Memory management In C

One of the most important functions of a programming language is to provide facilities for managing memory and the objects that are stored in memory. C provides three distinct ways to allocate memory for objects:

  • Static memory allocation: space for the object is provided in the binary at compile-time; these objects have an extent (or lifetime) as long as the binary which contains them is loaded into memory
  • Automatic memory allocation: temporary objects can be stored on the stack, and this space is automatically freed and reusable after the block in which they are declared is exited
  • Dynamic memory allocation: blocks of memory of arbitrary size can be requested at run-time using library functions such as malloc() from a region of memory called the heap; these blocks can be subsequently freed for reuse by calling the library function free()

These three approaches are appropriate in different situations and have various tradeoffs. For example, static memory allocation has no allocation overhead, automatic allocation has a small amount of overhead during initialization, and dynamic memory allocation can potentially have a great deal of overhead for both allocation and deallocation. On the other hand, stack space is typically much more limited and transient than either static memory or heap space, and dynamic memory allocation allows allocation of objects whose size is known only at run-time. Most C programs make extensive use of all three.

Where possible, automatic or static allocation is usually preferred because the storage is managed by the compiler, freeing the programmer of the potentially error-prone hassle of manually allocating and releasing storage. Unfortunately, many data structures can grow in size at runtime; since automatic and static allocations must have a fixed size at compile-time, there are many situations in which dynamic allocation must be used. Variable-sized arrays are a common example of this (see "malloc" for an example of dynamically allocated arrays).

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