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HLA - The High Level Assembly Programming Language

October 2005

I've noted before that assembly language programming can be quite engrossing. It's the level of detail that captivates; there can be a great deal of craftmanship and mental challenge in writing assembly programs.

However, the required detail can also be annoying and the source of much boredom, particularly when you are working in the areas that aren't really of interest to you, like simple screen output. It's the drudgery that turns most of us to higher level languages.

The juxtaposition of "high level" and "assembly" is a cause for raised eyebrows. Usually the approach to the "I don't want to write that part" is handled by libraries, but HLA comes at it as its own language.

Originally desgned for teaching, the concept was to allow students familiar with C or Pascal to get a running start by being able to use similar constructs. A quote from HLA's creator, Randy Hyde:

HLA lets students write meaningful programs within about a week of
it's introduction (e.g., the first assignment I gave last quarter
was to write an "addition table" program that computes the outer
product [addition table] of the two vectors 0..15 and 0..15, printing
the table formatted nicely). They achieve this by using statements
they already know (like IF and WHILE) with the injection of just
a few assembly language concepts (registers, and the MOV and ADD
instructions) plus an introduction to the HLA Standard Library.
Over the next several weeks, these students write more and more
complex programs as they are introducd to new assembly language
and HLA concepts (e.g., data representation, basic architecture,
addressing modes, data types, and additional instructions). At
about the sixth week, I begin "weaning" these students off the high
level language statements and force them to use the low level
machine instructions. It turns out that they learn how to simulate
an IF statement at roughly the same point in the quarter as they
did when they used only MASM, but the big difference is that they've
written a lot more code up to that point proving out other concepts
in machine organzation and assembly language programming. 

If you are already an assembly programmer, you probably won't like HLA: remember, it was designed to teach, and to feel like a higher level language. But if you just like to dabble, this could be fun.

References: http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/8408
What is HLA All About, Anyway?

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Tue Oct 18 14:05:42 2005: 1216   BigDumbDinosaur

Back in the days when I pounded out a gazillion lines of 6502 machine code, I created a large library of macros to deal with the tedium. That was as close as I ever got to "high level assembly" language.

Tony is quite on the mark when he speaks of craftsmanship and detail. Unlike writing in a higher level language, producing machine code tends to be unforgiving. You mess up and you'll be reaching for the reset button when the machine goes on its face. I most enjoyed writing assembly language when developing something that twiddled chip registers. There was a great sense of satisfaction when what ever was connected to those chips responded as expected...and a lot of exasperation when it didn't.

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