You have glimpsed into the world of dynamic memory allocation, and probably have more questions than answers. You may have noticed some oversights in the implementation presented, and you are almost certainly right.

Overall your take away from this material is that “dynamic” memory allocation can mean many things. Sometimes it is all dynamic, sometimes it is a dynamic face with a static allocation behind it. This will change depending on the performance and complexity needs of the application.

Fundamentally, dynamic memory allocation provides a way to get memory you did not know if you would need when the program was written. You likely know that you need some amount of memory and dynamic allocation lets you ask for it while the program is running.

The implementation shown here is a “classic” heap, and a very simple one at that (not quite minimal, look up “bump allocator” for that).

Memory allocation is an entire field of study, and you can use this implementation as a basis for further research.

Further work

Merging free ranges

Look again at the last logging example on the previous page.


            [0x55e68c41f1ac] Memory was freed
  [0x55e68c41f040 -> 0x55e68c41f0ac) : 0x800000000000006c (allocated, size = 108 bytes)
  [0x55e68c41f0ac -> 0x55e68c41f1a4) : 0x00000000000000f8 (free, size = 248 bytes)
  [0x55e68c41f1a4 -> 0x55e68c41f2ac) : 0x0000000000000108 (free, size = 264 bytes)
  [0x55e68c41f2ac -> 0x55e68c41f401) : 0x8000000000000155 (allocated, size = 341 bytes)
  [0x55e68c41f401 -> 0x55e68c420040) : 0x0000000000000c3f (free, size = 3135 bytes)

What’s wrong with these ranges? Nothing, until you allocate something >= 249 bytes. The allocator should be able to put that at address 0x55e68c41f0ac, but because the 2 free ranges are separated, the requested memory doesn’t fit.


              [0x55e68c41f0ac -> 0x55e68c41f1a4) : 0x00000000000000f8 (free, size = 248 bytes)
  [0x55e68c41f1a4 -> 0x55e68c41f2ac) : 0x0000000000000108 (free, size = 264 bytes)

To solve this, you would need a clean-up step after a free, where free ranges next to each other are merged into one free range.

Then again, this does add some overhead. Perhaps it shouldn’t be called on every free. Think about the trade-off (and don’t be afraid to change the data structures you’ve used, they are not perfect either).

Memory safety

A big problem with memory in general is code accessing or changing memory that it should not. The allocator presented here is certainly vulnerable to all the classic memory exploits, which you can try out yourself.

Replace the allocations in main.c with these to see what happens.

Here is a use after free:


              int *ptr = simple_malloc(sizeof(int));
  *ptr = 123;
  int *ptr2 = simple_malloc(sizeof(int));
  *ptr = 345;

There’s a good chance ptr2 will point to the same place as ptr, meaning that someone could use ptr to modify the data now at ptr2. This can be even worse if the type of that data has changed in the meantime.

Here is a double free:


              int *ptr = simple_malloc(sizeof(int));
  int *ptr2 = simple_malloc(sizeof(int));
  int *ptr3 = simple_malloc(sizeof(int));
  // Ends up changing *ptr2 as well.
  *ptr3 = 123;

Here you see the allocation ptr is freed once, then ptr2 is allocated, likely at the same place as ptr. When ptr is freed again, this would free the ptr2 allocation as well, meaning that instead of being its own allocation, ptr3 also ends up pointing to the same location as ptr2. So modifying one modifies the other.

Another possibility is that memory that was previously freed is used as part of a larger allocation. So the original range header is now in the middle of the new allocation.

When free is called for the second time, the allocator may blindly write to where it would have stored the metadata for the original allocation. In doing so, it will corrupt the original allocation.

Here is buffer overflow:


              char *ptr = simple_malloc(4);
  char *ptr2 = simple_malloc(4);
  ptr[4] = 1;

ptr is a 4 item array, ptr2 is also a 4 byte array immediately after the first one. Writing to ptr[4] overflows the array, because the maximum index is only 3.

This will corrupt the header attached to the ptr2 allocation. In the case of your allocator, it would likely change the size of the allocation to just 1 byte.

This is just a selection of the many, many possible attacks on the heap.

You could consider how they might be mitigated, or even try applying some of them to the heap you have just written.

Special case allocators

Imagine you are writing a video game with a fixed memory budget and need predictable performance. Do you think a heap that has to walk a variable number of ranges would be able to achieve that?

If you think it wouldn’t, you can look into Region-Based Memory Management (whether it would or not depends entirely on your application’s requirements).

This takes advantage of scenarios where you know the upper limit of objects you will need, along with their types and sizes.

For a video game, maybe you are making a menu that will have at most 256 entries. Why not statically allocate an array of 256 menu item objects on start up? Then simply construct a new item in place in the array as you need them.

It is more overhead if the menu is always small, but it’s very predictable. Maximum memory use is known and there is no variable time taken to walk the heap.

You can also mix this approach into a traditional heap, using areas of memory only for certain types or sizes of data. For example, could it reduce the metadata overhead for small allocations (e.g., a 4 byte allocation that may require > 4 bytes of metadata)?

The LD_PRELOAD environment variable

If your allocator grows to support all the C standard library functions, you can try using it instead of the one your system C library provides.

On Linux this is done using the environment variable LD_PRELOAD.

Set the environment variable to point to your allocator instead of the one provided by Linux:


            LD_PRELOAD=<path to your shared object> <program>

Any shared object in LD_PRELOAD provides the symbols a program needs before it would usually load. So in this case you will provide malloc and the other memory management functions.

You will have to rebuild the code as a shared object, and remove the simple_ prefix from the functions to do this.

Note that if you only implement a subset of the memory management functions, the program being run will get the rest from the system C library. This will almost certainly lead to a crash when it tries to, for example, realloc a pointer that your heap produced, but instead asks the system heap to do it.

Finally, you will likely need a lot more storage for the heap. Either increase the size of the static allocation, or consider using mmap to ask the kernel for memory (as C libraries tend to do).

There are many things to learn about dynamic memory allocation, but it helps to have a good understanding of the basics.