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Reverse-engineering the division microcode in the Intel 8086 processor

While programmers today take division for granted, most microprocessors in the 1970s could only add and subtract — division required a slow and tedious loop implemented in assembly code. One of the nice features of the Intel 8086 processor (1978) was that it provided machine instructions for integer multiplication and division. Internally, the 8086 still performed a loop, but the loop was implemented in microcode: faster and transparent to the programmer. Even so, division was a slow operation, about 50 times slower than addition.

I recently examined multiplication in the 8086, and now it’s time to look at the division microcode.1 (There’s a lot of overlap with the multiplication post so apologies for any deja vu.) 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 division: subtraction and shifts. Division also uses a few special hardware features: the X register, the F1 flag, and a loop counter. The microcode ROM at the lower right controls the process.

Like most instructions, the division 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 have another layer of software underneath: microcode. With microcode, instead of building the CPU’s 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 division, which performs many steps in a loop.

Each micro-instruction in the 8086 is encoded into 21 bits as shown below. Every micro-instruction moves data 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.”

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