AArch64 GIC and timer interrupt

By Ilja K. @osdev / April 11, 2020

Getting timer interrupt is a common task in todo list of OS developer. Although it is very simple task on some architectures, to have it on AArch64 you need to configure so called Interrupt Controller. From this post you will know how to initialize Generic Interrupt Controller (GIC), control priorities and target an interrupt to specific core.


About three weeks ago I’ve started with porting of my AArch64 bare metal workouts written in C into a Kernel in Rust. I have to admit that I like the language more and more. Rust has a very smart compiler that surprizes me with the optimization again and again, but still the language provides quite flexible control of the final binary code. And of course as an ex-C developer I appreciate namespaces and absence of header files a lot.

I’ve faced several issues and lack of the information regarding GIC, so I decided to highlight them here. As usually related code is available on GitHub.

Interrupt Source

Any AArch64 CPU should have a generic timer, however some boards can also contain external ones. There are several timer related system registers:

If value from CNTPCT_EL0 is less or equal to value from CNTP_CVAL_EL0, then respectively to configuration from CNTP_CTL_EL0, timer can trigger an interrupt request identified by number 30.

Developer can also write delta timer value to CNTP_TVAL_EL0, in that case CNTP_CVAL_EL0 will be automatically populated with new value = CNTP_TVAL_EL0 + CNTPCT_EL0.

To set up timer to trigger an interrupt in one second, following assembly code could be used:

mrs x1, CNTFRQ_EL0
msr CNTP_TVAL_EL0, x1
mov x0, 1
msr CNTP_CTL_EL0, x0

To get timer interrupts continuously, it is necessary to reload timer threshold value with first two instructions from previous listing.

Maybe you’ve noticed I mentioned that timer is physical. There is also a virtual one, which is in fact the same timer, but can be configured to count its value with some offset from physical one. It can be accessed using own set of system registers.

Generic Interrupt controller

Even if you have configured the timer to trigger an interrupt, it is not enough to really get one fired. With AArch64 any interrupt must be distributed to a target CPU first and it is a responsibility of an interrupt controller. But it also provides many other possibilities of interrupts masking and prioritization.

It took me a while to realize, that interrupt controller is a board related component. Generic Interrupt Controller is just a common, but not the only way. Interrupt controller is a peripheral with memory mapped registers. It means that for boards with GIC, driver could be the same with only a difference in base address. But for some boards (Including Raspberry Pi 2 and 3), it could be necessary to implement own driver.

As long as I develop the Kernel for QEMU virtual device, base address of GIC is 0x08000000 which is mapped to 0xffffffe0_08000000 by MMU. Registers mapping is listed in chapters 8.8 and 8.12 of GIC Architecture Specification.

We need to dealt with just four registers to get timer interrupt fired:

// Distributor registors
const GICD_CTLR: *mut u32 = GICD_BASE as *mut u32;
const GICD_ISENABLER: *mut u32 = (GICD_BASE + 0x0100) as *mut u32;
// CPU interface Controller
const GICC_CTLR: *mut u32 = GICC_BASE as *mut u32;
const GICC_PMR: *mut u32 = (GICC_BASE + 0x0004) as *mut u32;
const GICC_BPR: *mut u32 = (GICC_BASE + 0x0008) as *mut u32;

First it is necessary to enable both distributor and CPU interface controller

ptr::write_volatile(GICD_CTLR, 1);
ptr::write_volatile(GICC_CTLR, 1);

Second, for interface controller you need to set up Priority Mask Register. By value in that register you can mask low priority interrupt, so they are never fired. Here is also worth to mention that in GIC logic value 0xff corresponds to lowest priority, 0x00 corresponds to highest.

ptr::write_volatile(GICC_PMR, 0xff);

The last step is to enable Timer specific interrupt to be distributed to CPU core, I’ve implemented it as a function:

// size of single register, each interrupt requires just one bit for configuration
const GICD_ISENABLER_SIZE: u32 = 32;

pub fn enable(interrupt: u32) {
    unsafe {
            GICD_ISENABLER.add((interrupt / GICD_ISENABLER_SIZE) as usize),
            1 << (interrupt % GICD_ISENABLER_SIZE)

As well to get timer interrupt continuosly, you will need to clear pending interrupt on GIC:

const GICD_IPRIORITY_SIZE: u32 = 32;

pub fn clear(interrupt: u32) {
    unsafe {
            GICD_ICPENDR.add((interrupt / GICD_ICPENDR_SIZE) as usize),
            1 << (interrupt % GICD_ICPENDR_SIZE)

For GIC driver I’ve also implemented methods to disable interrupt, set priority and target core, however default settings are enough for start. Full code of the driver can be found here.

Interrupts handling

First of all, interrupts in AArch64 is a subtype of abstraction called Exception. There are four types of Exceptions in AArch64:

  1. Sync or Synchronous exceptions – the ones triggered on execution, for example on attempt to access unexisting memory address.
  2. IRQ or Interrupt requests – interrupts generated by hardware peripherals
  3. FIQ or Fast Interrupt Requests – similar to IRQ, but have higher priority, so FIQ interrupt service routine can not be interrupted by other IRQ or FIQ.
  4. SError or System Error – asynchronous interrupt specifically for external Data Aborts.

Callbacks for Interrupt Servive Routines (ISR) must be provided to CPU using table. In AArch64 that table is called Exception Vector Table. Table must be alligned by 2048 bytes and contain 16 entries. Each entry inside the table is named Exception Vector and specificaly for AArch64 that vector is not just a callback address, but actual ISR code. Size of the code is limited by Exception Vector size which is 128 bytes.

The table must contain 4 groups of vectors:

  1. 4 exception vectors of each type for current exception level, if SP0 is selected by SPSel register
  2. 4 exception vectors of each type for current exception level, if SPx is selected by SPSel register
  3. 4 exception vectors of each type for lower exception level
  4. 4 exception vectors of each type for lower exception level in 32 bit mode

For LeOS I’ve defined the table using assembly code:

.section .text.exceptions

.globl exception_vector_table

.org 0x0000
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el1_sp0_sync

.org 0x0080
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el1_sp0_irq

.org 0x0100
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el1_sp0_fiq

.org 0x0180
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el1_sp0_error

.org 0x0200

.org 0x0280

.org 0x0300

.org 0x0380
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el1_error

.org 0x0400

.org 0x0480

.org 0x0500

.org 0x0580
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el0_error

.org 0x0600
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el0_32_sync

.org 0x0680
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el0_32_irq

.org 0x0700
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el0_32_fiq

.org 0x0780
    EXCEPTION_VECTOR el0_32_error

Table is aligned using linker script:

    . = ALIGN(0x800);
    .text.exceptions : { *(.text.exceptions) }

And .org directives protect vectors from exceeding 128 bytes limit. Macro EXCEPTION_VECTOR expands the code of interrupt which saves registers to the stack and calls specific ISR function that implemented in Rust. Full code is available here.

Address of the table has to be stored in vbar_el1 register:

    ldr     x0, =exception_vector_table
    msr     vbar_el1, x0

As soon as timer triggers asynchronous interrupt request, it could be handled using el1_irq callback.

unsafe extern "C" fn el1_irq(ctx: &mut ExceptionCtx) {


During development I was catching synchronous interrupts inside write_fmt function from core::fmt. By analyzing with GDB I’ve found that content of registers was corrupted. It happened because of my unsafe inline asm! calls in timer initialization. Although the code was in separate module and formatted output was inside kernel_main, it was optimised by compiler into a single function and I’ve corrupted content of registers manually.

pub fn init() {
        gic::set_config(TIMER_IRQ, gic::ICFGR_EDGE);
        gic::set_priority(TIMER_IRQ, 0);
        gic::set_core(TIMER_IRQ, 0x01); // core0

    unsafe {
        asm!("mrs x1, CNTFRQ_EL0");
        asm!("msr CNTP_TVAL_EL0, x1");
        asm!("mov x0, 1");
        asm!("msr CNTP_CTL_EL0, x0");

Temporary solution was to mark the function with #[inline(never)] so compiler won’t rely on registers x0 - x19 to be unchanged during the call. But lesson learned: stay safe when prototyping the code. And it seems it is time to prepare some safe abstractions and register accessors.