Big/Little endian determination

It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive Way of breaking Eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty's Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father, published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penalties, to break the smaller End of their Eggs. The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us, there have been six Rebellions raised on that Account;... It is computed that eleven Thousand Persons have, at several Times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End. Many hundred large Volumes have been published upon this Controversy: But the Books of the Big-Endians have been long forbidden...

-- Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

How to determine a machine's endian-ness at run-time?

One simple way is to use the following trick: declare an integer variable that is at least 16 bits long, and assign 1 to it. On a big endian machine, only the rightmost bit will be 1, all others 0. On a little endian machine, the rightmost byte will always be 0 due to byte-swapping. You can have a peek at this rightmost byte and read: if you find a zero you are on a little-endian machine. Otherwise you are on a big-endian machine.

In other words, the expression:


takes value one on little-endian and zero on big-endian platforms, for all integer values of x of more than 8 bits. This makes it easy to integrate into a test like:

void test_m(void)
    int x = 1;
    printf("this machine has a") ;
    (*(char*)&x) ? printf("n Intel") : printf(" Motorola") ;
    printf(" based processor\n") ;

How to determine a machine's endian-ness at compile-time?

Run a program like the one above and output the results to an include file. Include then this header file in all your sources. In a Makefile, it would look like the following:

detection: endian.c
    $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -o endian endian.c
    endian > config.h

Source Download

The following source code should compile anywhere with a decent ANSI C compiler, with the correct options set to compile ANSI C. It is used either with a command-line argument, or without. Without argument, it will print out a report of how variables look like on your machine. With an argument (anything), it will create a default header file you can #include in your source code, to know what kind of endian-ness the machine compiling the code has.

Download endian.c

The following source code provides generic functions to perform byte swapping on 2 bytes, 4 bytes, and any even number of bytes. They should compile everywhere without having to add specific stuff to your compile lines.

Download byteswap.c