High level design

To begin, decide which functions your memory allocator will provide. We have already described malloc and free but there are more provided by the C library .

This demo assumes you just need malloc and free. The new implementations will be called simple_malloc and simple_free. Start with just these two functions and write out their behaviors.

The first function is simple_malloc and it will:

  • Take a size in bytes as a parameter
  • Try to allocate the requested memory
  • Return a pointer to that memory or return a NULL pointer if the memory cannot be allocated

The second function is simple_free and it will:

  • Take a pointer to some previously allocated memory as a parameter
  • Mark that memory as available for future allocations

From this you can see that you will need:

  • A large chunk of memory, the “backing storage”.
  • A way to mark parts of that memory as allocated, or available for allocation

Backing storage

The memory can come from many sources. It can even change size throughout the program’s execution but for your allocator you can keep it simple.

A single, statically allocated global array of bytes will be your backing storage. You can carry out dynamic allocation of parts of a statically allocated piece of memory:


            #define STORAGE_SIZE 4096
static char storage[STORAGE_SIZE];

Record keeping

This backing memory needs to be annotated somehow to record what has been allocated so far. There are many ways to do this; the biggest choice is whether to store these records in the heap itself or outside of it.

The easiest way is to put the records in the heap.

What should be in the records? Think about the question the caller is asking, e.g., can it give a pointer to an area of memory of at least this size?

For this you will need to know:

  • The ranges of the backing storage that have already been allocated
  • The size of each section, both free and allocated

A “range” is made up of 3 things: a pointer to a location, a size in bytes and a boolean to say whether the range is free or allocated. So a range from 0x123 of 345 bytes, that has been allocated would be:


            start: 0x123 size: 345 allocated: true

For the initial state of a heap of size N, you will have one range of unallocated memory:


            Pointer: 0x0 Size: N Allocated: False

When an allocation is made you will split this free range into 2 ranges: the first part the new allocation, the second the remaining free space. If, for example, 4 bytes were to be allocated:


            Pointer: 0x0 Size: 4   Allocated: True
Pointer: 0x4 Size: N-4 Allocated: False

The next time you need to allocate, you will walk these ranges until you find one with enough free space, and repeat the splitting process.

The walk works like this. Starting from the first range, add the size of that range to the address of that range. This new address is the start of the next range. Repeat until the resulting address is beyond the end of the heap:


            range = 0x0;

Pointer: 0x0 Size: 4   Allocated: False

range = 0x0 + 4 = 0x4;

Pointer: 0x4 Size: N-4 Allocated: False

range = 0x4 + (N-4) = 1 beyond the end of the heap, so the walk is finished.

simple_free uses the pointer given to it to find the range it needs to de-allocate. Let’s say the 4 byte allocation was freed:


            Pointer: 0x0 Size: 4   Allocated: False
Pointer: 0x4 Size: N-4 Allocated: False

Since simple_free gets a pointer directly to the allocation you know exactly which range to modify. The only change made is to the boolean which marks it as allocated or not. The location and size of the range stay the same.

Merging Free Ranges

The allocator presented here does not merge free ranges like the 2 above. This is a deliberate limitation which will be discussed later.

Record storage

You will keep these records in the heap which means using some of the allocated space for them on top of the allocation itself.

The simplest way to do this is to prepend each allocation with the range information. This way you can skip from the start of one range to another with ease:


            0x00: [ptr, size, allocated] <-- The range information
0x08: <...>                  <-- The pointer malloc returns
0x10: [ptr, size, allocated] <-- Information about the second range
<...and so on until the end of the heap...>

Pointers returned by simple_malloc are offset to just beyond the range information. When simple_free receives a pointer, it can get to the range information by subtracting the size of that information from the pointer. Using the example above:



0x00: [ptr, size, allocated] <-- my_ptr - sizeof(range information)
0x08: <...>                  <-- my_ptr
Data Alignment

When an allocator needs to produce addresses with a specific alignment, the calculations above must be adjusted. The allocator presented here does not concern itself with alignment, which is why it can do a simple subtraction.

Running out of space

The final thing an allocator must do is realize it has run out of space. This is simply achieved by knowing the bounds of the backing storage:


            #define STORAGE_SIZE 4096
static char storage[STORAGE_SIZE];
// If our search reaches this point, there is no free space to allocate.
static const char *storage_end = storage + STORAGE_SIZE;

If you are walking the heap and the start of the next range would be greater than or equal to storage_end, you have run out of memory to allocate.