Serial Protocol

This is technical documentation for the serial protocol used by the UART bootloader in the ESP chip ROM and the esptool software stub loader program.

The UART bootloader runs on chip reset if certain strapping pins are set. See Entering the Bootloader for details of this process.

By default, esptool uploads a stub “software loader” to the IRAM of the chip. The software loader then replaces the ROM loader for all future interactions. This standardizes much of the behaviour. Pass --no-stub to esptool in order to disable the software stub loader. See Flasher Stub for more information.

Packet Description

The host computer sends a SLIP encoded command request to the ESP chip. The ESP chip responds to the request with a SLIP encoded response packet, including status information and any data as a payload.

Low Level Protocol

The bootloader protocol uses SLIP packet framing for data transmissions in both directions.

Each SLIP packet begins and ends with 0xC0. Within the packet, all occurrences of 0xC0 and 0xDB are replaced with 0xDB 0xDC and 0xDB 0xDD, respectively. The replacing is to be done after the checksum and lengths are calculated, so the packet length may be longer than the size field below.

Command Packet

Each command is a SLIP packet initiated by the host and results in a response packet. Inside the packet, the packet consists of a header and a variable-length body. All multi-byte fields are little-endian.

Byte

Name

Comment

0

Direction

Always 0x00 for requests

1

Command

Command identifier (see Commands).

2-3

Size

Length of Data field, in bytes.

4-7

Checksum

Simple checksum of part of the data field (only used for some commands, see Checksum).

8..n

Data

Variable length data payload (0-65535 bytes, as indicated by Size parameter). Usage depends on specific command.

Response Packet

Each received command will result in a response SLIP packet sent from the ESP chip to the host. Contents of the response packet is:

Byte

Name

Comment

0

Direction

Always 0x01 for responses

1

Command

Same value as Command identifier in the request packet that trigged the response

2-3

Size

Size of data field. At least the length of the Status Bytes (2 or 4 bytes, see below).

4-7

Value

Response value used by READ_REG command (see below). Zero otherwise.

8..n

Data

Variable length data payload. Length indicated by “Size” field.

Status bytes

The final bytes of the Data payload indicate command status:

For software loader and ESP8266 ROM loader the final two bytes indicate status (most commands return at least a two byte Data payload):

Byte

Name

Comment

Size-2

Status

Status flag, success (0) or failure (1)

Size-1

Error

If Status is 1, this indicates the type of error.

ROM Loader Errors

The ROM loader sends the following error values

  • 0x05 - “Received message is invalid” (parameters or length field is invalid)

  • 0x06 - “Failed to act on received message”

  • 0x07 - “Invalid CRC in message”

  • 0x08 - “flash write error” - after writing a block of data to flash, the ROM loader reads the value back and the 8-bit CRC is compared to the data read from flash. If they don’t match, this error is returned.

  • 0x09 - “flash read error” - SPI read failed

  • 0x0a - “flash read length error” - SPI read request length is too long

  • 0x0b - “Deflate error” (compressed uploads only)

Software Loader Status & Error

If the software loader is used:

  • The status response is always 2 bytes regardless of chip type.

  • Stub loader error codes are entirely different to the ROM loader codes. They all take the form 0xC*, or 0xFF for “unimplemented command”. (Full list here).

After sending a command, the host should continue to read response packets until one is received where the Command field matches the request’s Command field, or a timeout is exceeded.

Commands

Supported by software loader and ROM loader

Byte

Name

Description

Input Data

Output Data

0x02

FLASH_BEGIN

Begin Flash Download

Four 32-bit words: size to erase, number of data packets, data size in one packet, flash offset.

0x03

FLASH_DATA

Flash Download Data

Four 32-bit words: data size, sequence number, 0, 0, then data. Uses Checksum.

0x04

FLASH_END

Finish Flash Download

One 32-bit word: 0 to reboot, 1 “run to user code”. Not necessary to send this command if you wish to stay in the loader

0x05

MEM_BEGIN

Begin RAM Download Start

total size, number of data packets, data size in one packet, memory offset

0x06

MEM_END

Finish RAM Download

Two 32-bit words: execute flag, entry point address

0x07

MEM_DATA

RAM Download Data

Four 32-bit words: data size, sequence number, 0, 0, then data. Uses Checksum.

0x08

SYNC

Sync Frame

36 bytes: 0x07 0x07 0x12 0x20, followed by 32 x 0x55

0x09

WRITE_REG

Write 32-bit memory address

Four 32-bit words: address, value, mask and delay (in microseconds)

0x0a

READ_REG

Read 32-bit memory address

Address as 32-bit word

Read data as 32-bit word in value field.

Supported by software loader only

ROM loaders will not recognise these commands.

Byte

Name

Descripton

Input

Output

0xd0

ERASE_FLASH

Erase entire flash chip

0xd1

ERASE_REGION

Erase flash region

Two 32-bit words: flash offset to erase, erase size in bytes. Both must be multiples of flash sector size.

0xd2

READ_FLASH

Read flash

Four 32-bit words: flash offset, read length, flash sector size, read packet size, maximum number of un-acked packets

0xd3

RUN_USER_CODE

Exits loader and runs user code

Checksum

The checksum field is ignored (can be zero) for all comands except for MEM_DATA, FLASH_DATA, and FLASH_DEFL_DATA.

Each of the _DATA command packets (like FLASH_DEFL_DATA, MEM_DATA) has the same “data payload” format:

Bytes

Name

Format

0-3

“Data to write” length

Little endian 32-bit word.

4-7

Sequence number

Little endian 32-bit word. The sequence numbers are 0 based.

8-15

0

Two words of all zeroes, unused.

16-

“Data to write”

Length given at beginning of payload.

The checksum is only applied to this final “data to write” section, not the first 16 bytes of data.

To calculate checksum, start with seed value 0xEF and XOR each individual byte in the “data to write”. The 8-bit result is stored in the checksum field of the packet header (as a little endian 32-bit value).

Note

Because this checksum is not adequate to ensure valid data, the SPI_FLASH_MD5 command was added to validate flash contents after flashing. It is recommended that this command is always used. See Verifying Uploaded Data, below.

Functional Description

Initial Synchronisation

  • The ESP chip is reset into UART bootloader mode. The host starts by sending SYNC commands. These commands have a large data payload which is also used by the ESP chip to detect the configured baud rate. The ESP8266 will initialise at 74800bps with a 26MHz crystal and 115200bps with a 40MHz crystal. However the sync packets can be sent at any baud rate, and the UART peripheral will detect this.

  • The host should wait until it sees a valid response to a SYNC command, indicating the ESP chip is correctly communicating.

  • esptool then (by default) uses the “RAM Download” sequence to upload software stub loader code to IRAM of the chip. The MEM_END command contains the entry-point address to run the software loader. The software loader then sends a custom SLIP packet of the sequence OHAI (0xC0 0x4F 0x48 0x41 0x49 0xC0), indicating that it is now running. This is the only unsolicited packet ever sent by the ESP. If the --no-stub argument is supplied to esptool, this entire step is skipped.

  • esptool then uses READ_REG commands to read various addresses on the chip, to identify chip subtype, revision, etc.

  • For software loader, the host can send a CHANGE_BAUD command to set the baud rate to an explicit value. Compared to auto-detecting during the SYNC pulse, this can be more reliable for setting very high baud rate. Esptool tries to sync at (maximum) 115200bps and then sends this command to go to a higher baud rate, if requested.

Writing Data

(Includes RAM Download, Flash Download, Compressed Flash Download.)

  • RAM Download (MEM_BEGIN, MEM_DATA, MEM_END) loads data into the ESP chip memory space and (optionally) executes it.

  • Flash Download (FLASH_BEGIN, FLASH_DATA) flashes data into the ESP SPI flash.

  • Compressed Flash Download is the same, only the data is compressed using the gzip Deflate algorithm to reduce serial overhead. Not supported on ESP8266 ROM loader.

All three of these sequences follow a similar pattern:

  • A _BEGIN command (FLASH_BEGIN, etc) is sent which contains basic parameters for the flash erase size, start address to write to, etc.The uploader also needs to specify how many “blocks” of data (ie individual data packets) will be sent, and how big each packet is.

  • One or more _DATA commands (FLASH_DATA, etc) is sent where the data payload contains the actual data to write to flash/RAM. In the case of Compressed Flash Downloads, the data is compressed using the gzip deflate algorithm. The number of _DATA commands is specified in the _BEGIN command, as is the size of each _DATA payload. The last data block should be padded to the block size with 0xFF bytes.

  • An _END command (FLASH_END, etc) is sent to exit the bootloader and optionally reset the chip (or jump to an address in RAM, in the case of MEM_END). Not necessary to send after flashing if you wish to continue sending other or different commands.

It’s not necessary to send flash erase commands before sending commands to write to flash, etc. The ROM loaders erase the to-be-written region in response to the FLASH_BEGIN command. The software loaders do just-in-time erasing as they write data, to maximise overall flashing performance (each block of data is read into RAM via serial while the previous block is simultaneously being written to flash, and 4KB and 64KB erases are done as needed before writing to flash).

The block size chosen should be small enough to fit into RAM of the device. esptool uses 16KB which gives good performance when used with the stub loader.

Erase Size Bug

On ESP8266 ROM loader only (not software loader), there is a bug in the interpretation of the FLASH_BEGIN “erase size” parameter. Consult the ESP8266ROM.get_erase_size() function in esptool for the algorithm which works around this bug and provides the correct erase size parameter to send to the ESP8266.

This workaround is not needed if the ESP8266 is running the software loader.

Verifying Uploaded Data

The 8-bit checksum used in the upload protocol is not sufficient to ensure valid flash contents after upload. The uploader should send the SPI_FLASH_MD5 command (not supported on ESP8266 ROM loader) or use another method to verify flash contents.

The SPI_FLASH_MD5 command passes the start address in flash and the size of data to calculate. The MD5 value is returned in the response payload, before the status bytes.

SPI Configuration Commands

SPI Attach command

The SPI _ATTACH command enables the SPI flash interface. It takes a 32-bit data payload which is used to determine which SPI peripheral and pins should be used to connect to SPI flash.

On the ESP8266 software loader sending this command before interacting with SPI flash is optional. On ESP8266 ROM loader this command is not supported (SPI flash is enabled when the FLASH_BEGIN command is sent).

Value

Meaning

0

Default SPI flash interface

1

HSPI interface

SPI Set Parameters

All the values which are passed except total size are hardcoded, and most are not used when writing to flash. See flash_set_parameters function in esptool for the values which it sends.

32-bit Read/Write

The 32-bit read/write commands (READ_REG, WRITE_REG) allow word-oriented reading and writing of memory and register data.

These commands can be used to manipulate peripherals in arbitrary ways. For example, the esptool “flash id” functionality is implemented by manipulating the SPI peripheral registers to send a JEDEC flash ID command to the flash chip and read the response.

Reading Flash

The software loader implements a READ_FLASH command. This command behaves differently to other commands, including the ROM loader’s READ_FLASH command:

  • The host sends the READ_FLASH command and the data payload contains the offset, read size, size of each individual packet of data, and the maximum number of “un-acknowledged” data packets which can be in flight at one time.

  • The software loader will send a standard response packet, with no additional data payload.

  • Now the software loader will start sending SLIP packets with raw data (of the size requested in the command). There is no metadata included with these SLIP packets.

  • After each SLIP packet is received, the host should send back a 4 byte raw SLIP acknowledgement packet with the total number of bytes which have been received. There is no header or other metadata included with these SLIP packets.

  • The software loader may send up to a maximum number (specified by the host in the READ_FLASH commands) of data packets before waiting for the first acknowledgement packet. No more than this “max in flight” limit can be un-acknowledged at any one time.

  • After all data packets are acknowledged received, the software loader sends a 16 byte MD5 digest of all the data which was read from flash. This is also sent as a raw SLIP packet, with no metadata.

After the read flash process is complete, the software loader goes back to normal command/response operation.

The ROM loader read flash command is more normal but also much slower to read data.

Tracing Esptool Serial Communications

esptool has a --trace option which can be supplied in the first group of arguments (before the command). This will dump all traffic sent and received via the serial port to the console.

Here is a sample extract, showing a READ_REG command and response:

TRACE +0.000 command op=0x0a data len=4 wait_response=1 timeout=3.000 data=1400f43f
TRACE +0.000 Write 14 bytes: c0000a0400000000001400f43fc0
TRACE +0.005 Read 1 bytes: c0
TRACE +0.000 Read 11 bytes: 010a0200620100000000c0
TRACE +0.000 Received full packet: 010a0200620100000000

The +X.XXX value is the time delta (in seconds) since the last trace line.

Values are printed in hexadecimal. If more than 16 bytes is printed at one time, a split display is used with hexadecimal bytes on the left and ASCII on the right. Non-printable characters are represented as . in ASCII:

Note that multiple protocol layers are represented in the logs. The “Write X bytes” lines show exactly which bytes are being sent “over the wire”, including SLIP framing. Similarly the “Read X bytes” lines show what bytes are being read over the wire, including any SLIP framing. Once a full SLIP packet is read, the same bytes - as a SLIP payload with any escaping removed - appear in the “Received full packet” log lines.

Here is a second example showing part of the initial synchronization sequence (lots of 0x55 bytes which are U in ASCII):

TRACE +0.000 Write 46 bytes:
    c000082400000000 0007071220555555 | ...$........ UUU
    5555555555555555 5555555555555555 | UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU
    5555555555555555 5555555555c0     | UUUUUUUUUUUUU.
TRACE +0.011 Read 1 bytes: c0
TRACE +0.000 Read 63 bytes:
    0108040007122055 00000000c0c00108 | ...... U........
    0400071220550000 0000c0c001080400 | .... U..........
    0712205500000000 c0c0010804000712 | .. U............
    205500000000c0c0 01080400071220   |  U............
TRACE +0.000 Received full packet: 010804000712205500000000
TRACE +0.000 Received full packet: 010804000712205500000000

Important

If you don’t plan to use the esptool stub loader, pass --no-stub --trace to see interactions with the chip’s built-in ROM loader only. Otherwise, the trace will show the full binary upload of the loader.

In addition to this trace feature, most operating systems have “system call trace” or “port trace” features which can be used to dump serial interactions.