Books / Think OS / Chapter 6

Memory management

C provides 4 functions for dynamic memory allocation:

  • malloc, which takes an integer size, in bytes, and returns a pointer to a newly-allocated chunk of memory with (at least) the given size. If it can’t satisfy the request, it returns the special pointer value NULL.

  • calloc, which is the same as malloc except that it also clears the newly allocated chunk; that is, it sets all bytes in the chunk to 0.

  • free, which takes a pointer to a previously allocated chunk and deallocates it; that is, it makes the space available for future allocation.

  • realloc, which takes a pointer to a previously allocated chunk and a new size. It allocates a chunk of memory with the new size, copies data from the old chunk to the new, frees the old chunk, and returns a pointer to the new chunk.

This API is notoriously error-prone and unforgiving. Memory management is one of the most challenging parts of designing large software systems, which is why most modern languages provide higher-level memory management features like garbage collection.

Memory errors

The C memory management API is a bit like Jasper Beardly, a minor character on the animated television program The Simpsons; in a few episodes, he appears as a strict substitute teacher who imposes corporal punishment — a “paddlin”’ — for all infractions.

Here are some of things a program can do that deserve a paddling:

  • If you access (read or write) any chunk that has not been allocated, that’s a paddling.

  • If you free an allocated chunk and then access it, that’s a paddling.

  • If you try to free a chunk that has not been allocated, that’s a paddling.

  • If you free the same chunk more than once, that’s a paddling.

  • If you call realloc with a chunk that was not allocated, or was allocated and then freed, that’s a paddling.

It might not sound difficult to follow these rules, but in a large program a chunk of memory might be allocated in one part of the program, used in several other parts, and freed in yet another part. So changes in one part of the program can require changes in many other parts.

Also, there might be many aliases, or references to the same allocated chunk, in different parts of the program. The chunk should not be freed until all references to the chunk are no longer in use. Getting this right often requires careful analysis across all parts of the program, which is difficult and contrary to fundamental principles of good software engineering.

Ideally, every function that allocates memory should include, as part of the documented interface, information about how that memory is supposed to be freed. Mature libraries often do this well, but in the real world, software engineering practice often falls short of this ideal.

To make matters worse, memory errors can be difficult to find because the symptoms are unpredictable. For example:

  • If you read a value from an unallocated chunk, the system might detect the error, trigger a runtime error called a “segmentation fault”, and stop the program. Or, the program might read unallocated memory without detecting the error; in that case, the value it gets is whatever happened to be stored at the accessed location, which is unpredictable, and might be different each time the program runs.

  • If you write a value to an unallocated chunk, and don’t get a segmentation fault, things are even worse. After you write a value to an invalid location, a long time might pass before it is read and causes problems. At that point it will be very difficult to find the source of the problem.

And things can be even worse than that! One of the most common problems with C-style memory management is that the data structures used to implement malloc and free (which we will see soon) are often stored along with the allocated chunks. So if you accidentally write past the end of a dynamically-allocated chunk, you are likely to mangle these data structures. The system usually won’t detect the problem until later, when you call malloc or free, and those functions fail in some inscrutable way.

One conclusion you should draw from this is that safe memory management requires design and discipline. If you write a library or module that allocates memory, you should also provide an interface to free it, and memory management should be part of the API design from the beginning.

If you use a library that allocates memory, you should be disciplined in your use of the API. For example, if the library provides functions to allocate and deallocate storage, you should use those functions and not, for example, call free on a chunk you did not malloc. And you should avoid keeping multiple references to the same chunk in different parts of your program.

Often there is a trade-off between safe memory management and performance. For example, the most common source of memory errors is writing beyond the bounds of an array. The obvious remedy for this problem is bounds checking; that is, every access to the array should check whether the index is out of bounds. High-level libraries that provide array-like structures usually perform bounds checking. But C arrays and most low-level libraries do not.

Memory leaks

There is one more memory error that may or may not deserve a paddling. If you allocate a chunk of memory and never free it, that’s a “memory leak”.

For some programs, memory leaks are ok. For example, if your program allocates memory, performs computations on it, and then exits, it is probably not necessary to free the allocated memory. When the program exits, all of its memory is deallocated by the operating system. Freeing memory immediately before exiting might feel more responsible, but it is mostly a waste of time.

But if a program runs for a long time and leaks memory, its total memory use will increase indefinitely. At that point, a few things might happen:

  • At some point, the system runs out of physical memory. On systems without virtual memory, the next call to malloc will fail, returning NULL.

  • On systems with virtual memory, the operating system can move another process’s pages from memory to disk and then allocate more space to the leaking process.

  • There might be a limit on the amount of space a single process can allocate; beyond that, malloc returns NULL.

  • Eventually, a process might fill its virtual address space (or the usable part). After that, there are no more addresses to allocate, so malloc returns NULL.

If malloc returns NULL, but you persist and access the chunk you think you allocated, you get a segmentation fault. For this reason, it is considered good style to check the result from malloc before using it. One option is to add a condition like this after every malloc call:

void *p = malloc(size);
if (p == NULL) {
    perror("malloc failed");

perror is declared in stdio.h; it prints an error message and additional information about the last error that occurred.

exit, which is declared in stdlib.h, causes the process to terminate. The argument is a status code that indicates how the process terminated. By convention, status code 0 indicates normal termination and -1 indicates an error condition. Sometimes other codes are used to indicate different error conditions.

Error-checking code can be a nuisance, and it makes programs harder to read. You can mitigate these problems by wrapping library function calls and their error-checking code in your own functions. For example, here is a malloc wrapper that checks the return value.

void *check_malloc(int size)
    void *p = malloc (size);
    if (p == NULL) {
        perror("malloc failed");
    return p;

Because memory management is so difficult, most large programs, like web browsers, leak memory. To see which programs on your system are using the most memory, you can use the UNIX utilities ps and top.


When a process starts, the system allocates space for the text segment and statically allocated data, space for the stack, and space for the heap, which contains dynamically allocated data.

Not all programs allocate data dynamically, so the initial size of the heap might be small or zero. Initially the heap contains only one free chunk.

When malloc is called, it checks whether it can find a free chunk that’s big enough. If not, it has to request more memory from the system. The function that does that is sbrk, which sets the “program break”, which you can think of as a pointer to the end of the heap.

When sbrk is called, the OS allocates new pages of physical memory, updates the process’s page table, and sets the program break.

In theory, a program could call sbrk directly (without using malloc) and manage the heap itself. But malloc is easier to use and, for most memory-use patterns, it runs fast and uses memory efficiently.

To implement the memory management API (that is, the functions malloc, free, calloc, and realloc), most Linux systems use ptmalloc, which is based on dlmalloc, written by Doug Lea. A short paper that describes key elements of the implementation is available at

For programmers, the most important elements to be aware of are:

  • The run time of malloc does not usually depend on the size of the chunk, but might depend on how many free chunks there are. free is usually fast, regardless of the number of free chunks. Because calloc clears every byte in the chunk, the run time depends on chunk size (as well as the number of free chunks).

    realloc is sometimes fast, if the new size is smaller than the current size, or if space is available to expand the existing chunk. If not, it has to copy data from the old chunk to the new; in that case, the run time depends on the size of the old chunk.

  • Boundary tags: When malloc allocates a chunk, it adds space at the beginning and end to store information about the chunk, including its size and the state (allocated or free). These bits of data are called “boundary tags”. Using these tags, malloc can get from any chunk to the previous chunk and the next chunk in memory. In addition, free chunks are chained into a doubly-linked list; each free chunk contains pointers to the next and previous chunks in the “free list”.

    The boundary tags and free list pointers make up malloc’s internal data structures. These data structures are interspersed with program data, so it is easy for a program error to damage them.

  • Space overhead: Boundary tags and free list pointers take up space. The minimum chunk size on most systems is 16 bytes. So for very small chunks, malloc is not space efficient. If your program requires large numbers of small structures, it might be more efficient to allocate them in arrays.

  • Fragmentation: If you allocate and free chunks with varied sizes, the heap will tend to become fragmented. That is, the free space might be broken into many small pieces. Fragmentation wastes space; it also slows the program down by making memory caches less effective.

  • Binning and caching: The free list is sorted by size into bins, so when malloc searches for a chunk with a particular size, it knows what bin to search in. If you free a chunk and then immediately allocate a chunk with the same size, malloc will usually be fast.

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