Application Startup Flow


This note explains various steps which happen before app_main function of an ESP-IDF application is called.

The high level view of startup process is as follows:

  1. First Stage Bootloader in ROM loads second-stage bootloader image to RAM (IRAM & DRAM) from flash offset 0x0.

  2. Second Stage Bootloader loads partition table and main app image from flash. Main app incorporates both RAM segments and read-only segments mapped via flash cache.

  3. Application Startup executes. At this point the second CPU and RTOS scheduler are started.

This process is explained in detail in the following sections.

First Stage Bootloader

After SoC reset, the CPU will start running immediately to perform initialization. The reset vector code is located in the mask ROM of the ESP32-C3 chip and cannot be modified.

Startup code called from the reset vector determines the boot mode by checking GPIO_STRAP_REG register for bootstrap pin states. Depending on the reset reason, the following takes place:

  1. Reset from deep sleep: if the value in RTC_CNTL_STORE6_REG is non-zero, and CRC value of RTC memory in RTC_CNTL_STORE7_REG is valid, use RTC_CNTL_STORE6_REG as an entry point address and jump immediately to it. If RTC_CNTL_STORE6_REG is zero, or RTC_CNTL_STORE7_REG contains invalid CRC, or once the code called via RTC_CNTL_STORE6_REG returns, proceed with boot as if it was a power-on reset. Note: to run customized code at this point, a deep sleep stub mechanism is provided. Please see deep sleep documentation for this.

  2. For power-on reset, software SoC reset, and watchdog SoC reset: check the GPIO_STRAP_REG register if a custom boot mode (such as UART Download Mode) is requested. If this is the case, this custom loader mode is executed from ROM. Otherwise, proceed with boot as if it was due to software CPU reset. Consult ESP32-C3 datasheet for a description of SoC boot modes and how to execute them.

  3. For software CPU reset and watchdog CPU reset: configure SPI flash based on EFUSE values, and attempt to load the code from flash. This step is described in more detail in the next paragraphs.


During normal boot modes the RTC watchdog is enabled when this happens, so if the process is interrupted or stalled then the watchdog will reset the SOC automatically and repeat the boot process. This may cause the SoC to strap into a new boot mode, if the strapping GPIOs have changed.

Second stage bootloader binary image is loaded from the start of flash at offset 0x0.

Second Stage Bootloader

In ESP-IDF, the binary image which resides at offset 0x0 in flash is the second stage bootloader. Second stage bootloader source code is available in components/bootloader directory of ESP-IDF. Second stage bootloader is used in ESP-IDF to add flexibility to flash layout (using partition tables), and allow for various flows associated with flash encryption, secure boot, and over-the-air updates (OTA) to take place.

When the first stage bootloader is finished checking and loading the second stage bootloader, it jumps to the second stage bootloader entry point found in the binary image header.

Second stage bootloader reads the partition table found by default at offset 0x8000 (configurable value). See partition tables documentation for more information. The bootloader finds factory and OTA app partitions. If OTA app partitions are found in the partition table, the bootloader consults the otadata partition to determine which one should be booted. See Over The Air Updates (OTA) for more information.

For a full description of the configuration options available for the ESP-IDF bootloader, see Bootloader.

For the selected partition, second stage bootloader reads the binary image from flash one segment at a time:

Once all segments are processed - meaning code is loaded and flash MMU is set up, second stage bootloader verifies the integrity of the application and then jumps to the application entry point found in the binary image header.

Application Startup

Application startup covers everything that happens after the app starts executing and before the app_main function starts running inside the main task. This is split into three stages:

  • Port initialization of hardware and basic C runtime environment.

  • System initialization of software services and FreeRTOS.

  • Running the main task and calling app_main.


Understanding all stages of ESP-IDF app initialization is often not necessary. To understand initialization from the application developer's perspective only, skip forward to Running the Main Task.

Port Initialization

ESP-IDF application entry point is call_start_cpu0 function found in components/esp_system/port/cpu_start.c. This function is executed by the second stage bootloader, and never returns.

This port-layer initialization function initializes the basic C Runtime Environment ("CRT") and performs initial configuration of the SoC's internal hardware:

  • Reconfigure CPU exceptions for the app (allowing app interrupt handlers to run, and causing Fatal Errors to be handled using the options configured for the app rather than the simpler error handler provided by ROM).

  • If the option CONFIG_BOOTLOADER_WDT_ENABLE is not set then the RTC watchdog timer is disabled.

  • Initialize internal memory (data & bss).

  • Finish configuring the MMU cache.

  • Set the CPU clocks to the frequencies configured for the project.

  • Initialize memory protection if configured.

Once call_start_cpu0 completes running, it calls the "system layer" initialization function start_cpu0 found in components/esp_system/startup.c.

System Initialization

The main system initialization function is start_cpu0. By default, this function is weak-linked to the function start_cpu0_default. This means that it is possible to override this function to add some additional initialization steps.

The primary system initialization stage includes:

  • Log information about this application (project name, App Version, etc.) if default log level enables this.

  • Initialize the heap allocator (before this point all allocations must be static or on the stack).

  • Initialize newlib component syscalls and time functions.

  • Configure the brownout detector.

  • Setup libc stdin, stdout, and stderr according to the serial console configuration.

  • Perform any security-related checks, including burning efuses that should be burned for this configuration (including permanently limiting ROM download modes).

  • Initialize SPI flash API support.

  • Call global C++ constructors and any C functions marked with __attribute__((constructor)).

Secondary system initialization allows individual components to be initialized. If a component has an initialization function annotated with the ESP_SYSTEM_INIT_FN macro, it will be called as part of secondary initialization. Component initialization functions have priorities assigned to them to ensure the desired initialization order. The priorities are documented in esp_system/system_init_fn.txt and ESP_SYSTEM_INIT_FN definition in source code are checked against this file.

Running the Main Task

After all other components are initialized, the main task is created and the FreeRTOS scheduler starts running.

After doing some more initialization tasks (that require the scheduler to have started), the main task runs the application-provided function app_main in the firmware.

The main task that runs app_main has a fixed RTOS priority (one higher than the minimum) and a configurable stack size.

Unlike normal FreeRTOS tasks (or embedded C main functions), the app_main task is allowed to return. If this happens, The task is cleaned up and the system will continue running with other RTOS tasks scheduled normally. Therefore, it is possible to implement app_main as either a function that creates other application tasks and then returns, or as a main application task itself.