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The Motorola 68000 is a CISC microprocessor, the first member of a
successful family of microprocessors, which were all mostly software
compatible. The entire series was often referred to as the m68k, or simply 68k
The 68000 family
People who are familiar with the PDP-11 or VAX usually feel comfortable with
the 68000. With the exception of the split of general purpose registers into
specialized data and address registers, the 68000 architechture is in many
ways a 32-bit PDP-11.
Originally, the MC68000 was designed for use in household products (at
least, that is what an internal memo from Motorola claimed). Luckily it was
used for the design of homecomputers like the Amiga and Atari. It was also
used in the Sega Genesis/MegaDrive, NeoGeo and several Arcade Machines as
their main CPU. In the Sega Saturn, the 68000 was used as the sound
processor, and in the Atari Jaguar they were used as a main controller for
all the other dedicated hardware IC's.
Notable design wins include the Amiga, the Apple Macintosh, and the original
Sun Microsystems and SGI UNIX machines. 68000 derivatives persisted in the
UNIX market for many years, because the architecture so strongly resembles
the Digital PDP-11 and VAX, and is an excellent computer for running C code.
The 68000 eventually saw its greatest success as a controller. Thousands of
HP, Printronix and Adobe printers used it. Its derivative microcontrollers,
the CPU32 and Coldfire processors have been manufactured in the millions as
automotive engine controllers. It also sees use by medical manufacturers and
many printer manufacturers because of its low cost, convenience, and good
stability. As of 2001, the Dragonball versions of the processor are used in
the popular Palm series of PDAs from Palm Computing and Handspring's Visor,
though the architecture is being phased out in favor of the ARM processor
Initial samples of the 68000 were released in 1982, and competed against the
Intel 8086 and Intel 80286 with some success. Initial clock rates were a
then-blisteringly fast 8MHz, with a rather slow eight to ten clocks per
instruction. However, the instructions did more than Intel processors.
Motorola ceased production of the 68000 in 2000, although derivatives,
notably the CPU32 family, continue in production. As of 2001, Hitachi
continued to manufacture the 68000 under license.
The 68000 was a clever compromise. When the 68000 was introduced, 16-bit
busses were really the most practical size. However, the 68000 was designed
with 32-bit registers and address spaces, on the assumption that hardware
prices would fall. To address the perceived markets, the actual 68000 was
designed in three forms. The base-form had a 24-bit address, and a 16-bit
data bus. The short form, the 68008, had an 18-bit address (possibly 19 or
20 bits, at least one firm addressed 512KBytes with 68008s), and an 8-bit
data bus. A planned future form (later the 68020) had a 32-bit data and
The CPU had 8 general-purpose data registers (D0-D7), and 8 address
registers (A0-A7). The last address register was also the standard stack
pointer, and could be called either A7 or SP. This was a good number of
registers in many ways. It was small enough to make the 68000 respond
quickly to interrupts (because only 15 or 16 had to be saved), and yet large
enough to make most calculations fast.
Having two types of registers was mildly annoying at times, but really not
hard to use in practice. Reportedly, it allowed the CPU designers to achieve
a higher degree of parallelism, by using an auxiliary execution unit for the
The 68000 comparison, arithmetic and logic operations set bits in a status
register to record their results for use by later conditional jumps. The
bits were "Z"ero, "C"arry, e"X"tend, and "N"egative. The eXtend bit deserves
special mention, because it was separated from the Carry. This permitted the
extra bit from arithmetic, logic and shift operations to be separated from
the carry for flow-of-control and linkage.
The instruction set
The designers attempted to make the assembly language orthogonal. That is,
instructions were divided into operations and address modes. Almost all
address modes were available for almost all instructions. Many programmers
disliked the "near" orthogonality, while others were grateful for the
At the bit level, the person writing the assembler would clearly see that
these "instructions" could become any of several different op-codes. It was
quite a good compromise because it gave almost the same convenience as a
truly orthogonal machine, and yet also gave the CPU designers freedom to
fill in the op-code table.
The minimal instruction size was huge for its day at 16 bits. Furthermore,
many instructions and addressing modes added extra words on the back for
addresses, more address-mode bits, etc.
Many designers believed that the M68000 architecture had compact code for
its cost, especially when produced by compilers. This belief in more compact
code led to many of its design wins, and much of its longevity as an
Most embedded system designers are acutely aware of the costs of memory.
This belief (or feature, depending on the designer) continued to make design
wins for the instruction set (with updated CPUs) up until the ARM
architecture introduced compressed Thumb op-codes that were more compact.
The CPU, and later the whole family, implemented exactly two levels of
privilege. User mode gave access to everything except the interrupt level
control. Supervisor privilege gave access to everything. An interrupt always
became supervisory. The supervisor bit was stored in the status register,
and visible to user programs.
A real advantage of this system was that the supervisor level had a separate
stack pointer. This permitted a multitasking system to use very small stacks
for tasks, because the designers did not have to allocate the memory
required to hold the stack frames of a maximum stack-up of interrupts.
The CPU recognized 8 interrupt levels. Levels 0 through 7 were strictly
prioritized. That is, a higher-numbered interrupt could always interrupt a
lower-numbered interrupt. In the status register, a privileged instruction
allowed one to set the current minimum interrupt level, blocking lower
priority interrupts. Level 7 was not maskable. Level 0 could be interrupted
by any higher level. The level was stored in the status register, and was
visible to user-level programs.
The "exception table" (interrupt vector addresses) was fixed at addresses 0
through 1023, permitting 256 32-bit vectors. The first vector was the
starting stack address, and the second was the starting code address.
Vectors 3..15 were used to report various errors: bus error, address error,
illegal instruction, zero division, CH1 & CHK2 vector, privilige violation,
and some reserved vectors that became line 1010 emulator, line 1111
emulator, and hardware breakpoint. Vector 24 started the real interrupts:
spurious interrupt (i.e. it wasn't properly hand-shaken), and level 1 ..
level 7 autovectors, then the 15 TRAP vectors, then some more reserved
vectors, then the user defined vectors.
The interrupt controller was originally a separate IC, the 68901. This chip
performed a rather complicated dance on the bus to translate the seven
pull-down interrupt lines into vectored interrupts (level 1 through 7). The
68901 also provided a basic UART and (if memory serves) a periodic interrupt
timer. The Motorola 68901 had a number of severe defects, including the
ability to lose the highest-priority interrupt if it and the clock interrupt
happened within some window of each other. The Mostek part was superior.
The fixed exception table was screamingly annoying for hardware designers.
One wants a ROM bootstrap, but then once the OS is up, one wants installable
A lot of effort went into circumventing the fixed vectors, either through
trampolines (tables addressed to RAM) in ROM or through bank-switchable
Another problem was the "privilege" logic. The designers had clearly planned
on having a minimal, but adequate, two-tiered security system to support
something like a UNIX kernel. This would limit the ability of user programs
to access hardware and interrupts. The design had security holes, which were
fixed in later processor models.
The 68000 was also unable to correctly return from an exception on a failing
memory access, a crucial feature to enable true virtual memory. To simulate
unlimited RAM, one wants to interrupt when a memory access fails, and then
the interrupt routine will allocate a block of real RAM and read a piece of
data on disk into it. Several companies did succeed in making 68000 based
Unix workstations with virtual memory that worked, by using two 68000 chips
running in parallel on different phased clocks. When the "leading" 68000
encountered a bad memory access, extra hardware would interrupt the "main"
68000 to prevent it from also encountering the bad memory access. This
interrupt routine would handle the virtual memory functions and restart the
"leading" 68000 in the correct state to continue properly synchronized
operation when the "main" 68000 returned from the interrupt. Obviously this
is an expensive, tricky, and very inconvenient technique, and they upgraded
to the 68010 as quickly as possible.
A more subtle problem was that the 68000 could not easily run a virtual
image of itself without simulating a large number of instructions. This
problem persists in many modern versions of the architecture, which is
rarely used in these applications. This lack caused the later versions of
the Intel 80386 to win designs in avionic control, where software
reliability was achieved by executing software virtual machines.
In the next major revision, the 68010, most of these problems were fixed.
Instruction set details
The standard address modes were:
* Register direct
o data register, e.g. "D0"
o address register, e.g. "A6"
* Register indirect
o Simple address, e.g. (A0)
o Address with post-increment, e.g. (A0)+
o Address with pre-decrement, e.g. -(A0)
o Address with a 16-bit signed offset, e.g. 16(A0)
o Note that the actual increment or decrement size was dependent on
the operand request: a byte read instruction incremented the
address register by 1, a word read by 2, and a long read by 4.
* Register indirect with an Index
o 8-bit signed offset, e.g. 8(A0, D0) or 8(A0, A1)
* PC (program counter) relative with displacement
o 16-bit signed offset, e.g. 16(PC). This mode was very useful.
o 8-bit signed offset with index, e.g. 8(PC, D2)
* Absolute memory location
o Either a numer, e.g. "$4000", or a symbolic name translated by the
o Most 68000 assemblers used the "$" symbol for hexadecimal, instead
* Immediate mode
o Stored in the instruction, e.g. "#400".
Plus: access to the status register, and, in later models, other special
Most instructions had dot-letter suffixes, permitting operations to occur on
8-bit bytes (".b"), 16-bit words (".w"), and 32-bit longs (".l").
Most instructions are dyadic, that is, the operation has a source, and a
destination, and the destination is changed. Notable instructions were:
* Arithmetic: ADD, SUB, MULU (unsigned multiply), MULS (signed multiply),
DIVU, DIVS, NEG (additive negation), and CMP (a sort of subtract that
set the status bits, but did not store the result)
* Binary Coded Decimal Arithmetic: ABCD, and SBCD
* Logic: EOR (exclusive or), AND, NOT (logical not)
* Shifting: (logical, i.e. right shifts put zero in the most significant
bit) LSL, LSR, (arithmetic shifts, i.e. sign-extend the most
significant bit) ASR, ASL, (Rotates through eXtend and not:) ROXL,
ROXR, ROL, ROR
* Bit manipulation in memory: BSET (to 1), BCLR (to 0), and BTST (set the
* Multiprocessing control: TAS, test-and-set, performed an indivisible
bus operation, permitting semaphores to be used to synchronize several
processors sharing a single memory
* Flow of control: JMP (jump), JSR (jump to subroutine), BSR (relative
address jump to subroutine), RTS (return from subroutine), RTE (return
from exception, i.e. an interrupt), TRAP (trigger a software exception
similar to software interrupt), (CHK a conditional software exception)
* Decision: Bcc (a branch where the "cc" specified one of 16 tests of the
condition codes in the status register: equal, greater than, less-than,
cary, and most combinations and logical inversions, available form the