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ENDIAN(1) FreeBSD General Commands Manual ENDIAN(1)

endian - Report endianness of a system.

#!/bin/csh -f
if ( `endian` == 'little' ) then ... endif

The endian command reports the endianness of memory on the computer running it. Note that different endianness may be employed for particular I/O operations, such as network packets, without regard for the endianness used in memory storage.

Endianness is defined as the order in which the bytes of an integer value are stored or transmitted. Binary integer values are regarded as a simple string of bits by the CPU. For example, the 8-bit binary integer
= 1*2^7 + 0*2^6 + 1*2^5 + 0*2^4 + 1*2^3 + 1*2^2 + 0*2^1 + 1*2^0 = 128 + 32 + 8 + 4 + 1 = 173
Most CPUs can process integer values of 8, 16, 32, or 64 bits at once, but each memory address holds only 8 bits (1 byte). Hence, integers must span multiple memory addresses, and an order for the bytes must be chosen.
Most computers are classified as either little-endian or big-endian. Little-endian machines store the least significant byte (i.e. the 8 bits representing the lowest powers of 2) at the lowest memory address, i.e. the "little end" first. For example, if we stored the 4 byte (long) integer value 1 on a little endian machine at address 1000, it would appear in memory as the following hexadecimal bytes:
    1000    | 01 |
    1001    | 00 |
    1002    | 00 |
    1003    | 00 |
Conversely, big-endian machines store the most significant byte (the "big end") first. Hence the same value above would be stored in memory as follows:
    1000    | 00 |
    1001    | 00 |
    1002    | 00 |
    1003    | 01 |
A few rare CPUs may used other schemes, where the bytes are not stored in order of significance. For example, the least significant byte may be stored in position 2 or 3 of a 4 byte integer word. These machines are referred to as mixed or middle endian. For example:
    1000    | 00 |
    1001    | 01 |
    1002    | 00 |
    1003    | 00 |
Much effort has gone into determining what order is generally more efficient or useful, but given the wide range of ever-changing demands placed on computers, this is difficult to generalize, and as a result, both schemes have been widely adopted by computer architects.
Programmers often make erroneous assumptions about endianness based on the operating system or the processor type. For example, most Linux systems run on Intel processors, so it may be tempting to assume that Linux systems are little-endian. However, many operating systems, especially open-source systems such as the BSDs and Linux, run on a wide variety of platforms with different endianness, so it is by no means safe to assume anything based on the OS. As an extreme example, NetBSD, as of January 2007, supports 17 different CPU types on 58 different system architectures.
Furthermore, many CPUs, including popular ones such as the DEC Alpha, PowerPC, DEC MIPS, and some Sun Sparc processors, are capable of operating in either big or little-endian mode. Hence, even checking the processor type will not reveal the correct endianness.
The only sure way to discover the endianness is by storing an specially crafted integer value (e.g. 0x01020304) at a particular memory address, and then checking the component bytes individually. In a C program, this is easily accomplished using a union as follows:
    unsigned long   intval;
	unsigned char   byte0;
	unsigned char   byte1;
	unsigned char   byte2;
	unsigned char   byte3;
or by using a character pointer to examine the bytes at an integer address:
unsigned long   intval;
unsigned char   *p;
p = (unsigned char *)&intval;
Ideally, all programs should be written to use portable data formats, independent of endianness, so that end-users need not be concerned with the endianness of their hardware. However, many existing programs dump binary data from memory to files without any formatting, and in cases where this has been done, it is necessary to know the endianness of the machine that wrote the data, as well as any other that reads it.
Compiled programs can use techniques like those above. If checking from the command line or a shell script is necessary, the endian command will perform the check and provide the results in a usable format.

Endian reports the endianness to the standard output as "little", "big", or "mixed". As there is no standard terminology for the various possible mixed modes, and very few such machines even exist, endian does not distinguish between various mixed modes.

0 for little-endian
1 for big-endian
2 for mixed-endian


Jason W. Bacon

The endian command was created in January, 2007, as a FreeBSD port.

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