Loading programs to RAM and executing them NASM 16b

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I'm desperate for a solution to this. I'm trying to develop Assembly code allowing me to load and execute(by input of the user) 2 other Assembly .EXE programs. I'm having two problems:

  • I don't seem to be able to assign the pathname to a valid register(Or maybe incorrect syntax)

  • I need to be able to execute the other program after the first one (could be either) started its execution.

This is what I have so far:

mov ax,cs ; moving code segment to data segment
mov ds,ax

mov ah,1h ; here I read from keyboard
int 21h
mov dl,al

cmp al,'1' ; if 1 jump to LOADRUN1 

cmp al,'2' ; if 2 jump to LOADRUN2 

    MOV AH,4BH
    MOV AL,00
    LEA DX,[PROGNAME1] ; Not sure if it works
    INT 21H

    MOV AH,4BH
    MOV AL,00
    LEA DX,[PROGNAME2] ; Not sure if it works
    INT 21H

; Here I define the bytes containing the pathnames
PROGNAME1 db 'C:\Users\Usuario\NASM\Adding.exe',0 
PROGNAME2 db 'C:\Users\Usuario\NASM\Substracting.exe',0

I just don't know how to start another program by input in the 'parent' program, after one is already executing.

Thanks in advance for your help! Any additional information I'll be more than happy to provide.

  • Is not an overlay.
  • I'm using NASM 16 bits, Windows 7 32 bits.
2012-04-04 06:38
by Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini
I really need help, giving all my reputation as a reward - Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini 2012-04-07 23:34
The DOS (int 21h) API is a absolete, ineffective, pretty much disused and unwanted piece of software which mustn't be used anymore. Are you absolutely sure that you need to use it - Daniel Kamil Kozar 2012-04-08 00:33
@DanielKozar Yes, absolutely. I wouldn't be giving my reputation away otherwise. I really need help on this - Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini 2012-04-08 01:19
@DanielKozar Could you please present a solution to this problem based on the requirements I wrote? It would make my day. Thanks in advance - Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini 2012-04-08 01:53


After some hacking and twiddling, I was able to get this working. It's not as straightforward as I hoped it would be, so hold on to your seat(s).

Firstly, you need to realize (as abstract as that may sound) that DOS is a single-user, non-multitasking system. In this particular case, it means that you can't have two processes running concurrently. You need to wait for one process to finish execution before moving to another process. Process concurrency may be somewhat emulated with TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) processes, which stay in memory despite being terminated and it's possible to resume their execution by hooking some interrupts from their code and calling it from some other code later on. Still, it's not the same kind of concurrency that's used by modern OSes, like Windows and Linux. But that wasn't the point.

You said that you're using NASM as your assembler of choice, therefore I assumed that you output your code to COM files, which are in turn executed by the DOS command prompt. COM files are loaded by the command prompt at offset 100h (after loading a jump to that location is executed) and don't contain anything else but "lean" code and data - no headers, thus they're the easiest to produce.

I'm going to explain the assembly source in pieces, so that you can (perhaps) get a better glimpse of what's going on under the hood.

The program begins with

org 100h

section .data
exename db "C:\hello.com",0
exename2 db "C:\nasm\nasm.exe",0
cmdline db 0,0dh

the org directive, which specifies the origin of the file when actually loaded into memory - in our case, this is 100h. Declarations of three labels follow, exename and exename2 which are null-terminated paths of the programs to execute, and cmdline, which specifies the command line that the newly created process should receive. Note that it isn't just a normal string : the first byte is the number of characters in the commandline, then the commandline itself, and a Carriage Return. In this case, we have no commandline parameters, so the whole thing boils down to db 0,0dh. Suppose we wanted to pass -h -x 3 as the params : in that case, we'd need to declare this label as db 8," -h -x 3",0dh (note the extra space at the beginning!). Moving on...

dummy times 20 db 0

paramblock dw 0
dw cmdline
dw 0 ; cmdline_seg
dw dummy ; fcb1
dw 0 ; fcb1_seg
dw dummy ; fcb2
dw 0 ; fcb2_seg

The label dummy is just 20 bytes which contain zeroes. What follows is the paramblock label, which is a representation of the EXEC structure mentioned by Daniel Roethlisberger. The first item is a zero, which means that the new process should have the same environment as its parent. Three addresses follow : to the commandline, to the first FCB, and the second FCB. You should remember that addresses in real mode consist of two parts : the address of the segment and the offset into the segment. Both those addresses are 16 bits long. They're written in the memory in little endian fashion, with the offset being first. Therefore, we specify the commandline as offset cmdline, and addresses of the FCBs as offsets to the label dummy, since the FCBs themselves are not going to be used but the addresses need to point to a valid memory location either way. The segments need to be filled at runtime, since the loader chooses the segment at which the COM file is loaded.

section .text
    mov     ax,             cs
    mov     [paramblock+4], ax
    mov     [paramblock+8], ax
    mov     [paramblock+12],ax

We begin the program by setting the segment fields in the paramblock structure. Since for COM files, CS = DS = ES = SS, i.e. all the segments are the same, we just set those values to what's in the cs register.

mov     ax, 4a00h
mov     bx, 50
int     21h

This is actually one of the trickiest points of the application. When a COM file is loaded into the memory by DOS, it is assigned all the available memory by default (the CPU has no idea about this, since it's in real mode, but DOS internals keep track of it anyway). Therefore, calling the EXEC syscall causes it to fail with No memory available. Therefore, we need to tell DOS that we don't really need all that memory by executing the "RESIZE MEMORY BLOCK" AH=4Ah call (Ralf Brown). The bx register is supposed to have the new size of the memory block in 16-byte units ("paragraphs"), so we set it to 50, having 800 bytes for our program. I have to admit that this value was chosen randomly, I tried setting it to something which would make sense (e.g. a value based on the actual file size), but I kept getting nowhere. ES is the segment that we want to "resize", in our case that's CS (or any other one, since they're all the same when a COM file is loaded). After completing this call, we're ready to load our new program to memory and execute it.

    mov     ax, 0100h
    int     21h
    cmp     al, '1'
    je      .prog1
    cmp     al, '2'
    je      .prog2
    jmp     .end

    mov     dx, exename
    jmp     .exec

    mov     dx, exename2

This code should be pretty self-explanatory, it chooses the path to the program inserted into DX based on the stdin.

    mov     bx, paramblock
    mov     ax, 4b00h
    int     21h

This is where the actual EXEC syscall (AH=4Bh) is called. AL contains 0, which means that the program should be loaded and executed. DS:DX contains the address of the path to the executable (chosen by the earlier piece of code), and ES:BX contains the address of the paramblock label, which contains the EXEC structure.

    mov     ax,     4c00h
    int     21h

After finishing the execution of the program called by exec, the parent program is terminated with an exit code of zero by executing the AH=4Ch syscall.

Thanks to vulture- from ##asm on Freenode for help. I tested this with DOSBox and MS-DOS 6.22, so hopefully it works for you as well.

2012-04-09 00:15
by Daniel Kamil Kozar
Do you think I can run 2 programs at the same time with this - Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini 2012-04-09 02:19
You can't have applications running literally at the same time. DOS does not allow this - Daniel Kamil Kozar 2012-04-09 06:40
@DanielKamilKozar: Nice answer. This is so totally 1980ies.. - Daniel Roethlisberger 2012-04-10 20:57


According to this reference, you are not setting the EXEC parameter block:

Format of EXEC parameter block for AL=00h,01h,04h:

Offset  Size    Description     (Table 01590)
00h    WORD    segment of environment to copy for child process (copy caller's
environment if 0000h)
02h    DWORD   pointer to command tail to be copied into child's PSP
06h    DWORD   pointer to first FCB to be copied into child's PSP
0Ah    DWORD   pointer to second FCB to be copied into child's PSP
0Eh    DWORD   (AL=01h) will hold subprogram's initial SS:SP on return
12h    DWORD   (AL=01h) will hold entry point (CS:IP) on return

The referenced page lacks the <pre>/</pre> tags for this table, that's why it is hard to read in the page.

You will have to set up such a parameter block and point ES:BX to it's address.

Is there any particular reason you are targetting 16 bit (DOS API) instead of the Win32 API? Assuming you can get away with targetting the Win32 API instead, you can start external executables using the WinExec call in something like this skeleton:

global _WinMain@16

; WinExec(char *lpCmdLine, int uCmdShow)
extern _WinExec@8

[section .code]
    ; ... read input and jump to loadrun1 or loadrun2 here

    push dword 1
    push dword progname1
    call _WinExec@8

    push dword 1
    push dword progname2
    call _WinExec@8

[section .data]
    progname1 db 'C:\Users\Usuario\NASM\Adding.exe',0 
    progname2 db 'C:\Users\Usuario\NASM\Substracting.exe',0

Alternatively, you can use the more modern ShellExecute call.

2012-04-07 23:35
by Daniel Roethlisberger
As I'm doing a couple of courses, I have to be designing for 16 bits. Do you think you can help me with a solution written for 16 bits DOS? It would be grealy appreciated. And by the way, should I just get rid of those popf - Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini 2012-04-07 23:40
Yes, just remove the popf instructions - Daniel Roethlisberger 2012-04-07 23:47
Edited to add some 16 bit hints. I don't run DOS (a.k.a. Windows :) ) so I cannot actually test this - Daniel Roethlisberger 2012-04-07 23:56
I apologize for my lack of knowledge, I'm just a beginner in Assembly. To be perfectly honest, I don't understand the paragraph about the EXEC parameter block. I know this may sound shameful, but I really need more help with this. Giving almost all my reputation is an indicator of that. And thanks for your help - Jean Carlos Suárez Marranzini 2012-04-08 00:07