Main Content

Reverse-engineering the multiplication algorithm in the Intel 8086 processor

While programmers today take multiplication for granted, most microprocessors in the 1970s could only add and subtract — multiplication required a slow and tedious loop implemented in assembly code.1 One of the nice features of the Intel 8086 processor (1978) was that it provided machine instructions for multiplication,2 able to multiply 8-bit or 16-bit numbers with a single instruction. Internally, the 8086 still performed a loop, but the loop was implemented in microcode: faster and transparent to the programmer. Even so, multiplication was a slow operation, about 24 to 30 times slower than addition.

In this blog post, I explain the multiplication process inside the 8086, analyze the microcode that it used, and discuss the hardware circuitry that helped it out.3 My analysis is based on reverse-engineering the 8086 from die photos. The die photo below shows the chip under a microscope. I’ve labeled the key functional blocks; the ones that are important to this post are darker. At the left, the ALU (Arithmetic/Logic Unit) performs the arithmetic operations at the heart of multiplication: addition and shifts. Multiplication also uses a few other hardware features: the X register, the F1 flag, and a loop counter. The microcode ROM at the lower right controls the process.

The multiplication routines in the 8086 are implemented in microcode. Most people think of machine instructions as the basic steps that a computer performs. However, many processors (including the 8086) have another layer of software underneath: microcode. With microcode, instead of building the control circuitry from complex logic gates, the control logic is largely replaced with code. To execute a machine instruction, the computer internally executes several simpler micro-instructions, specified by the microcode. This is especially useful for a machine instruction such as multiplication, which requires many steps in a loop.

A micro-instruction in the 8086 is encoded into 21 bits as shown below. Every micro-instruction has a move from a source register to a destination register, each specified with 5 bits. The meaning of the remaining bits depends on the type field and can be anything from an ALU operation to a memory read or write to a change of microcode control flow. Thus, an 8086 micro-instruction typically does two things in parallel: the move and the action. For more about 8086 microcode, see my microcode blog post.”

Link to article