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Daniel Janus’s blog

DOS debugging quirk

6 April 2014

While hacking on Lithium, I’ve noticed an interesting thing. Here’s a sample DOS program in assembly (TASM syntax):

.model tiny
  org 100h

N equ 2

  mov bp,sp
  mov ax,100
  mov [bp-N],ax
  mov cx,[bp-N]
  cmp cx,ax
  jne wrong
  mov dx,offset msg
  jmp disp
  mov dx,offset msg2
  mov ah,9
  int 21h
  mov ax,4c00h
  int 21h

msg db "ok$"
msg2 db "wrong$"
end start

If you assemble, link and then execute it normally, typing prog in the DOS command line, it will output the string “ok”. But if you trace through the program in a debugger instead, it will say “wrong”! What’s wrong?

The problem is in lines 10-11 (instructions 3-4). Here’s what happens when you trace through this program in DOS 6.22’s DEBUG.EXE:

Note how in instruction 3 (actually displayed as the second above) we set the word SS:0xFFFC to 100. When about to execute the following instruction, we would expect that word to continue to hold the value 100, because nothing which could have changed that value has happened in between. Instead, the debugger still reports it as 0x0D8A, as if instruction 3 had not been executed at all — and, interestingly, after actually executing this instruction, CX gets yet another value of 0x7302!

Normally, thinking of DOS .COM programs, you assume a 64KB-long chunk of memory that the program has all to itself: the code starts at 0x100, the stack grows from 0xFFFE downwards (at any given time, the region from SP to 0xFFFE contains data currently on the stack), and all memory in between is free for the program to use however it deems fit. It turns out that, when debugging, it is not the case: the debuggers need to manipulate the region just underneath the program’s stack in order to handle the tracing/breakpoint interrupt traps.

I’ve verified that both DOS’s DEBUG and Borland’s Turbo Debugger 5 do this. The unsafe-to-touch amount of space below SP that they need, however, varies. Manipulating the N constant in the original program, I’ve determined that DEBUG only needs 8 bytes below SP, whereas for TD it is a whopping 18 bytes.