This post has already been published on code::gallery blog which now has been merged into this blog.

Just like we have to read from left to right or right to left depending upon what language we are reading, programs should know how are integers stored before reading a binary. This is Endianness. Just like the languages it just a matter of preference. The two schemes are big endian and little endian.

In the big endian version, the most significant bit (MSB) is stored in the lowest memory address, whereas in the little endian version the least significant bit (LSB) is stored in the lowest memory address. Here is an example:

The 32-bit integer 2D441B36 has to be stored at memory address 400 – 2D is stored in 400, 44 in 401 (1 byte offset) and so on in the big endian scheme. In case of the little endian scheme, the bytes are stored in the order 36 1B 44 and 2D.

Unfortunately, both are being actively implemented and programmers need to know the endianness of a system. Here is a program in C to differentiate between big endian and little endian systems:

int isBigEndian()
    /* assign 00000001 */
    int sample = 1;
    /* convert to equivalent character array */
    char *sample_array = (char *) &sample;
    /* if little endian, the lowest memory address will contain
       the least significant byte, i.e., 01 */
    if (sample_array[0] == 1)
        return 0;
        return 1;

Endianness becomes a critical issue for portable code when it is targetted for multiple architectures.

In addition to the computer architectures, endianness becomes imperative to consider in network protocols like TCP. If the byte ordering is not considered, it leads to the popular NUXI problem. Here is a function to swap between the two schemes by using bit-wise operations:

int swapByteOrder(int sample)
    int sample_reverse = ((sample & 0xff000000) >> 24) | /* MSB */
                         ((sample & 0x00ff0000) >> 8) |
                         ((sample & 0x0000ff00) << 8) |
                         ((sample & 0xff000000) << 24);   /* LSB */

    return sample_reverse;

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Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda.

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Abhijit Nadgouda
iface Consulting
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