Dealing with dynamic memory traditionally has been one of the most awkward issues of C and C++ programming. It is not surprising that some supposedly easier languages, such as Java, have introduced garbage collection mechanisms that relieve programmers of this burden. But for hard-core C programmers, the GNU C library contains some tools that allow them to tune, check and track the usage of memory.
A process’ memory usually is classified as either static, the size is predetermined at compile time, or dynamic, space is allocated as needed at runtime. The latter, in turn, is divided into heap space, where malloc()’d memory comes from, and stack, where functions’ temporary work space is placed. As Figure 1 shows, heap space grows upward, whereas stack space grows downward.
When a process needs memory, some room is created by moving the upper bound of the heap forward, using the brk() or sbrk() system calls. Because a system call is expensive in terms of CPU usage, a better strategy is to call brk() to grab a large chunk of memory and then split it as needed to get smaller chunks. This is exactly what malloc() does. It aggregates a lot of smaller malloc() requests into fewer large brk() calls. Doing so yields a significant performance improvement. The malloc() call itself is much less expensive than brk(), because it is a library call, not a system call. Symmetric behavior is adopted when memory is freed by the process. Memory blocks are not immediately returned to the system, which would require a new brk() call with a negative argument. Instead, the C library aggregates them until a sufficiently large, contiguous chunk can be freed at once.
For very large requests, malloc() uses the mmap() system call to find addressable memory space. This process helps reduce the negative effects of memory fragmentation when large blocks of memory are freed but locked by smaller, more recently allocated blocks lying between them and the end of the allocated space. In this case, in fact, had the block been allocated with brk(), it would have remained unusable by the system even if the process freed it.
Library functions that deal with dynamic memory are not limited to malloc() and free(), although these are by far the most-used calls. Other available functions include realloc(), to resize an already allocated block; calloc(), to allocate a cleared block; and memalign(), posix_memalign() and valloc(), to allocate an aligned block.
The strategy adopted by the C library memory management code is optimized for generic memory usage profiles. Although this strategy produces good performance in most cases, some programs might benefit from slightly different parameter tuning. First, check your memory usage statistics by using either the malloc_stats() or the mallinfo() library calls. The former prints as a standard error a brief summary of memory usage in the program. This summary includes how many bytes have been allocated from the system, gathered with brk(); how many are actually in use, found with malloc(); and how much memory has been claimed, using mmap(). Here is a sample output:
Arena 0: system bytes = 205892 in use bytes = 101188 Total (incl. mmap): system bytes = 205892 in use bytes = 101188 max mmap regions = 0 max mmap bytes = 0
If you need to have more precise information and want to make more than a printout, mallinfo() is helpful. This function returns a struct mallinfo containing various memory-related status indicators; the most interesting are summarized in the Sidebar “Useful Parameters Provided by mallinfo”. For a complete description of the structure, take a look at /usr/include/malloc.h.
Another useful function provided by libc is malloc_usable_size(), which returns the number of bytes you actually can use in a previously allocated memory block. This value may be more than the amount you originally requested, due to alignment and minimum size constraints. For example, if you allocate 30 bytes, the usable size is actually 36. This means you could write up to 36 bytes to that memory block without overwriting other blocks. This is an extremely awful and version-dependent programming practice, however, so please don’t do it. The most useful application of malloc_usable_size() probably is as a debug tool. For example, it can check the size of a memory block passed from outside before writing to it.