A Piece of History

A few months ago I received a well-used but not abused copy of Rakesh K. Agarwal’s book 80×86 Architecture and Programming (Volume II): Architecture Reference, published by Prentice Hall in 1991. This is an unusually well-informed book, no doubt because Agarwal was a member of the team that implemented the 80386 at Intel, and wrote some of the 80386’s microcode himself. The book is notable for being the second and only volume of a series (Volume I was apparently never published). Agarwal is also a co-author of an informative article titled The Intel 80386—Architecture and Implementation, published in the IEEE Micro magazine in December 1985.

80×86 Architecture & Programming Vol II

My copy  80×86 Architecture and Programming (Volume II): Architecture Reference came with handwritten notes sprinkled over various bits of the C-like pseudo-code that the book uses to explain the workings of the 386 microcode, as well as several explanatory notes in the instruction reference section.

Task switch microcode corrections

The notes were essentially corrections to the text, but pertained to very low-level details of the 386 implementation. For example where the book lists the registers stored during a task switch, a note mentions that the 386 in fact writes them to memory in reverse order. Who really cares about such a detail? Not a programmer using task switching, because for him or her a task switch is an atomic operation with more or less well defined inputs and outputs; whether register EAX gets stored before EBX or vice versa does not really matter.

BSR instruction clarifications

Since the previous owner’s name—Jeffrey S. Byrne—was written on the inside of the book’s cover, I punched it into a search engine. The answer to the question “who cares about such details” was immediately obvious. In the early 1990s, Mr. Byrne worked for the Cyrix Corporation and his name is listed on several patents.

Of course someone cloning an Intel 386 or 486 CPU would care about esoteric implementation minutiae. Cloning is a tricky business and it’s difficult to guess which details matter and which don’t.

Compatibility testing with existing software is useful, but it’s impossible to get 100% coverage, and it’s even more difficult to test software not yet released. A careful cloner will therefore replicate as much of the software-visible behavior as reasonably possible in order to be safe.

The book is an interesting and unexpected piece of computing history. It’s quite a useful book on its own, but the handwritten notes add a different kind of value.

This entry was posted in 386, Books, Cyrix, Intel, PC architecture, PC history. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Piece of History

  1. anr says:

    Reading those notes would be very very nice.
    I think is not a good idea to share them, am i right? And maybe with the author permission?
    Piece of history!

  2. JDTX says:

    RE:anr

    It depends on the origins of the book. If Mr. Byrne simply sold the book to Half Priced Books and was resold I would say it has the author’s permission.

  3. Yuhong Bao says:

    Interestingly, the Intel manuals warn against having a page boundary in the TSS structure.

  4. Michal Necasek says:

    I would say “naturally” more than “interestingly”. Page faults during a task switch are real trouble, it’s one area where bolting paging on top a 286 design didn’t work too well. Not really anyone’s fault, more like incompatible design requirements.

  5. Rugxulo says:

    This immediately makes me think of Stephen Morse’s 8086 Primer book (2nd ed., which he hosts online for free nowadays). I’ve only skimmed it, but it’s still fascinating (esp. since it was the 40th anniversary of the 8086 this year). But I assume you already own that one??

  6. Michal Necasek says:

    I don’t, unless you count a PDF… though I have the newer books he co-authored, “The 80286 Architecture” (1986), and “The 80386/387 Architecture” (1987). There isn’t any real technical information that can’t be found elsewhere, but there are some unique historical tidbits explaining why this or that design decision was made.

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