex when doing calculations. DEBUG is
therefore not a good tool for doing number-crunching of even
intermediate complexity. Although there are utilities available
to assist in this process, such as Sidekick, this is still a
major obstacle to doing extensive calculations within DEBUG.
Another problem with DEBUG is that code produced with it can be
extremely obscure. Trying to decipher the flow of a program
where you have only absolute addresses and hexadecimal numbers to
guide you can be very frustrating. In addition, DEBUG does not
support comments. So when you read a DEBUG listing, you are, for
all intents and purposes, reading "machine English." The machine
expresses its own language in cryptic English-like symbols,
making a few grudging concessions to your desire to understand
it. All of this reinforces what we suggested earlier: keep
DEBUG routines short.
The program from the Developer's Release Reference Manual
mentioned above is a good example of a program appropriate for
DEBUG. The listing on page 4-72C is as follows:
CURSORPROCFAR; Force a far return.
MOVCX,[BX]; Get two HEX digits.
MOVAH,1; Set cursor type.
INT10H; Video interrupt.
RET; Do a far return.
This is a terse routine that converts the dBASE III cursor to a
full-sized box when CHR(18) passed as a parameter to it. Notice
one thing about this code: it has six lines of assembler
directives (the first three and the last three), and only four
lines of machine instructions. In a short program like this one,
there is no advantage to assembling, linking, and converting it
using MASM, LINK, and EXE2BIN. DEBUG is faster and easier.
Here is a DEBUG session that enters this program as a .COM file.
(The DEBUG commands are explained in Chapter 8 of the PC/MS-DOS
manual. Page numbers which follow refer to it.)
First give DEBUG the 'A' (assemble) command (page 8-15) and enter
6257:0100 MOV CX,[BX]
6257:0102 MOV AH,1
6257:0104 INT 10
6257:0106 INT 20
Notice that 'INT 20' is our last instruction, not 'RET' as the
manual indicates. We will explain this shortly.
The address following the last instruction is 108. Therefore,
enter eight into CX using the 'R' (register) command [page 8-41].
This tells DEBUG the number of bytes to write to disk.
Name the program CURSOR.COM using the 'N' command [page 8-37],
and write it to disk using 'W' [page 8-55].
Writing 0008 bytes
This is the basic procedure for creating a .COM file from DEBUG.
CURSOR.COM will yield unpredictable results executed from
PC/MS-DOS, since the registers are not preserved, and we have no
way of knowing what is being passed in DS:BX. (When we tested
it, the cursor simply vanished.) Nor, in its present form, will
it work in dBASE III. It needs a couple of changes to make it
work, but this point deserves some attention.
PC/MS-DOS .COM files and dBASE LOAD modules require slightly
different specifications. A .COM file must be ORGed (originated)
at address 100H, and it must end with a command like INT 20H
(terminate) or INT 27H (terminate and stay resident); a simple
RET will not return correctly. dBASE III, on the other hand,
requires LOAD modules to be ORGed at address 0 and to return to
dBASE III with a far return, RETF. If you load a conventional
.COM file, ORGed at 100H and terminated with INT 20H, into dBASE
III, and then call it, you will lock the system, even if it works
from PC/MS-DOS. When DEBUG writes a program to disk, it writes a
binary file -- that is, a file which contains nothing but the
machine instructions you have given it. Therefore, we need not
concern ourselves with ORGing programs correctly at this stage.
We do have to terminate LOAD modules with RETF, however.
Here is a DEBUG session that enters this program as a .BIN file
which will execute from dBASE III.
Type 'A' for assemble. Terminate with a RETF.
6346:0100 MOV CX,[BX]
6346:0102 MOV AH,1
6346:0104 INT 10
Place the number 7 in the CX register to save 7 bytes to disk.
Name the file, and write it.
Writing 0007 bytes
The page of the Developer's Release Manual referred to above
gives the following example of how to use Cursor:
STORE CHR(18) TO shape
CALL Cursor WITH shape
The commands to convert the cursor back to its normal format are:
STORE CHR(12) + CHR(11) to shape
CALL Cursor WITH shape
.COM Files vs. .EXE Files
When creating programs with a full-featured assembler, we have
two options: .COM files and .EXE files. Each has advantages and
.COM files are an inheritance from the world of 8-bit CP/M. They
are your only option if you have a CP/M machine. .COM files must
adhere to a strictly defined structure.
1. They must fit entirely within one segment. All
segment registers must point to the same address,
and cannot be changed during the execution of the
program. This means that all of our main program,
subroutines, and data must fit in 64K. A 64K .COM
file is a very large program -- each line of code
assembles to between 1 and 6 bytes, so a 64K .COM
file could have as many as 30,000 lines of source
2. They must be ORGed at 100H. When PC/MS-DOS loads a
.COM file, it jumps to CS:100H and begins executing.
3. They must return control to their calling routine
with either INT 20H or INT 27H, or the equivalent
INT 21H function calls, 4CH and 31H.
.COM files load more quickly than .EXE files, since no addresses
need to be calculated at load time.
The assembly language programs that dBASE II and dBASE III can
execute as subroutines (with the CALL command) are variations of
the .COM file. We will discuss the specifics of their formats
.EXE files are less limited structurally. The segment registers
can be freely manipulated, and each one can point to an entirely
different 64K segment. .EXE files can therefore be much larger
than .COM files. .EXE files were designed to take better
advantage of the actual architecture of 16-bit 8086-based
microprocessors. Having data in one segment, code in another,
and the stack in a third allows much greater utilization of the
memory space available in today's machines. It also provides us
the semblance of structured programming in assembly language.
The SEGMENT, PROC, ENDS, and ENDP operators give a program
listing a much more organized appearance than it has with JMP and
DB statements interspersed throughout the code.
.EXE files take longer to load than .COM files, as many of the
absolute addresses are not computed until load time. They also
take up more disk space than .COM files. However, since they use
much more of the 8086 family's capabilities, they can be much
more powerful programs. The commercial programs which were
handed down from the CP/M world are all .COM files, whereas those
which were created since the advent of 16-bit machines are mostly
Having said this, we will leave .EXE files behind. You cannot
LOAD .EXE files from dBASE II or dBASE III. You can execute them
with QUIT TO in dBASE II or RUN(!) in dBASE III. If you want to
pass parameters to and from .EXE files, you must pass them in
text files (the SDF format is recommended).
Adapting Assembly Language Programs to dBASE II or III
As mentioned earlier, the format of a dBASE II or III assembly
language subroutine most closely resembles that of a .COM file.
Most importantly, it must reside in one segment. Since it is
intended as a subroutine, not as a stand-alone program, it will
differ somewhat from a standard .COM file.
For one thing, a .COM file must be ORGed at 100H. However,
ORGing a dBASE (II or III) subroutine at 100H will cause it to
fail. A program intended for use in dBASE II must be ORGed high
in the code segment -- the exact address depends on the version
of dBASE II, the later the version, the higher the address. In
version 2.43*, the ORG address should be above 61440 decimal.
(See Robert Boies' article on swapping printer ports in the
August issue of TechNotes for a good example of a dBASE II
assembly language program.) A program intended for dBASE III
must be ORGed at 0 (that is, it need not have an ORG statement).
Secondly, .COM files return to their caller with interrupts
(usually 20H or 27H), whereas dBASE II and dBASE III routines
require RET (return) -- near for dBASE II, far for dBASE III.
The procedure for converting assembly language source code into
programs dBASE II or III can execute are as follows:
1. For dBASE II, you must assemble your program with an
assembler that produces a file in Intel .HEX format.
Intel's assemblers, ASM (for CP/M) and ASM86 (for
CP/M-86), create such a file. For PC/MS-DOS, the
Seattle Computer Products assembler generates a .HEX
file. Refer to their manuals, as their assembly
language syntax differs somewhat from Microsoft's
2. For dBASE III, use the IBM or Microsoft
Macro-Assembler (MASM.EXE) to produce a .OBJ
(object) file. Enter the command as follows:
The third parameter will cause MASM to produce a
listing file with a .LST extension, which is very
useful for debugging.
3. Use the linker utility (LINK.EXE) that comes both
with PC/MS-DOS and with the assembler. This will
create an .EXE file. The command is:
Press Return three times in response to the prompts.
4. Use EXE2BIN.EXE to convert the program to .COM or
.BIN format. If you are creating a .BIN file, you
need only enter one parameter in the command line:
If you are creating a .COM file, you need to specify
the full target filename:
Using Conditional Assembler Directives
Because the differences between .COM files and .BIN files are
minor, it is possible to generate both using the same source
code. The following program skeleton shows how to set this up.
The EQU statements at the top inform the assembler whether we are
assembling a program for PC/MS-DOS or dBASE III. In the present
example, we have set COM equal to 0 (meaning false) and D3 equal
to 1 (non-zero, meaning true). We then use conditional
directives to tell the assembler how we want the program created.
Conditional directives are statements in your assembly program to
direct the assembler to assemble a block of instructions based on
a variable value. For example, IF COM (if COM is not zero), ORG
the program at offset 100H. Then at the end of the program, IF
COM, exit with INT 20H; otherwise, exit with a far RET.
.LFCOND; List false conditionals,
PAGE60,132; page length 60, line 132.
COMEQU0; Assemble program as .BIN
D3EQU1; file for dBASE III.
CODESEGSEGMENTBYTE PUBLIC 'CODE'
PUSHDS; Make sure DS points to
PUSHCS; the current
.(program goes here)
POPDS; Restore caller's DS.
INT 20H ; INT 20H if .COM file.
RET; Far return if dBASE III.
It is very important to load the DS register with the segment
address contained in CS. PC/MS-DOS does this automatically for a
.COM file, but dBASE III does not. Therefore, if your routine
needs to access its own data, it will need to set DS correctly.
Sample Program With Conditional Assembly
Here is an program built on the skeletal structure which sets
condensed print on an EPSON printer.
; Program ...: Printer.ASM
; Author ....: Ralph Davis
; Date ......: September 1, 1985
TITLEPRINTER.ASM -- sets condensed print
CODESEGSEGMENTBYTE PUBLIC 'CODE'
START:JMPSHORT ENTRY; Jump past data.
CODESDB27,64,27,15; Printer control codes.
CODELEN EQU$-CODES; Length of string.
ENTRY: PUSHAX; Save registers.
PUSHCS; Set up DS
POPDS; with current segment.
PUSHCX; Save CX
PUSHDX; and DX.
MOV BX,OFFSET CODES; Point BX to codes.
MOVCX,CODELEN; Length of string.
; Controls the loop.
MOV DL,BYTE PTR [BX] ; Get code to send.
MOV AH,5H ; PC/MS-DOS function 5H,
INT 21H ; (send char to printer).
INC BX ; Point to next code
LOOP GET_CODE ; and print it.
POPDX; Restore registers.
INT 20H ; INT 20H if .COM file.
RET; Far return to dBASE III.
ENDSTART; End assembly.
Assemble this program according to the instructions given
earlier. To run it from dBASE II or dBASE III versions 1.0 and
1.1, assemble it as a .COM file, and enter the following
QUIT TO 'Printer'
To run it from the Developer's Release of dBASE III, assemble it
as a .BIN file, and use these commands: