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Bit Manipulation API

SJSU-Dev2 has a standalone bit manipulation utility in the directory library/utility/bit.hpp. This guide will go over why it should be used and how to use it.

Why do we need bit manipulation

Bit manipulation is the means to changing the specific bits of a value without effecting the other bits in that value. Bit manipulation is used a lot in the field of embedded applications as information tends to either be mapped to specific bits within a register or a blob of data, or when attempting to configure a peripheral by setting specific bits or fields of bits to specific values. Take a look at any of the peripheral drivers for the MCUs and you will see that they all utilize bit manipulation.

Example of bit manipulation could look like this:

REG->CONTROL &= ~(1 << 15);

This particular block of code will clear (or also known as set to zero) the 15th bit of this CONTROL register within this REG structure.

REG->CONTROL = (REG->CONTROL & ~(0xFFFF << 4)) | (0xABC << 4);

This example places the value 0xABC at bit position 4 on to bit position 15. The first half using the & operator clears those bits and the second half with the | places the 0xABC into the appropriate position.

It may be good to brush up/learn how to perform bitwise operations before proceeding.

Why make an API for this

Direct bitwise manipulation is a programming techniques that is:

  1. Writability: Prone to mistakes
  2. Readability: Hard to reason about
  3. Debuggability: Can be subtly wrong

To give credence to these statements lets evaluate the following examples:

REG->CONTROL = (REG->CONTROL & (0xFFFF << 4)) | (0xABC << 4);

Now whats wrong with this example? If you look at the (0xFFFF << 4) area, you will see that we are missing a ~. Without this, all other bits in the CONTROL register will be zeroed out. The only bits left in tact are the ones we meant to manipulate. Looking at our list of issues how does this mistake fit?

  1. Writability: One could imagine that forgetting to apply a ~ in the correct location is a reasonably easy typo to make.
  2. Readability: For experienced embedded software developers this is a very familiar pattern, but at the same time, just like it is easy to forget to apply the ~, it is easy to overlook the missing ~. This increases the need to reason about the correctness of this line.
  3. Debuggability: This example is a good type of failure mode because this is easy to detect in unit tests. At runtime there is a potential that wiping out the other bits doesn't crash the program but changes the configurations enough to make something look like it's kind of working but not quite. Additionally, this can lead developers to think that the issue could be with hardware or some other part of the code.

Now lets throw in a curve ball. Lets say we fix this and add back in the ~. Is there anything wrong with it?

REG->CONTROL = (REG->CONTROL & ~(0xFFFF << 4)) | (0xABC << 4);

It is likely most will assume no, it seems fine. But what if the actual width of the bit field isn't 16 bits as indicated by the 0xFFFF, but that it was 12 bits, thus the mask should be 0xFFF. The current implementation will clear out additional bits outside of the desired field. One could make that guess by the value 0xABC. But the data being put into the field can tell you nothing about the size of the field, unless the width of the input is larger than the clearing mask (i.e. value = 0xABCD and mask = 0xFF).

Again, this to is not easy to reason about, is easy to typo, and is hard to notice at runtime. Unit test code could also miss this, if the other fields in the value are not evaluated as well.


A wishlist of features for a bit manipulation library would be the following:

  1. Easy and efficient way to construct bit masks at compile time
  2. Set of APIs for performing:
    1. Bit Set: single bit set to value 1.
    2. Bit Clear: single bit set to value 0.
    3. Bit Toggle: single bit flipped from 0 to 1 or 1 to 0.
    4. Bit Read: read single bit
    5. Value Extraction: extract multiple bits from a location in a value
    6. Signed Value Extraction: extract multiple bits from a location in a value and sign extend it
    7. Value Insert: insert multiple bits into a specific location in a value
  3. All APIs must be constexpr so that these APIs can be used at compile time
  4. Expressive means to construct a value with bit masks and bit apis.

Constructing bit::Mask(s)

The bit API establishes a bit::Mask structure that contains the bit position and width of a field within a value. This mask can be used with the bit manipulation APIs in order to specify the location of the bits needed to be modified. There are a couple of ways to construct bit::Mask objects. Each area below will go over these methods and when they should be used. The idea of when one would have to use one method or another is simple: it is the amount of cognitive work required to verify if a bit mask is correct.

1. bit::Mask{}

It is less common to need to use this, but is helpful in certain situations. The implementation looks like this:

bit::Mask mask = bit::Mask{.position = 5, .width = 3};
// OR
auto mask      = bit::Mask{.position = 5, .width = 3};

In this case, we are constructing the data structure directly. This method should be used if the reference material documents their registers or data blocks using the starting bit position and the width of the field. This way, cognitive load is reduced on the developer because they can simple cross reference the bit position and width in the reference material and the code to see if they match or not.

2. bit::MaskFromRange()

This is the most used API for generating bit masks in SJSU-Dev2 because most reference material (data sheets, user manuals, technical specifications, etc.) use the paradigms of bit start and bit end position. With that in mind, there are two APIs for generating masks for this.

constexpr Mask MaskFromRange(uint32_t low_bit_position,
                             uint32_t high_bit_position);
constexpr Mask MaskFromRange(uint32_t bit_position);

Usage looks like:

// Creates a mask that starts at bit position 3 and ends at bit position 7, or
// in other words, has a bit width of 5 bits.
bit::Mask mask = bit::MaskFromRange(3, 7);
// Creates a bit mask with a single bit position at 8, width 1.
bit::Mask single_bit_mask = bit::MaskFromRange(8);

// OR (preferred)
auto mask = bit::MaskFromRange(3, 7);
auto single_bit_mask = bit::MaskFromRange(8);

Basic Bit Manipulation APIs

The bit API has the following constexpr functions:

  1. bit::Read()
  2. bit::Set()
  3. bit::Clear()
  4. bit::Toggle()
  5. bit::Extract()
  6. bit::SignedExtract()
  7. bit::Insert()

These APIs do as you would expect. Each takes a value as an input, along with a bit mask and will return a value with that change.

For more details about how each works, see bit.hpp.

A quick example to demonstrate how each could be used:

static constexpr auto kReady = bit::MaskFromRange(10);
while(!bit::Read(REG->STATUS, kReady))
static constexpr auto kEnablePeripheral = bit::MaskFromRange(2);
REG->CONTROL = bit::Set(REG->CONTROL, kEnablePeripheral);
static constexpr auto kInterruptFlag = bit::MaskFromRange(4);
REG->INTERRUPT = bit::Clear(REG->INTERRUPT, kInterruptFlag);
// Here we are creating a mask at runtime based on the pin number returned from
// the gpio_pin object.
GPIO->STATE = bit::Toggle(GPIO->STATE, bit::MaskFromRange(gpio_pin.GetPin()));
static constexpr auto kOperatingMode = bit::MaskFromRange(4, 7);
REG->STATE = bit::Extract(REG->STATE, kOperatingMode);
static constexpr auto kPllMultiply = bit::MaskFromRange(15, 21);
PLL->CONFIG = bit::Insert(PLL->CONFIG, 0x5, kPllMultiply);

bit::StreamExtract(), Bit Extract from an Array

bit::StreamExtract() works the same way as bit::Extract() except that an array of bytes can passed to bit::StreamExtract().

See the sd card implementation source code for an example of its usage.

bit::Register & bit::Value Class

Along with the functional APIs, SJSU-Dev2 also provides classes for manipulating and constructing bit values in an expressive and efficient manner.


One of the issues with using the functional bit APIs is that it is easy to produce a typo by doing the following:

static constexpr auto kPllMultiply = bit::MaskFromRange(15, 21);
PLL->CONFIG = bit::Insert(REG->STATE, 0x5, kPllMultiply);

The input register is not the same as the output register. This is not a bug or mistake in the API. A developer may want to use to a different input value, such as a local variable, as the input to Insert() rather than reading from the register directly. But when the source and destination should be the same, this posses a problem.

The Register class comes in to prevent this. It has the same functional APIs as the bit API but all nested within a single class. For example:

    .Insert(0x5, kPllMultiply)
    .Insert(0x2, kPllDivide)

Here you can see that we are performing method chaining in order to manipulate the contents of PLL->CONFIG, but note the Save() method at the end. Here is what is happening.

  1. bit::Register is constructed with a pointer to the register you want to manipulate
  2. bit::Register will store the address of the register and will copy its contents to an internal cache variable.
  3. When Insert() and Set() are used, they manipulate the cached variable.
  4. Once all of the modifications are in place, the final step is to Save() the contents of the cache variable into register.


The use of a cache variable is a very important optimization. Repeatedly modifying the register directly will require that each modification generate a bus cycle. A bus cycle is where data must leave the CPU in order to talk to hardware outside of itself and this takes longer than simply modifying registers or CPU internal cache memory. Multiple bus cycles results in a lower performance code and requires more instructions to be emitted bloating the size of the binary. Save() should be used as few times as possible to improve runtime performance and to reduce binary size.

Register objects can be saved into a variable for multiple uses. This is a good practice if the register needs to be used multiple times within a function or class method.

auto config = bit::Register(&PLL->CONFIG);


In order to keep RAM usage low, only store Register objects as local variables within functions. The performance cost of constructing a Register is very low and does not warrant wasting space by storing them as member variables or as static variables.


Value is used to generate fully to mostly constructed register values in an expressive way. Works in the same way as the bit::Register class, except that it only takes an initial value. It can also be implicitly converted from a bit::Value object into its underlying type (defaults to uint32_t).

// Setup the DMA channel with all of the options specific to handling UART
static constexpr uint32_t kDmaSettings =
      .Clear(DmaReg::kDataTransferDirection)  // Read from peripheral
      .Insert(0b00, DmaReg::kPeripheralSize)  // size = 8 bits
      .Insert(0b00, DmaReg::kMemorySize)      // size = 8 bits
              DmaReg::kChannelPriority)  // Low Medium [High] Very_High

// Only a single assignment needed to set the DMA settings for the peripheral
port_.dma->CCR = DmaReg::kDmaSettings;

Here we construct the DMA settings for a UART peripheral on the stm32f10x MCU. Since the settings do not change between UART peripherals, this particular value can be created at compile time in this expressive manner. It will only be made a real variable when used, and because it is static and constexpr, the compiler will tend to not even statically allocate space for the value, but instead, embed the value into the instructions of the code. No ram, no stack, and nearly no ROM usage.

It is a best practice to use this for peripheral settings that can be known at compile time.

Finding examples

The entire codebase of SJSU-Dev2 uses the bit APIs. Some of the older codes and tests still uses direct bit manipulation, but going forward everything will go through the bit API. A good place to find usage of the bit APIs are in the peripherals/<insert mcu name here> directories. Each MCU implementation of a peripheral will need to perform bit manipulation, thus they are a hot spot its usage.