# Memory management

For managing dynamically allocated memory, the standard C library provides the functions malloc(), calloc(), realloc() and free(). In C99 and later, there is also aligned_alloc(). Some systems also provide alloca().

# Freeing Memory

It is possible to release dynamically allocated memory by calling free() (opens new window).

int *p = malloc(10 * sizeof *p); /* allocation of memory */
if (p == NULL) 
    perror("malloc failed");
    return -1;

free(p); /* release of memory */
/* note that after free(p), even using the *value* of the pointer p
   has undefined behavior, until a new value is stored into it. */

/* reusing/re-purposing the pointer itself */
int i = 42;
p = &i; /* This is valid, has defined behaviour */

The memory pointed to by p is reclaimed (either by the libc implementation or by the underlying OS) after the call to free(), so accessing that freed memory block via p will lead to undefined behavior (opens new window). Pointers that reference memory elements that have been freed are commonly called dangling pointers (opens new window), and present a security risk. Furthermore, the C standard states that even accessing the value (opens new window) of a dangling pointer has undefined behavior. Note that the pointer p itself can be re-purposed as shown above.

Please note that you can only call free() on pointers that have directly been returned from the malloc(), calloc(), realloc() and aligned_alloc() functions, or where documentation tells you the memory has been allocated that way (functions like strdup () are notable examples). Freeing a pointer that is,

  • obtained by using the & operator on a variable, or
  • in the middle of an allocated block,

is forbidden. Such an error will usually not be diagnosed by your compiler but will lead the program execution in an undefined state.

There are two common strategies to prevent such instances of undefined behavior.

The first and preferable is simple - have p itself cease to exist when it is no longer needed, for example:

if (something_is_needed())

    int *p = malloc(10 * sizeof *p);
    if (p == NULL) 
        perror("malloc failed");
        return -1;

    /* do whatever is needed with p */


By calling free() directly before the end of the containing block (i.e. the }), p itself ceases to exist. The compiler will give a compilation error on any attempt to use p after that.

A second approach is to also invalidate the pointer itself after releasing the memory to which it points:

p = NULL;     // you may also use 0 instead of NULL

Arguments for this approach:

  • On many platforms, an attempt to dereference a null pointer will cause instant crash: Segmentation fault. Here, we get at least a stack trace pointing to the variable that was used after being freed. Without setting pointer to `NULL` we have dangling pointer. The program will very likely still crash, but later, because the memory to which the pointer points will silently be corrupted. Such bugs are difficult to trace because they can result in a call stack that completely unrelated to the initial problem. This approach hence follows the [fail-fast concept](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fail-fast).
  • It is safe to free a null pointer. The [C Standard specifies](http://port70.net/%7Ensz/c/c89/c89-draft.html# that `free(NULL)` has no effect:
    The free function causes the space pointed to by ptr to be deallocated, that is, made available for further allocation. If ptr is a null pointer, no action occurs. Otherwise, if the argument does not match a pointer earlier returned by the `calloc`, `malloc`, or `realloc` function, or if the space has been deallocated by a call to `free` or `realloc`, the behavior is undefined.
    • Sometimes the first approach cannot be used (e.g. memory is allocated in one function, and deallocated much later in a completely different function)

    # Allocating Memory

    # Standard Allocation

    The C dynamic memory allocation functions are defined in the <stdlib.h> header. If one wishes to allocate memory space for an object dynamically, the following code can be used:

    int *p = malloc(10 * sizeof *p);
    if (p == NULL) 
        perror("malloc() failed");
        return -1;

    This computes the number of bytes that ten ints occupy in memory, then requests that many bytes from malloc and assigns the result (i.e., the starting address of the memory chunk that was just created using malloc) to a pointer named p.

    It is good practice to use sizeof to compute the amount of memory to request since the result of sizeof is implementation defined (except for character types, which are char, signed char and unsigned char, for which sizeof is defined to always give 1).

    Because malloc might not be able to service the request, it might return a null pointer. It is important to check for this to prevent later attempts to dereference the null pointer.

    Memory dynamically allocated using malloc() may be resized using realloc() or, when no longer needed, released using free().

    Alternatively, declaring int array[10]; would allocate the same amount of memory. However, if it is declared inside a function without the keyword static, it will only be usable within the function it is declared in and the functions it calls (because the array will be allocated on the stack and the space will be released for reuse when the function returns). Alternatively, if it is defined with static inside a function, or if it is defined outside any function, then its lifetime is the lifetime of the program. Pointers can also be returned from a function, however a function in C can not return an array.

    # Zeroed Memory

    The memory returned by malloc may not be initialized to a reasonable value, and care should be taken to zero the memory with memset or to immediately copy a suitable value into it. Alternatively, calloc returns a block of the desired size where all bits are initialized to 0. This need not be the same as the representation of floating-point zero or a null pointer constant.

    int *p = calloc(10, sizeof *p);
    if (p == NULL) 
        perror("calloc() failed");
        return -1;

    A note on calloc: Most (commonly used) implementations will optimise calloc() for performance, so it will be faster (opens new window) than calling malloc(), then memset(), even though the net effect is identical.

    # Aligned Memory

    C11 introduced a new function aligned_alloc() which allocates space with the given alignment. It can be used if the memory to be allocated is needed to be aligned at certain boundaries which can't be satisfied by malloc() or calloc(). malloc() and calloc() functions allocate memory that's suitably aligned for any object type (i.e. the alignment is alignof(max_align_t)). But with aligned_alloc() greater alignments can be requested.

    /* Allocates 1024 bytes with 256 bytes alignment. */
    char *ptr = aligned_alloc(256, 1024);
    if (ptr) {
        return -1;

    The C11 standard imposes two restrictions: 1) the size (second argument) requested must be an integral multiple of the alignment (first argument) and 2) the value of alignment should be a valid alignment supported by the implementation. Failure to meet either of them results in undefined behavior (opens new window).

    # Reallocating Memory

    You may need to expand or shrink your pointer storage space after you have allocated memory to it. The void *realloc(void *ptr, size_t size) function deallocates the old object pointed to by ptr and returns a pointer to an object that has the size specified by size. ptr is the pointer to a memory block previously allocated with malloc, calloc or realloc (or a null pointer) to be reallocated. The maximal possible contents of the original memory is preserved. If the new size is larger, any additional memory beyond the old size are uninitialized. If the new size is shorter, the contents of the shrunken part is lost. If ptr is NULL, a new block is allocated and a pointer to it is returned by the function.

    #include <stdio.h>
    #include <stdlib.h>
    int main(void)
        int *p = malloc(10 * sizeof *p);
        if (NULL == p) 
            perror("malloc() failed");
            return EXIT_FAILURE;
        p[0] = 42;
        p[9] = 15;
        /* Reallocate array to a larger size, storing the result into a
         * temporary pointer in case realloc() fails. */
            int *temporary = realloc(p, 1000000 * sizeof *temporary);
            /* realloc() failed, the original allocation was not free'd yet. */
            if (NULL == temporary)
                perror("realloc() failed");
                free(p); /* Clean up. */
                return EXIT_FAILURE;
            p = temporary;
        /* From here on, array can be used with the new size it was 
         * realloc'ed to, until it is free'd. */
        /* The values of p[0] to p[9] are preserved, so this will print:
           42 15
        printf("%d %d\n", p[0], p[9]);
        return EXIT_SUCCESS;

    The reallocated object may or may not have the same address as *p. Therefore it is important to capture the return value from realloc which contains the new address if the call is successful.

    Make sure you assign the return value of realloc to a temporary instead of the original p. realloc will return null in case of any failure, which would overwrite the pointer. This would lose your data and create a memory leak.

    # realloc(ptr, 0) is not equivalent to free(ptr)

    realloc is conceptually equivalent to malloc + memcpy + free on the other pointer.

    If the size of the space requested is zero, the behavior of realloc is implementation-defined. This is similar for all memory allocation functions that receive a size parameter of value 0. Such functions may in fact return a non-null pointer, but that must never be dereferenced.

    Thus, realloc(ptr,0) is not equivalent to free(ptr). It may

    • be a "lazy" implementation and just return ptr
    • free(ptr), allocate a dummy element and return that
    • free(ptr) and return 0
    • just return 0 for failure and do nothing else.

    So in particular the latter two cases are indistinguishable by application code.

    This means realloc(ptr,0) may not really free/deallocate the memory, and thus it should never be used as a replacement for free.

    # Multidimensional arrays of variable size

    Since C99, C has variable length arrays, VLA, that model arrays with bounds that are only known at initialization time. While you have to be careful not to allocate too large VLA (they might smash your stack), using pointers to VLA and using them in sizeof expressions is fine.

    double sumAll(size_t n, size_t m, double A[n][m]) {
        double ret = 0.0;
        for (size_t i = 0; i < n; ++i)
           for (size_t j = 0; j < m; ++j)
              ret += A[i][j]
        return ret;
    int main(int argc, char *argv[argc+1]) {
       size_t n = argc*10;
       size_t m = argc*8;
       double (*matrix)[m] = malloc(sizeof(double[n][m]));
       // initialize matrix somehow
       double res = sumAll(n, m, matrix);
       printf("result is %g\n", res);

    Here matrix is a pointer to elements of type double[m], and the sizeof expression with double[n][m] ensures that it contains space for n such elements.

    All this space is allocated contiguously and can thus be deallocated by a single call to free.

    The presence of VLA in the language also affects the possible declarations of arrays and pointers in function headers. Now, a general integer expression is permitted inside the [] of array parameters. For both functions the expressions in [] use parameters that have declared before in the parameter list. For sumAll these are the lengths that the user code expects for the matrix. As for all array function parameters in C the innermost dimension is rewritten to a pointer type, so this is equivalent to the declaration

     double sumAll(size_t n, size_t m, double (*A)[m]);

    That is, n is not really part of the function interface, but the information can be useful for documentation and it could also be used by bounds checking compilers to warn about out-of-bounds access.

    Likwise, for main, the expression argc+1 is the minimal length that the C standard prescribes for the argv argument.

    Note that officially VLA support is optional in C11, but we know of no compiler that implements C11 and that doesn't have them. You could test with the macro __STDC_NO_VLA__ if you must.

    # alloca: allocate memory on stack

    Caveat: alloca is only mentioned here for the sake of completeness. It is entirely non-portable (not covered by any of the common standards) and has a number of potentially dangerous features that make it un-safe for the unaware. Modern C code should replace it with Variable Length Arrays (VLA).

    Manual page (opens new window)

    #include <alloca.h>
    // glibc version of stdlib.h include alloca.h by default
    void foo(int size) {
        char *data = alloca(size);
          function body;
        // data is automatically freed

    Allocate memory on the stack frame of the caller, the space referenced by the returned pointer is automatically free (opens new window)'d when the caller function finishes.

    While this function is convenient for automatic memory management, be aware that requesting large allocation could cause a stack overflow, and that you cannot use free (opens new window) with memory allocated with alloca (opens new window) (which could cause more issue with stack overflow).

    For these reason it is not recommended to use alloca (opens new window) inside a loop nor a recursive function.

    And because the memory is free (opens new window)'d upon function return you cannot return the pointer as a function result (the behavior would be undefined (opens new window)).

    # Summary

    # Recommendation

    • Do not use alloca() in new code

    Modern alternative.

    void foo(int size) {
        char data[size];
          function body;
        // data is automatically freed

    This works where alloca() does, and works in places where alloca() doesn't (inside loops, for example). It does assume either a C99 implementation or a C11 implementation that does not define __STDC_NO_VLA__.

    # User-defined memory management

    malloc() often calls underlying operating system functions to obtain pages of memory. But there is nothing special about the function and it can be implemented in straight C by declaring a large static array and allocating from it (there is a slight difficulty in ensuring correct alignment, in practice aligning to 8 bytes is almost always adequate).

    To implement a simple scheme, a control block is stored in the region of memory immediately before the pointer to be returned from the call. This means that free() may be implemented by subtracting from the returned pointer and reading off the control information, which is typically the block size plus some information that allows it to be put back in the free list - a linked list of unallocated blocks.

    When the user requests an allocation, the free list is searched until a block of identical or larger size to the amount requested is found, then if necessary it is split. This can lead to memory fragmentation if the user is continually making many allocations and frees of unpredictable size and and at unpredictable intervals (not all real programs behave like that, the simple scheme is often adequate for small programs).

    /* typical control block */
    struct block
       size_t size;         /* size of block */
       struct block *next;  /* next block in free list */ 
       struct block *prev;  /* back pointer to previous block in memory */
       void *padding;       /* need 16 bytes to make multiple of 8 */
    static struct block arena[10000]; /* allocate from here */
    static struct block *firstfree;

    Many programs require large numbers of allocations of small objects of the same size. This is very easy to implement. Simply use a block with a next pointer. So if a block of 32 bytes is required:

    union block
       union block * next;
       unsigned char payload[32];
    static union block arena[100];
    static union block * head; 
    void init(void)
        int i;
        for (i = 0; i < 100 - 1; i++)
            arena[i].next = &arena[i + 1];
        arena[i].next = 0; /* last one, null */
        head = &block[0];
    void *block_alloc()
        void *answer = head;
        if (answer)
            head = head->next;
        return answer;
    void block_free(void *ptr)
        union block *block = ptr;
        block->next = head;
        head - block;

    This scheme is extremely fast and efficient, and can be made generic with a certain loss of clarity.

    # Syntax

    • void aligned_alloc(size_t alignment, size_t size); / Only since C11 */
    • void *calloc(size_t nelements, size_t size);
    • void free(void *ptr);
    • void *malloc(size_t size);
    • void *realloc(void *ptr, size_t size);
    • void alloca(size_t size); / from alloca.h, not standard, not portable, dangerous. */

    # Parameters

    name description
    size (malloc, realloc and aligned_alloc) total size of the memory in bytes. For aligned_alloc the size must be a integral multiple of alignment.
    size (calloc) size of each element
    nelements number of elements
    ptr pointer to allocated memory previously returned by malloc, calloc, realloc or aligned_alloc
    alignment alignment of allocated memory

    # Remarks

    Note that aligned_alloc() is only defined for C11 or later.

    Systems such as those based on POSIX (opens new window) provide other ways of allocating aligned memory (e.g. posix_memalign() (opens new window)), and also have other memory management options (e.g. mmap() (opens new window)).