From math to machine: translating a function to machine code

In this post I'm going to explore how a mathematical concept can be redefined in progressively more computer-oriented terms, all the way from high level languages down to machine code, ready for direct execution by a computer. To that end, I'm going to define the same logic in several different but related formats:

  1. Math - pure mathy goodness
  2. Haskell - a functional programming language
  3. C - an imperative programming language
  4. Assembly - a more readable representation of machine code
  5. x86-64 machine code - the real deal

If you're interested in how language styles can differ or curious about what your code might look like after being compiled, keep reading!

Factorials in math

A factorial is the product of an integer and all smaller integers greater than 0. There are lots of ways to describe a definition like this. One such way is as follows:

$$n! = \prod_{k=1}^n k$$

This definition states that n! is the product of all integers from 1 to n. For example, the factorial of 5 is:

5! = 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 = 120

Here are the first few factorials:

n n!
0! 1
1! 1
2! 2
3! 6
4! 24
5! 120

One important use of factorials is calculating the total number of permutations of a set. For example, the string "cat" can be rearranged in 6 possible ways: "cat", "act", "atc", "tac", "tca", and "cta". This string has 3 letters and 3! = 6.

The string "a", which has one character, can only be arranged in that one way. You can't reorder the string "a", so it has only one permutation: 1! = 1.

This comes up a lot in algorithm analysis. An algorithm which has to consider every possible permutation of its input is said to run in factorial time. In Big O notation that looks like this: O(n!). Algorithms of this type scale very poorly, so it's useful to be able to recognize these kinds of algorithms, if only so you know to try to find a faster way to solve the problem.

Factorials in a functional language

Just like there are lots of ways to describe something mathematically, there are also lots of ways to describe things to computers. Let's start with Haskell, which among other useful features, happens to have a pretty cool looking logo:

Haskell is a purely functional language. In broad terms, this means that instead of telling the computer what to do, a Haskell program tells the computer what things are. Once a program has been written in Haskell, it's up to the Haskell compiler to figure out how to translate those definitions into instructions which a computer can understand.

Take a look at the following Haskell function, which calculates the factorial of the number provided to it:

factorial :: Int -> Int
factorial n = product [1..n]

If you haven't played around with functional languages yet, this probably looks pretty strange.

The first line says that factorial is a function which takes an integer and returns another integer. Here's an oddly-formatted version of that first line, spaced out so you can see roughly which parts of the syntax mean what:

-- factorial is a function which takes an integer and returns an integer
   factorial ::                             Int          ->        Int

This first line is technically optional but it's usually good practice to include it. Haskell is pretty smart so it can figure out type signatures on its own most of the time, but it's still useful to document the function signature for other programmers or your future self.

The second line defines the function body, which can be read as "the factorial of n is equal to the product of all integers from 1 to n". Here's another spaced out version to show which parts of the syntax mean what:

-- The factorial of n is equal to the product of all integers from 1 to n
       factorial    n      =          product                     [1 .. n]

Notice we're not telling Haskell how to calculate a factorial, we're defining what a factorial is. This is one of the more important differences between functional languages and imperative languages.

Let's break this definition down further. When this function is called with some number n, the part after the equal sign is evaluated and returned:

product [1..n]

First, let's look at the part in square brackets:


This is a list range. A list in Haskell is kind of like an array in other languages. That is, it's an ordered collection of values, all with the same type. You can have lists of ints, floats, strings, custom types, or even lists of lists.

The .. makes this particular list a range. This creates a list of all integers from 1 to n. So if n is equal to 5, this will make a list with 5 values:

[1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Once the list range is evaluated, it's passed to the product function, like so:

product [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

The product function takes a list of numbers, multiplies them all together, and returns the result. So this will evaluate to:

1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5

The answer turns out to be 120, which just so happens to be 5!, the very number we were looking for. What a lucky coincidence!

Once the factorial function above is defined, you can get the factorial for a number by calling like this:

factorial 0 -- This returns 1
factorial 3 -- This returns 6
factorial 5 -- This returns 120

Factorials in an imperative language

We've seen how the mathematical idea of factorials can be expressed in the style of a functional programming language. Now we'll go another level deeper and see the same thing in an imperative language called C, which I like quite a bit, even though its logo is unfortunately not as cool as Haskell's:

Programming in functional languages like Haskell generally works by defining what things are and letting the language work out how to arrive at the answer. Programming in an imperative language involves explaining to the computer how to perform the calculations yourself, as a series of steps the computer can follow.

Take a look at this factorial function written in C:

int factorial(int n)
    int ret = 1;

    while (n > 1)
        ret *= n;

    return ret;

Fundamentally, this is the same exact logic as in the Haskell version, it's just specified in a different way.

At a high level, this function does the following:

  1. Set ret to 1. This is going to be the return value.
  2. Multiply n by ret.
  3. Subtract 1 from n.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 as long as n is greater than 1.
  5. Return the value in ret.

Let's step through this line by line to see how this is done.

int factorial(int n)

This marks the beginning of the factorial function. It states that factorial is a function which takes an integer called n and returns another integer. This doesn't map to English quite as naturally as the Haskell type signature, but we can try:

// Returning an int, factorial is a function which takes an int named n
                int  factorial         (                    int       n)

The ordering of the syntax makes it a bit more awkward, but this line means the same thing as the Haskell function signature.

    int ret = 1;

This declares a new integer called ret and gives it the value 1. This is going to be the return value. We'll repeatedly multiply n against this variable and return it when we're done.

    while (n > 1)

This starts a loop. The while (n > 1) part means to run the code inside the curly braces { ... } over and over as long as n is greater than 1. If n is 0 or 1 at the start of the function, this loop will never run at all.

        ret *= n;

Each time the loop runs, we multiply n by ret and store the result in ret.


Then we subtract 1 from n. This way, n will keep going down each time the loop runs.


This is the end of the loop body. When execution reaches this point, it will jump back to the beginning of the loop and run it again, assuming the conditional in the where line is still true.

    return ret;

Once the loop is finished, we return the value in ret and end the function.

This factorial function can be called like this:


When it's called with a 5, the following steps happen:

  1. ret is set to 1.
  2. n is 5 and 5 > 1, so the loop body runs.
  3. ret is multiplied by 5, changing it to 5.
  4. n is decremented, changing it to 4.
  5. n is 4 and 4 > 1, so the loop body runs again.
  6. ret is multiplied by 4, changing it to 20.
  7. n is decremented, changing it to 3.
  8. n is 3 and 3 > 1, so the loop body runs again.
  9. ret is multipled by 3, changing it to 60.
  10. n is decremented, changing it to 2.
  11. n is 2 and 2 > 1, so the loop body runs again.
  12. ret is multiplied by 2, changing it to 120.
  13. n is decremented, changing it to 1.
  14. n is 1 and 1 is not greater than 1, so the loop ends.
  15. ret, with a value of 120, is returned to the caller.

Factorials in assembly language

Despite differences in style, the C and Haskell functions are both relatively high-level. That means you don't need to bother yourself much with the particulars of the machine you're writing the code for: both the C and Haskell compilers can handle turning code into something appropriate for the computer being targeted. But what does the code they generate look like?

This gets us into assembly language. Assembly language is a symbolic form of machine code. For the most part, instructions in assembly language map directly to machine code instructions.

Because of this, we can't state things in quite the same terms in assembly as we did in C and Haskell: higher level languages do a lot to adapt their syntax to how humans think, but in assembly we have to do some of that work ourselves and adapt our thinking to the particulars of the hardware.

There are actually lots of assembly language syntaxes. In this case we'll be using the Netwide Assembler, also known as nasm. Before we move on, let's get the truly important stuff out of the way. Here's nasm's logo:

I'm afraid Haskell still wins, but this one isn't bad at all.

Here's a factorial function written in nasm syntax for an x86-64 computer:

    mov rdi, 1

    cmp rax, 1
    jle .done

    imul rdi, rax
    dec rax

    jmp .loop


Okay, what happened? If you can make any sense of this at all you're either already familiar with assembly or you're a lot smarter than I am. The C and Haskell versions at least have some complete words and some familiar-ish expressions. However, even though the style of code has changed substantially, the same logic is here, in more or less the same order.

Take a look at this version with comments added to show roughly what each line does in C:

factorial:        ; int factorial(int n) {
    mov rdi, 1    ;     int ret = 1;

  .loop:          ; .loop:
    cmp rax, 1    ;     if (n <= 1)
    jle .done     ;         goto .done;     // The dreaded goto!

    imul rdi, rax ;     ret *= n;
    dec rax       ;     n--;

    jmp .loop     ;     goto .loop;         // Oh god it's another one!

  .done:          ; .done:
    ret           ;     return ret;
                  ; }

The mapping isn't perfect, but with the comments in place, this code should look a little less odd.

Even though it's described differently, the basic logic is the same as the C version. This is no accident: C is a fairly thin layer over assembly and most of its constructs can map pretty directly to a wide variety of machines.

One critical difference between the assembly version and the C/Haskell versions is that there is no type signature in assembly. Nowhere does the assembly version define what inputs the factorial function accepts or what outputs it returns. Instead, it expects that the input value n has been loaded into a register called rax before the function was called. It leaves its return value in rdi when it exits, again assuming that the caller will know where to find that answer. Nowhere in the code is this expressed in concrete terms: to use this function you basically have to already know how it works. Ideally there would be comments in the code or external documentation containing this information. If not, you'd have to read the function's code to try and work out how to use it.

When the function starts, it sets rdi to 1, which will be the return value. Next, it repeatedly multiplies that return value by the value in rax, subtracting 1 from rax each time. Once rax reaches 0 or 1, the function ends and the return value is left in rdi for the caller to use. Assuming the caller put an integer in rax before calling the factorial function, it will find the factorial of that integer in rdi when the function returns.

If you're curious what these instructions really do beyond just seeing how they could map to C-style syntax, read on!

More detail on the assembly version

First, a quick primer. The CPU doesn't really think in terms of variables like int ret = 1; or expressions like ret *= n;. Instead, it has a number of registers. Each register can store a fixed amount of data. On a 64-bit processor, the general-purpose registers store 64 bits each.

By executing instructions, a program can load data into these registers and then do math on that data.

Since registers are tiny chunks of memory inside the CPU hardware, performing operations on registers is lightning-fast because the CPU doesn't need to wait on data to move to or from system memory.

A few of the more commonly-used registers are:

Register Description
rax General-purpose
rbx General-purpose
rcx General-purpose
rdx General-purpose
rdi General-purpose
rsi General-purpose
rbp Often used to keep track of the start of a stack call frame
rsp Always points to the top of the stack
rip Always points to the next instruction to be executed

The general-purpose registers can mostly be used however you want. Other registers have specific purposes with rules about how they can be used or modified.

The CPU can only perform calculations on data loaded into registers. So in order to add two numbers together, you first have to tell the computer to load each number into a register, and then you can tell it to add the values in those registers together.

Let's go through the assembly function line by line to see how it works in more detail.


This marks the beginning of the factorial function. A name followed by a colon is called a label. We can tell the computer to jump to this label whenever we want the code after the label to run.

At the beginning of the function, we assume that the caller set rax to some integer n.

    mov rdi, 1

We're going to return the result of the function in a register called rdi. This instruction sets rdi's initial value to 1. We have no idea what this register is set to at the beginning of the function because registers aren't automatically cleared when functions are called. We have to set it to something before we use it.


This is another label, marking the beginning of the loop. The dot at the front makes it a local label, making it local to the function we're in. We can jump to .loop: anytime we want the loop to run.

    cmp rax, 1

Each time the loop runs, the first thing we need to do is check if the loop should end yet.

Remember n is stored in rax. This instruction compares the value in rax to 1. It doesn't do anything with that information, it just sets things up so we can act on it later.

    jle .done

This instruction acts on the previous compare instruction. jle means to jump if less than or equal to. So if rax is less than or equal to 1, execution will skip ahead to the done: label, ending the loop. Otherwise, execution will continue to the next instruction, which will run the loop body.

    imul rdi, rax

If the program didn't jump out of the loop to the .done: label, we know that n must be 2 or higher. This instruction multiplies rdi by rax and stores the result in rdi.

    dec rax

This instruction decrements rax, which means to subtract 1. If rax is 5, this instruction will set it to 4.

    jmp .loop

This instruction jumps back to the .loop: label, which starts the loop over again.


Once the loop is finished running, execution will jump here.


The factorial result should now be sitting in rdi. This instruction ends the function, causing execution to jump back to wherever it left off when this function was called. The return value of n! will be left in the rdi register for the caller to use.

So you can see that the logic is pretty similar to the C version. Implementing higher-level constructs like C's while loop requires jumping around between labels and separate comparison instructions but it works the same. The function is much less self documented since it has no formal type definition, but otherwise it takes the same input and provides the same output.

Factorials in machine code

We've seen the assembly language version of a factorial function, but can a computer run that directly? The answer is.. almost. Assembly language is a mnemonic for machine code, meaning that each instruction maps to a machine code instruction. However, in assembly, the instructions are specified using bits of English words and numbers in decimal notation in order to be easier for humans like me and (presumably) you to read and write.

We can assemble code by hand using the convenient reference at A detailed look at hand-assembling code is probably a topic for another day, but just for fun, let's take a quick look at how the assembly function could map to machine code.

Note: I'm going to leave out some common optimizations.


48 bf 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 48 3d 01 00 00 00 7e 0c 48 0f af f8 48 ff
c8 e9 ec ff ff ff c3

This is the factorial function in machine code. Makes sense, right? I'm glad you understand, thanks for reading!


Yeah I can't read this very well either, but this is kind of how a computer sees machine code. It's a big slab of bytes sitting somewhere in memory. The rip register stores an address to one of those bytes. When the computer runs an instruction it checks the value of rip to see where it's pointing and it decodes the data it finds there. That means that according to a bunch of rules it sorts out what instruction is meant by a series of bytes.

Once decoded, the CPU does whatever the instruction tells it to do. By default rip is advanced to point to the next instruction after the one being run. This way, the next time the CPU runs an instruction, rip will be pointing at the next instruction in memory. This causes instructions to run in sequence. However, in some cases (such as jumps) the instruction modifies the rip register to point somewhere else, causing execution to jump around.

The code above is represented as hex. Each pair of hex digits is one byte. This could just as easily be represented as a series of 0s and 1s (8 per byte) or in decimal (a number from 0-255 for each byte). For example:

Decimal Hex Binary
72 48 01001000

The way the data is represented isn't really important. You could make up your own encoding format if you wanted, even though nobody else would know how to read it.

Since this slab of hex bytes isn't very helpful, let's break it up into instructions:

48 bf 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 00   mov rdi, 1

48 3d 01 00 00 00               cmp rax, 1
7e 0c                           jle .done       ; Jump ahead 12 bytes

48 0f af f8                     imul rdi, rax
48 ff c8                        dec rax

e9 ec ff ff ff                  jmp .loop       ; Jump back 20 bytes

c3                              ret

Probably the biggest difference between this and the assembly version (other than vaguely English-inspired words turning into a soup of hex digits) is the lack of labels. That's because labels like factorial: and .done: are a convenience provided by assemblers. In machine code, jumps work by changing the value in rip to point somewhere else.

Take a look at the assembled version of jle .done:

7e 0c                           jle .done       ; Jump ahead 12 bytes

In this instruction, each byte has a meaning:

Hex Role Value Meaning
7e Opcode jle Jump if less than or equal to
0c Operand 12 Jump 12 bytes forward

So the 7e tells the computer to jump depending on a previous cmp instruction. 0c tells it exactly where to jump, assuming the jump happens. 0c is hex for 12. All together, this means to jump forward 12 bytes from the current position.

When an instruction is executed, rip will be pointing to the next byte after that instruction. So when 7e 0c (jle .done) is executed, rip will be pointing to 48 0f af f8 (imul rdi, rax). If the jump occurs, rip will be increased by a value of 12, making it point to the c3 (ret) all the way at the end. The next instruction to run will therefore be either 48 0f af f8 (imul rdi, rax) or c3 (ret), depending on the outcome of the comparison being performed.

How about jumping backwards? It works the same, except it uses a negative offset. Take a look at the code for jmp .loop, which jumps back to the start of the loop:

e9 ec ff ff ff                  jmp .loop       ; Jump back 20 bytes

This instruction can be broken into two pieces like the previous one:

Hex Role Value Meaning
e9 Opcode jmp Jump no matter what (unconditional jump)
ec ff ff ff Operand -20 Jump 20 bytes backward

So e9 tells the CPU to jump and ec ff ff ff tells it to jump backward 20 bytes. When this instruction is executed, rip will be pointing to c3 (ret) at the end of the function. Applying a delta of -20 to rip will cause execution to jump back 20 bytes to 48 3d 01 00 00 00 (cmp rax, 1), which will run the loop again.

Providing labels and letting us jump to labels instead of offsets is a very convenient feature provided by assemblers. Without it, you'd have to count bytes to implement control structures like conditionals and loops. Every time you added, removed, or even changed instructions, you'd have to recalculate all your jump offsets. So assemblers help out a lot more than just translating pseudo-English like jmp or rax to their binary equivalents.

Other than the labels being replaced by relative offsets and everything being converted into a binary format, it's the same logic as the assembly version, which is nearly the same as the C version. It's almost like all these languages and formats are somehow related to each other. Spooky!


We've seen an idea translated gradually down through several languages, ending up with machine code. Hopefully this has been interesting and possibly even enlightening. If you enjoyed this, feel free to send me millions of dollars. Thanks for reading!