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Allocating Memory on Linux and Windows

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10 Aug 2018CPOL16 min read 11.6K   9   1
How to allocate memory on Linux and Windows

This post is about pretty low-level concepts, which sometimes "leak" (or rather bubble?) to surprisingly high levels of abstraction. It is not about malloc() and free(), or only tangentially so.

First, a quick rehash of how the memory works on both systems.

User-space processes on both Linux and Windows address the physical memory through virtual addresses. These addresses are mapped to the actual physical memory addresses with the help of hardware (MMU) that does the translation on each access. The mapping is not set up contiguously, but rather in 4096 bytes long chunks, which is a basic unit called a page. (There exists hardware with different page sizes, and there are so called huge pages on x86 that are larger, but this is out of scope).

So, the kernel sets up a mapping, which conceptually looks like the below table (the addresses are for illustration only):

Virtual   Physical
0x400000-0x400fff 0x09000000-0x09000fff
0x401000-0x401fff 0x09001000-0x09001fff
0x401000-0x401fff 0x0A500000-0x0A500fff

On the left are the regular addresses that your program stores in the pointers (like one you can get from malloc() or new), while on the right are real physical addresses that only the kernel knows. The right side is volatile and can change over the program lifetime, the left side is under your control.

When you access an address like 0x4001180, the hardware sets the lowest 12 bits of it to 0 (resulting in the address 0x4001000), consults with this table, and reads the value from the real address + 0x180 in the physical memory (i.e., 0x09001180).

This (different per process!) mapping is stored in the kernel memory, and since it can take a lot of it (to map 1GB you need to set up the mappings for 256k pages), the mapping is actually split into multiple tables, which are indexed into by different bits of the address (see here for the details). As said, the page table is accessible by the hardware that does the actual translation, and there are a few other implementation details that I will omit (hardware doesn't read it on each memory access, it has a small cache - called TLB - of last 64-512 lookups, which speeds up things greatly if the same virtual address range is accessed often. Jumping around different addresses too often is going to incur costly reads of the actual tables though).

The table on the right side does not have to be contiguous. The table on the left side either, it can have holes, and if you try to access an address not found in the table, you are going to have a "segmentation fault". The kernel may also set up a mapping for a virtual address, but not yet allocate a physical page for it (or decide to move it to the paging file), in which case it marks the entry in the table appropriately and does it whenever a page fault (i.e., the actual access) occurs.

Each page can have different attributes (enforced by the hardware), of which the basics are the flags governing the ability to read, write or execute the memory in that page. In theory, nothing prevents the kernel from mapping the same physical address twice with the different flags, but this is not exposed on Linux/Windows to the user space programs.

So far, this is similar on both systems. However, each OS exposes different APIs to the user programs to manage the mapping.


Windows has VirtualAlloc/Free family of functions (in Win32 API at least) that are conceptually similar to malloc() / free(). A notable moment is that each page on Windows can be in one of three states: free - absent from any mapping, reserved - ready to be mapped, and committed - mapped to a page in the physical RAM or a place in the paging file on a disk. Thus the process of allocating the useful memory on Windows can be split into two steps:

  1. Reserving a virtual range not backed with anything

    If you call VirtualAlloc(...,16384, MEM_RESERVE, ...) to reserve a 16KB range, you will get a table like:

    Virtual   Physical
    0x400000-0x400fff ???
    0x401000-0x401fff ???
    0x402000-0x402fff ???
    0x403000-0x403fff ???

    Why is it useful? Well, you may want to make sure that you have a contiguous (from your program's point of view) range of addresses before you actually have a use for it. Or, vice versa, you had used a memory but you decided to remove the backing of it ("decommit" it) while keeping the address space reserved, to make sure that any lingering pointers will cause a segmentation fault if accessed.

  2. "committing" a page (or pages) of an already reserved range

    Let's say you called VirtualAlloc(0x401000, 4096, MEM_COMMIT,...) to commit a page from the above range - the result of this will look like:

    Virtual   Physical
    0x400000-0x400fff ???
    0x401000-0x401fff 0x8800000-0x8800fff
    0x402000-0x402fff ???
    0x403000-0x403fff ???

    Now you can access the memory at the addresses 0x401000-0x401fff (but not 0x402000 or 0x400fff).

    Actually, the above table is a bit of a lie - we cannot know whether the virtual address will be backed by the physical RAM after VirtualAlloc() returns and what the physical address would be. The page committed may - and likely will - be made "resident" (that is, have the actual physical RAM allocated for it) on demand when we first read from or write to it. The key moment is that we will no longer have a segmentation fault on access.

After those two steps, Windows gives you the memory you can freely use. In fact, you can combine those steps into one and ask MEM_COMMIT in the first call and a lot of software will do just this, but keep in mind that Windows allows you to stop half-way.

The minimal size of each mapping is of course a single page (4KB), since the hardware works that way. However, Windows can only set up a mapping that starts from an address divisible by 64KB (theoretically, this number is not fixed and there is a system call you can use to obtain that granularity, but in practice, it will never change because it would break too much software). Yes, that means that if you call VirtualAlloc() to allocate 4KB and then call it again to allocate the next 4KB, the returned addresses will differ by at least 64 KB from each other. This will results in a very "holey" virtual address space like:

0x400000-0x400fff ???
0x410000-0x410fff ???

To "decommit" the mapping or remove it altogether, you call VirtualFree() with the same pointer you got from VirtualAlloc(). Windows stores its own bookkeeping information under the hood that allows the function to look up the details about the size of the mapping.

Because the reservations are stored more efficiently than the actually "committed" ranges, the limit on the virtual address space that you can reserve is huge - currently, it is 128TB. The limit on the "committed" memory depends on the amount of actual physical RAM and configured swap space and is thus much lower.

To sum up, these are the key aspects of the Windows API:

  • There are three page states and two separate steps in establishing the mapping - reserving just the address range and actually backing it with either RAM or swap.
  • Each mapping is a separate "allocation" whose size is tracked internally, and the number of VirtualFree() calls must match the number of VirtualAlloc() calls. Just like with malloc()/free(), you must pass the same pointer that you got when allocating it.
  • Asking for less than 64KB of the virtual adress space on Windows is suboptimal. Possibly due to historical reasons or because the bookkeeping data introduces an overhead, Windows parcels out the virtual address space in 64KB increments (or decrements, which is governed by a flag to VirtualAlloc()).
  • Windows tolerates "holey" address space (the performance of VirtualAlloc() will degrade though with the number of allocations). The limit on address space reservations is enormous (128TB).

Remember these conclusions for later, since all of them will be invalid - and in fact, exactly the opposite - on Linux.


Linux uses a mmap()/munmap() API from the classical BSD Unix that had been codified in POSIX (and also present on Mac, *BSD and some other platforms). This is a powerful API that allows - on the surface - pretty arbitrary mapping manipulations. However, Linux adds its own twist to it that makes the API less useful than it could be.

When you call mmap() to request the same 16KB of the virtual address space, you'll get a mapping that will be already usable (again, randomness of the physical addresses is for illustration only).

Virtual   Physical
0x7ff01000-0x7ff01fff 0x090000-0x090fff
0x7ff02000-0x7ff02fff 0x078000-0x078fff
0x7ff03000-0x7ff03fff 0x091000-0x091fff
0x7ff04000-0x7ff04fff 0x056000-0x056fff

Under Linux, you do not have the separate step of "committing" the memory, the returned 16KB are already committed and are legal to read from or write to (barring protection flags) - just as if you passed MEM_COMMIT flag to VirtualAlloc(). Like on Windows, the above table is a bit of a lie - you do not control the residency, so we cannot know whether a page is actually present in the physical RAM or just marked to be brought back from the paging file or initialized (with zeroes) on its first use - you can however hint the kernel with madvise(MADV_WILLNEED) about this.

Another surprise is how munmap() works. Just like on Windows, you could munmap() all 16 KB at once, but you don't have to. Notice that munmap takes the len parameter and in fact can be passed an arbitrary range, not just the one you established with mmap(). You can free the memory by munmap()ing it page by page, or you can make a hole inside it, like, e.g., by removing the middle 8KB with munmap(0x7ff02000, 8192), resulting in a mapping like:

0x7ff01000-0x7ff01fff 0x090000-0x090fff
0x7ff04000-0x7ff04fff 0x056000-0x056fff

Now the addresses 0x7ff01000 - 0x7ff02fff are no longer legal to be touched and an attempt to read from that range or write to it will cause SIGSEGV.

Also, notice that the address returned by mmap() is not 64KB aligned - it can be arbitrary (but of course will always be page-, that is, 4KB-, aligned). In fact, due to the "twist" added by Linux, it is likely that the address returned by mmap() will be directly adjacent to some existing virtual address (e.g., in our example, next time you call mmap(), you're likely to get 0x7ff05000).

All of this is explained by how Linux represents the mappings. The kernel calls them VMAs, which stand for a "virtual memory area". Each VMA/mapping maps a continuous range of pages that share the same attributes and usually begins as a result of a single mmap() invocation. Unlike Windows allocations, VMAs can be split by the kernel whenever a page in the range gets unmapped or its attributes change as a result of a mprotect() call (among other reasons).

All VMAs taken together describe how your program's address space looks like and can be thought of as a "shadow" and hardware-independent page table. In theory, since kernel already maintains the page table for the hardware, it does not need another one. They were however introduced to Linux to solve two main problems: accommodate an ever-growing set of page attributes (some of which make sense only for the kernel itself and not MMU) and support architectures that map virtual to real addresses without a page table at all. As Linus described in an e-mail from 17 years ago:

We used to have these "this is a COW page" and "this is shared writable"
bits in the page table etc - there are two sw bits on x86, and I think we
used them both.

These days, the vma's just have too much information, and the page tables
can't be counted on to have enough bits.


This is most clearly seen on CPU's that don't have traditional page table
trees, but use software fill TLB's, hashes, or other things in hardware.

You can look up VMAs of the process in /proc/$PID/maps (and you can look up more details about each mapping in /proc/$PID/smaps).

So, each time you do a mmap(), you're either creating a VMA or enlarging an existing one, because the kernel is smart enough to place the new mapping adjacent to some other one with the same attributes, thus merging them. However, since VMA only represents a contiguous virtual memory region, it means that not only mmap() can create them, but munmap() as well. In the above example (where we unmapped the middle of our 16KB allocation), we actually created two new VMAs of 4KB each, because they are no longer adjacent to each other (one starts at 0x7ff01000 and ends at 0x7ff01fff, another at 0x7ff04000 and 0x7ff04fff respectively).

So far so good. However, remember that a VMA structure holds "too much information", and it is larger than the page entry in the hardware page table. A programmer's intuition immediately suggests that the very existence of VMAs puts another limit on how fine-grained the mappings can be - and indeed it does. A degenerate case - putting each virtual page in its own separate VMA - would take too many resources, so Linux limits the number of mappings. The limit is vm.max_map_count and it is fairly low by default - just 65530 mappings are allowed.

This also introduces another limit on the maximum amount of virtual memory you could allocate (which normally, similarly to the commit limit on Windows, depends on the physical RAM and swap space, governed by the vm.overcommit_memory setting). If you, for some reason, indeed ended up having one page per each VMA, you will get a ENOMEM error after allocating 65530 * 4096 = ~255 MB, no matter how large your physical RAM and swap are.

This "edge case" scenario of one page per VMA is not that rare in practice due to Electric Fence-like memory debugging techniques that can interleave "read/write" pages with "read/only" ones, forcing the kernel to split the mappings.

The vm.max_map_count limit is also the reason why you can get ENOMEM when freeing the memory (if you attempt to free a "hole" in the existing mapping, and the kernel cannot split it in two), which is not very intuitive.

Why is there a limit on the number of VMAs at all? If you have root, you can jack up vm.max_map_count by sudo sysctl -w vm.max_map_count=1000000, what's the big deal?

However, the number of VMAs is limited not just because of their size, but also because they need to be traversed during each page fault, which is, well, very often. And most importantly, even if you can increase the limit, you absolutely cannot rely on your users being able or willing to increase the system-wide limit just to run your program.

This means that in practice, you need to keep your mappings down to a reasonable number by avoiding unmapping memory with munmap(), changing page protection with mprotect() or changing page properties with madvise() for parts of a mapping (which can split it in two or even in three VMAs).

It is rather unfortunate that none of the traditional Linux monitoring tools pay attention to the number of mappings that a process has, which changes unpredictably as your address space fragments itself due to the above calls. The number is not even provided to you by the kernel, you need to calculate it yourself by tallying /proc/$PID/maps. I recommend using watch -n1 "wc -l /proc/\`pidof ProgName\`/maps" in order to monitor it continuously as your program is running.


It's time to make a side by side comparison of the most important traits:

Windows Linux
Virtual memory range can be just reserved or actually mapped ("committed", i.e., backed by either RAM or swap). Mapping can be "decommitted", converting it back to just a reservation. Creating a mapping both reserves the address space and allows access to its contents, i.e., a mapping is always "committed".
Each mapping is a separate allocation that is book-kept by the OS. Number of calls to VirtualFree() must match the number of calls to VirtualAlloc() and the same pointer must be passed - no "partial" frees. Mappings can be merged and split as needed by mmap() and munmap(). Number of calls to munmap() can be larger or smaller than the number of calls to mmap() as long as all mappings are removed. It is up to the program to book keep the sizes of mappings.
Mappings always start at a 64KB-aligned boundary. Asking for less than 64KB of the virtual adress space on Windows is suboptimal and results in waste (fragmentation) of the address space. Mappings can start at an arbitrary page-aligned address. You can map single pages one by one with no ill effects on the address space (the kernel will try to "attach" new mappings to existing ones).
No limit on the number of mappings (the performance of VirtualAlloc() will degrade, but it will not refuse to allocate). There is a limit on the number of mappings (pretty low, 65530). You cannot easily know the number of mappings, as they can be created whenever you partially unmap existing mappings or change properties with mprotect() or madvise().
You can reserve up to 128TB of virtual address space, however the commit limit depends on your physical RAM and swap size. Since all mappings are always committed, the limit on the virtual address space is much lower and depends on the RAM and swap size (by default).

However, limit on mappings also limits the address space to possibly much smaller size - the worst case scenario (each mapping only containing one page) allows allocation of 255MB (65530 * 4k).

Of this, the most important differences are perhaps the two last ones. The low limit on the number of mappings and unpredictable effect of them on the address space are definitely crippling the otherwise powerful mmap() API. To make things worse, this factor seems to be unique to the Linux kernel (FreeBSD has a larger limit on mappings by default and Mac doesn't seem to expose that), and it is not common for developers with the background on other platforms to think of virtual address space fragmentation on a 64 bit OS, so workarounds for running out of VMAs can be hard to retrofit to the existing software.

Other dissimilarities, like the lack of separate "commit" step on Linux can be in practice approximated by the (Linux-specific, so going beyond POSIX) flags to madvise() call and mprotect() permissions. However, inability to allocate very large (e.g. 1TB) mapping cannot be overcome with the default settings and this prevents Linux application from applying certain debugging and optimization techniques.

Going from Linux to Windows, the flexibility of mmap()/munmap() is challenging to replicate (but is also rarely needed). It is however worth noting that this limitation might not exist on the level lower than Win32 API and the Windows kernel itself might be capable of mmap()/munmap() functionality (it was certified for POSIX at an early stage of its life after all). I have not had a need to dig deeper into that, but native APIs like NtMapViewOfSection seem to be pretty powerful.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Richard MacCutchan10-Aug-18 0:18
mveRichard MacCutchan10-Aug-18 0:18 

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