How to set up the APIC to get keyboard interrupts

Apr 18, 2020

So, you're writing a hobby operating system. It's 64-bit, because what even is the point of a computer if you can't count to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615? You're writing it on x86, because you like sadness and misery. How do you set up the APIC and I/O APIC to get keyboard interrupts?

I struggled with this a bit, so here's a guide. It doesn't have code, because all of my code is written in a custom dialect of Forth, which won't help you much. It does have all of the steps, because figuring that out is the hard part.

First, I'll assume that you're in protected mode, you have a valid GDT, and a valid IDT with at least one working ISR. You should be able to trigger an IRQ with the int instruction and have something happen.

Here's how setting up the APIC goes:

  1. Disable the PIC.
    • Remap the PIC, so that its interrupts start at 0x20. We do this so that in the case that there are spurious interrupts, they don't get in our way.
    • Mask off all IRQs.
    • This page has instructions for interacting with the PIC - disabling it looks the same, but the mask is 0xFF instead of 0xF8.
  2. Depending on the system, you may need to disable PIC mode by writing to the IMCR register. This is unusual on modern systems, but for a correct implementation, read bit 7 of MP feature information byte 2 to check if PIC mode is implemented. This page has some instructions for doing this.
  3. Configure the "Spurious Interrupt Vector Register" of the Local APIC, being sure to set bit 8 ("APIC Software Enable/Disable"). 0xFF is a reasonable choice for the spurious vector.
  4. Parse the ACPI1 tables - specifically, get the I/O APIC address and Local APIC ID out of the MADT and read all of the Interrupt Source Override entries - if the IRQ source of any of them is 1, you will need to use the corresponding global system interrupt value when you set up IOREDTBL entry.
  5. Configure the IOREDTBL entry in registers 0x12 and 0x13 (unless you need to use a different one, per the above step).
    • Set the vector to whatever your ISR vector is, deliver mode to fixed (000), destination mode to physical (0), pin polarity to active high (0), trigger mode to edge (0), mask to enabled (0), and set the destination to the Local APIC ID (which can get from reading from the local APICs register 0x20, or from the CPUID feature information function).
    • Beware - the low bits of the entry are in the first register, and the high bits in the second register - the reverse of what you might expect. You should write the vector to 0x12, and the Local APIC ID to 0x13.
    • For a correct implementation, make sure to read the current value of the register, overwrite only the bits you care about (keeping the reserved bits as-is), then write that value back. In practice, setting the reserved bits to zero won't cause anything to break on systems I've seen, but you might as well do things right.
  6. Enable the APIC by setting the 11th bit of the APIC base MSR (0x1B). This is probably already done for you, but worth checking if things aren't working for you.

Once you've done all this, you should be able to press a key and have your ISR called. Hooray! If you want to be able to receive more than one keypress, write a zero dword to the address 0xfee000b0 at the end of your keyboard interrupt handler.

Debugging Tips

  • GDB can be pretty useful for poking around at memory - it's worth setting up GBD with QEMU so you can poke around - you can pass -s -S to qemu (to start the GDB server and to pause the kernel on start, respectively), then start gdb and type target remote :1234 to connect. See the OSDev wiki for more info :)
  • If you're not sure if you're writing to the correct register, try reading from it and seeing if the value you get back makes sense - oftentimes there are default values, and if you're writing to the wrong thing, reading what it is before you try to write can reveal that.
  • Work incrementally - it can be good to enable the PIC to check that your ISR works with that before you disable the PIC.
  • When in doubt, go to the authoritative documentation - while the OSDev wiki is nice, it is not nearly as complete as the Intel manual, and is often missing information. Reading the Intel manual is a good skill to practice. See the resources section below.
  • Hardcoding values at first is fine - if you know that the local APIC ID of your bootstrap processor is always zero, and you know that the IOREDTBL has the destination zeroed by default, you don't need to write the local APIC id at first, you can just leave that register alone. Similarly, if you know you don't have any relevant Interrupt Source Override entries in your MADT, don't worry about handling the case where you do, until you get things working properly without complicating anything.


The state of documentation for x86_64 hobbyist operating system development is quite poor compared to 32bit x86, but getting things working is very rewarding - I hope you stick with it!

  1. Who the hell decided that APIC and ACPI, two completely different but slightly overlapping things, should have names that are anagrams of each other? Why? What for?